Remembering Wilder Dwight
ASPEN – For the past 25 years, the Aspen Ski & Snowboard Club has held The Wilder Dwight Memorial Classic Ski Race in my son’s honor. This race is a Junior Olympic qualifier for the J3 age class (11- to 13-year-olds), which was Wilder’s age class when he died.
The concept was that it would be an opportunity for the young racers to experience their first speed event. It was to be a two-day Super G with bells and whistles for the participants like an Olympic event. The race has grown from the first one in 1988 that had just a few racers to this year’s event with 170 entrants.
I have been told that Wilder’s race is their favorite. I am writing to refresh memories about who Wilder was. Wilder was raised in Aspen and started learning how to ski at 3 years old, taking lessons at both Powder Pandas at Buttermilk and Snow Puppies at Highlands. When he was 7 he joined what was then the Aspen Valley Ski Club.
The club has come a long way since it was headquartered in a small shack at the bottom of lift 1A. Yes, times were so different. His group of friends would now be around 37 years old. They have some poignant and funny stories about Wilder. For example, Wilder would lay down a piece of cardboard on the ground in front of the fountain on the mall and break dance to everyone’s amusement. He put out a cup for donations in case anyone was so inclined.
Wilder was sort of a nerd sometimes, and I mean that in the most endearing way. One of Wilder’s mentors and heroes was Jimmie Heuga, the slalom bronze medalist in the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Wilder and Jimmie would sit in our living room while Jimmie told stories about skiing all over the world on the international ski racing circuit. Wilder’s dream was to one day be on the U.S. Olympic Ski Team and win medals of his own. He showed early promise as a racer.
Even Bob Beattie would send him postcards from Europe when he was announcing skiing for ABC. In 1982 he was the forerunner in the downhill, which for U.S. Ski Team racers was held on Aspen Mountain. He made every gate, and it was the thrill of his skiing life. In 1985, Wilder won three medals at the Junior Olympics in Winter Park. This placed him third in the nation in the J3 class.
Wilder loved life and his friends, and this was the characteristic that endeared him to many people. His enthusiasm was contagious as he cheered on the other team members. On Dec. 7, 1986, Wilder woke up to a sunny day with fresh powder on the mountain. We picked up his new racing skis, which Jimmie had given him for Christmas. Wilder was sure that these skis would bring him good luck. It was a training day and his excitement was palpable. He hopped on the chair at the bottom of 1A and his chair partner was a woman who became interested in Wilder. As they reached the top she said, “Wilder, I think you will be a great person when you grow up.” Wilder thanked her and said, “If I grow up.”
He jumped off the chair and headed for a run called Peanut Butter Ridge off the top of Ruthie’s. The kids went there to catch air off the bumps. He fell into an open mine shaft, falling 80 feet. No one will ever know whether he knew that he was skiing out of bounds. I was told at the time that Aspen Skiing Co. has filled all of these shafts so that this kind of tragedy could never happen again.
When the Ski Patrol pulled his body out of the mine they put him in the snowcat to bring him home. They followed it down the mountain with torches skiing in a serpentine pattern. It was a beautiful tribute to Wilder. Wilder’s six sisters and two brothers and myself are all healthy and doing fine. I now live in Seattle, but still consider Aspen home. Wilder’s beautiful flame still burns brightly. At 10:30 a.m. today, like on Saturday, the race will be on Strawpile on Aspen Mountain, so come out and join in the fun. Wilder will be there.
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