Road for `Toad’ Olsen now a tough one
April 1, 2003
One day Toad was on a bus with a class of young skiers. The bus was stuck in afternoon traffic between Aspen Mountain and Buttermilk. The kids were growing restless.
Toad reached deep into his parka. Out came the rubber dog poo, which was good for at least five minutes of nearly uncontrolled giggling.
And then he unleashed the fake boogers, which had the kids bent over with laughter and the adults on the bus watching to see what else Toad had up his sleeves.
The performance was pure genius, but it was just another day in the life of 51-year-old Todd “Toad” Olsen, who has been teaching kids how to ski, and how to laugh, at Buttermilk for 33 years.
“We have so much fun,” he said. “It’s great to see the kids improve.”
Toad spoke yesterday from his hospital bed at the Stanford Hospital and Clinic in Palo Alto, Calif., where he has just endured 17 days of chemotherapy in his ongoing fight against chronic myeloid leukemia, or CML, a slowly progressing cancer that affects the body’s white blood cells. He’s been fighting the disease for five years, but was on skis as recently as February.
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“Yesterday and today have been tough,” Toad said, his voice lacking, just for a moment, its normal undercurrent of humor. “But I have to get through this phase so I can have the transplant.”
A bone marrow transplant is a key option for CML patients, and Toad’s sister has been identified as an appropriately matched donor, which can make a big difference in a patient’s survival rate.
For his part, Toad is keeping busy these days in his special pressurized hospital room by putting stickers on 800 invitations to an event for the hospital’s volunteer staff.
“I talked to some ladies last week and said I would love to do something to keep busy for an afternoon,” Toad said.
And after the “ladies” found out about Toad’s inner child, which is always close to the surface, they put him hip-deep in stickers.
But he would much rather be at Buttermilk, out with a group of 8-year-olds, exploring the tree trails, launching “weenies-in-space,” and talking about “googles” and “burger breath” and the “splatter brothers,” which are those two kids in the class who inevitably keep skiing into each other.
And his fellow ski pros at Buttermilk would obviously rather see Toad where he is supposed to be. “Toad is the Buttermilk kid’s ski school,” said fellow kid’s instructor Rich Severy.
They’ve planned a fund-raiser for Toad on Thursday, April 10, at Buttermilk, which is to be a “TOADally Awesome Day.” The lifts will be closed, but starting at 3 p.m. there will be volleyball, tubing and sledding for the kids followed by a dinner dance at 6 p.m., with a band and a silent auction. There’s a $35 donation for adults and $20 for kids.
There is also a donation box set up on “Toad’s Road,” a tree trail, where kids of all ages can drop off a ski-in, ski-out donation to help defray Toad’s medical costs. Also, donations can be mailed to Toad, care of Rick and Diane Stevens, 190 Riverside Drive, Basalt, CO 81621.
(Toad’s current mailing address is Stanford Hospital, F/GR 37, Stanford, CA 94305.)
For the ski schools of Aspen and Snowmass this year, supporting a fellow pro who is battling a tough disease has become all too common of an exercise.
In October, longtime pro Rudi Netzer was lost to cancer. In January, veteran instructor Chuck Carlson lost his battle with cancer. And in February, Eric Smith, the young head snowboard pro at Snowmass, passed on to a higher realm.
“All of these men are deeply loved and missed by all of us,” Weems Westfeldt, the operations director for the ski school, wrote recently. “However, like the family we are, we have all drawn together to support one another.”
Toad first joined the ski school family in 1970, when he was still just Todd Olsen. But when he started teaching skiing at Buttermilk with Lizard Breath, Warthead, McGilla Gorilla and Frog, he morphed into Toad.
“One year led to another,” he said. “And now I’ve had second-generation kids [as students], and I’m pretty sure some third-generation kids. Kids come up all the time and say `You taught my mom’ or `You taught my uncle.'”
Toad is famous for bonding with the kids he meets in ski school and teaching them how to ski with them barely knowing they are in class.
“I think Toad always remembered what it was like to be a kid,” said Severy, whose late brother, Chuck, was Toad’s partner in childish antics for years at Buttermilk.
When Toad meets a new group of students, usually between 6 and 10 years old, he gets down on his knees and connects with them at their level. He does a careful equipment check to see if boots are on the right feet and if hats and “googles” are on right.
Then he asks the kids what sports they do in the summer and finds out which ones are soccer players and hockey players.
“And then one of my final questions is, `Who has ever jumped off a garage roof?'” he said. “And I get a couple of hands. And I tell them, `I want you guys to ski right behind me.'”
Toad works first on building trust with the kids. And then he shares with them all the wonderful secrets of Buttermilk.
“It is such a key to get their trust,” Toad said. “It is just amazing when it clicks.”
Rich Severy said Toad was patient with all kids, no matter their ability or coordination level. “He just loves the kids,” Severy said.
And once the kids believe in Toad, as they quickly do, magic happens.
All the things Toad, and other ski pros at Buttermilk do, like racing down the tree trails, going on the journey to Fort Frog, and searching in the woods for Big Foot’s lost cousin, “Big Face,” help young skiers learn to turn, control their speed and make good choices on snow.
Well, when the kids come back the next year at Christmas, they know to gather up all the dead flies they can find on their condo’s windowsills.
“They put them in a plastic bag and gift wrap them for me,” he said. “They say, `Toad, I got you a little present here,’ and it is a bag of 100 flies. And I’ve gotten every book you can imagine about toads and frogs.”
Now many of those same kids who once brought Toad flies and other presents have grown up and have kids of their own.
And while many hail from Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, many are valley residents who first met Toad sometime during his 23 years of teaching for what is now the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club.
“Half of them are now bigger and taller than me,” Toad said.
But it is almost certain that all of them still look up to Toad, who was able to meet them on their level and then turn them into fake-booger-loving little skiers.
[Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]