Willoughby: Gymnastics provides a foundation for champion skiers, but timing is everything
Legends & Legacies
Today, great ideas developed through the Aspen Institute affect Americans far and wide. And during the 1950s, the influence of the nonpartisan forum touched me, a student at Aspen’s elementary school.
Founder Walter Paepcke’s goal for the institute, now known as the Aspen Idea, introduced the humanities to businessmen. To do this, the institute invited corporate leaders to participate in summer seminars led by Mortimer Adler, professor of the University of Chicago and editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Adler used the Socratic method of teaching.
Paepcke’s vision — forgotten by some, misinterpreted by others — offered not only a dash of scholarly works and a dose of classical music, but sought overall development of the whole man, including his health. The institute included a health center when it built its complex, the Aspen Meadows. They brought in Danish trainer Tage Pedersen, who had been the head of all YMCAs in Denmark, to implement a health maintenance program.
Soon Pedersen influenced Aspen’s school students. He volunteered to provide basic introductions to his training approach with tumbling, vaulting and stretching exercises. He also introduced the Bongo Board, a device that simulated the challenges of skiing. Students balanced on a skateboard-shaped plank laid across a cylindrical roller and shifted their weight from side to side rocking back and forth. Pedersen also introduced skier-like lateral jumps, side to side over a rolled mat.
The Danish version of physical training took hold in Aspen’s P.E. classes. The school board debated whether to adopt the Danish athletic competition system, in which community clubs, rather than schools, sponsored sports teams. They weighed Aspen’s less-than-stellar record for traditional boys football and basketball against the prospects for club sports such as skiing and gymnastics. Contrary to what Colorado state law allowed at the time, they also considered sports for girls.
Pedersen trained ski racers and quickly attained the official position of U.S. Olympic team trainer. In that capacity he profoundly influenced me through a story he told at school about Olympic ski team member Jimmie Heuga.
At 15 years of age, Heuga attained a position as the youngest skier on the U.S. Ski Team. At the age of 17, he placed second in the 1959 Roch Cup in Aspen. Although he narrowly missed the 1960 Olympic team, he competed in 1964. That year, he and Billy Kidd stood on the Olympic podium as the first two American men to medal in skiing. Heuga took home bronze in his specialty, the slalom.
In his unending attempts to inspire us youngsters, Pedersen extolled the value of gymnastics as a foundation to improve our skills as skiers. This was not a hard sell, as Stein Eriksen had already shown us the way. Eriksen’s facility with gymnastics rivaled his skiing skill — a graceful performance at any speed on any terrain.
But Pedersen, as I remember, veered off script. He let it slip that Heuga, a gymnastic klutz, could not gracefully pull off a basic forward roll. My classmates and I barely believed that shortcoming. How could a U.S. Ski Team member not measure up against our own simple skillset?
The answer to that question enfolded a great life lesson. Heuga made up for his lack of athleticism with hard work and brainpower. Complicated and demanding, slalom courses at his level required amazing agility. More than any other racer, Heuga would pack up the hill and memorize each gate. This preparation enabled him to pre-position his body a bit faster for each gate. And that increment of timing, a few milliseconds, nudged him toward the top of the U.S. team.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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