Ski-racing legend dies at 88
July 22, 2005
Ski legend Robert “Barney” McLean, part of Aspen’s early ski racing history, died on Tuesday, July 19. He was 88 years old.As an alpine racer during an era when skiing was just beginning to take hold in the United States, McLean competed in the 1941 National Alpine Championships on Aspen Mountain, which helped establish Aspen’s reputation and put it on the ski map. His list of ski victories and awards is long – including a combined medal in the 1948 St. Moritz Olympics, and induction into the international and national ski halls of fame, as well as the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame. Though he never lived in Aspen, he coached the 1950 F.I.S. Team at the World Championships on Aspen Mountain, and through his racing career and subsequent job as a ski industry representative, he made many lasting friendships.”He was very popular and deservedly so,” said Jim Snobble, a longtime local who skied with McLean. “He was one of those people who was universally loved – I can’t think of anyone who didn’t get along with him.”
Within the small, tight-knit ski racing community, McLean became part of the inner circle of Aspen’s early ski legends – some who are sill alive even thought he may have lived here. “Everyone who knew Barney was his friend,” said Dave Durrance, owner of Durrance Sports, whose father Dick raced with McLean. “He always looked after me sort of like a nephew, so I always thought of him in that sense, as an uncle. He was a wonderful guy and a hell of a good skier.”Born in Lander, Wyo., in 1917, McLean first put on a pair of homemade skis at age 4. He got his start in ski jumping in Hot Sulphur Springs, where he grew up. He won his first major competition, the National Class B Jumping Championships, in 1935. He could have made the Olympic team for jumping the next year, but he broke his leg.Switching to alpine racing, McLean excelled in all four disciplines, winning the national downhill, slalom and combined championships in 1942. He would go on to claim many more national titles, as well as several of the prestigious cups awarded in early ski racing, including the Alta Cup in 1940, 1942 and 1945 and the Harriman Cup (Sun Valley) in 1942.
McLean celebrated many wins in Aspen. He first visited in 1938, winning the slalom race of a regional championship. In 1946, McLean took home the first formal Roch Cup, a combined slalom/ downhill on Aspen Mountain. That year competitors hiked to the top of the course and skied down in a snowstorm. And in 1956 he won the downhill during a veteran’s championship in Aspen.In 1947 McLean received three awards for his contribution to the sport of skiing, and in 1948, the year he was captain of the Olympic ski team, won three medals in one international competition. “For a couple of years no one could beat him,” said another former competitor, Bil Dunaway of Aspen.After retiring from competition, McLean stayed heavily involved in the ski industry. He was the shop foreman for the well-known Groswold Ski Co. in Denver, where he had his own model ski. He worked with junior ski programs, set the giant slalom course at the 1960 Olympics and embarked on a multi-decade career as a ski industry representative, traveling around to retail ski shops across the country.
“He was very honest and fair,” said Klaus Obermeyer, founder of Obermeyer skiwear company and an old friend. “He loved the sport of skiing, and with his work selling equipment to the stores, he had his heart in it.”McLean returned to Aspen often, not only for work but for reunions with the old-time ski legends, but he lived for most of his post-racing career in Denver. “In the sense of the sport of skiing he has been with it ever since it really began in this country,” said another close friend and ski companion, John Litchfield, a former Aspen resident who now lives in Denver. “We were a week apart in age, and we both grew up during the development of skiing. Barney spent his life in skiing, he was very accomplished, but it didn’t reflect itself in his attitude. He was very modest – just had a tremendous amount of inner strength.”