Paul Andersen: Fair Game
December 19, 2011
The first thing I noticed at Wednesday’s Aspen Business Luncheon was the Norwegian sweaters. There were dozens of them, beautifully made and beautifully worn by beautiful people.
Most of the sweaters convened at a table reserved for the Norwegian ski instructors, many of whom came to America decades ago to teach with the greatest skiing phenomenon of them all – Stein Eriksen.
The luncheon packed the ballroom at the Hotel Jerome to honor Stein’s 84th birthday, reasserting Aspen’s deep tradition as a ski town. A prominent, affluent and physically fit community came together to honor one of its legends.
“There’s not a potbelly in the room,” marveled a woman at my table as we surveyed the crowd. “Look at how fit they all look.”
She was focused on the Norwegians, handsome men with beaming smiles who personify the magic of skiing that Stein has so adroitly represented all these years. Suddenly heads turned, people pointed. A tight throng of admirers gathered around a man who moved with slow and easy confidence through the crowd.
Stein, with perfectly coiffed hair, chiseled features and smooth, tanned skin, made his way toward the stage. When he stood before his Norwegian brotherhood, he paused. There was a glint of tears in his eyes. As he was enveloped in bear hugs, he seemed somewhat frail and thin. But it was a self-possessed Stein who took the stage to loud applause. “I love you all,” he said later. And you had to believe it.
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Aspen gave Stein an incredible outpouring of adulation, celebrating this handsome, gifted athlete, this Olympian golden boy who made skiing the sexiest sport in the world. “We’re witnessing history,” said a friend as the debonair Stein’s every move spoke to his elegant poise and savoir-faire.
Stein spoke – still with a thick accent – about the early years, how he trained for skiing at night during the Nazi occupation of Norway, how he came to America and sold skis that he helped fashion by hand, how he won medals in every discipline, how he invented the reverse shoulder technique that revolutionized skiing.
Stein quit ski racing at age 28. “There was nowhere else I could go with racing,” he said, having taken three gold medals in one World Cup event. So he moved into the business of skiing, promoting a sport whose novelty was refreshing to millions of Americans who saw in Stein the grace of a ski god, the personification of Odin himself.
Always the entrepreneur, Stein taught skiing and sold Norwegian sweaters his mother made back in Norway. Those sweaters became his signature apparel, and they sold handsomely from the shops he opened.
His first ski-school position was at Boyne Mountain, Mich. The owner offered Stein $5,000, a princely sum at the time. After being counseled by a friend, Stein countered, “I’ll come if you double it.” Done! said the owner.
“Oh, it was easy to make money in America,” smiled Stein.
It was easy if you were an Olympic gold-medal champion with Nordic good looks and an aura of natural health and manly vigor. The money really came years later when Stein met Edgar Stern in Aspen. The result was Deer Valley, arguably the most elegant ski resort in North America.
When Stein was asked about his many years in Aspen, he smiled wistfully: “The mountains are still here,” as if nothing else really mattered except the mountains he so loves.
Stein ran the ski school at Aspen Highlands in the late 1950s, where he demonstrated his famous front flip layout, pioneering freestyle skiing and the X Games. Stein said he attended a recent aerial competition in which skiers were doing triple flips and other stunts. One competitor, learning that Stein was there, performed the classic front layout, landed it, skied up to Stein, and said, “Thank you!”
For me, a Midwestern-born skier whose Danish parents toasted with Akvavit, Stein became a household name. We equated Stein with the glory of our Scandinavian roots. As a 17-year-old, I witnessed Stein, the first director of skiing at Snowmass, soaring over the cabin jump in 1968. It was an honor to ski with Stein.
“My greatest satisfaction,” Stein summarized, “was helping the growth of skiing, of getting kids off the street, away from the TV and onto the mountains with their families to enjoy nature. To be part of skiing has been an incredible pleasure.”
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