Summit Nordic icon Jon Kreamelmeyer reflects on his skiing legacy
DILLON — After longtime Summit County local Jon Kreamelmeyer skied Tuesday on the Lake Dillon ice to and from Sentinel Island, the 73-year-old Colorado native reflected on his athletic journey. It’s one that evolved from being a tough-as-nails collegiate wrestler to state championship Summit High School Nordic ski coach to Paralympic Hall of Fame inductee.
Growing up in Golden, Kreamelmeyer had his first exposure to skiing in the 1950s. He can still remember going to a ski shop on East Colfax Avenue in Denver and being mesmerized by the beautiful varnished wooden skis adorning the wall. A few years later, he and his buddy Tom would hitchhike from the buffalo overlook along the highway near Lookout Mountain in an attempt to get to Arapahoe Basin Ski Area or Loveland Ski Area. Their parents instructed the two young boys that if a police officer came by and asked them what they were up to, to say they were waiting for their uncle.
As a kid, Kreamelmeyer wasn’t a competitive skier, rather a talented wrestler. Kreamelmeyer credits his high school coach Darrel Hafling, a National Wrestling Hall of Fame member and a World War II fighter pilot, for instilling in him the toughness and passion for competition that Kreamelmeyer ultimately said he took with him from wrestling to Nordic skiing.
“He would push you and push you,” Kreamelmeyer said. “But then he’d say one kind comment later in the day, and it changed your whole perspective. … He molded me into the competitor I am, and I was also able to pass that onto the other athletes I worked with.”
With those lessons of leadership instilled in him from his disciplined days as a wrestler, Kreamelmeyer has coached many championship local and international athletes throughout the years. That includes his start as an assistant with the Summit High School Nordic ski team in 1975 before he took over the head coaching role in the mid-1980s, helping to steer the Tigers to several state championships. In 1994, at the Paralympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, Kreamelmeyer got out there on the racing trails to guide blind skier Michelle Drolet to a Paralympic bronze medal as a two-person team. It was success that opened up the opportunity for him to serve as an assistant coach with the U.S. Disabled Ski Team from 1995-1998 before he served as the head coach for the U.S. Disabled Ski Team through 2010. About a half-decade after that, Kreamelmeyer went back to his roots helping out the Summit Nordic Ski Club as an assistant coach, a role he continues to this day.
It’s those decades of helping Nordic skiers in Summit County that propelled the Paralympic Hall of Fame inductee to the top Nordic spot in Peak Performers, which honors the greatest athletes and most influential figures in the history of Summit County skiing and snowboarding.
“Whether you’re a coach or schoolteacher, it’s not how much you know, it’s how much you care,” the longtime Summit High English instructor said. “‘Cause kids can tell if you don’t care. And I think that belief as a teacher or as a coach carries over. So if you show, if you are able to demonstrate from the heart, that you care about your athletes or your students, they will in turn perform. And I think it’s a matter of them, basically, becoming confident to perform.”
Years before Kreamelmeyer transitioned into Nordic coaching at Summit High School, he and his friend Tom pretended to cross-country glide on slick streets with their shoes because they didn’t have cross-country skis. Without any real competitive skiing for him to try on the Front Range, Kreamelmeyer’s ski escapes were limited to those hitchhike jaunts up to Summit County while he refined his wrestling skills. His grappling chops and disciplined determination led him to walk on as a wrestler at North Dakota State before he transferred to wrestle for Dakota Wesleyan.
It was times like those, when he’d starve himself 15 pounds before wrestling an opponent in a dark, intimidating venue full of 3,000 people — fans you could hear but couldn’t see — when Kreamelmeyer plied the competitive muster he’d eventually channel as a cross-country coach.
After getting a job as a high school teacher in Summit in 1970, Kreamelmeyer became a certified ski instructor and worked with Summit Nordic patriarch Gene Dayton.
The duo would check with ski patrol before taking their skinny skis over to the Peak 10 terrain known as “The Burn” on powder days, attempting their best telemark turns as they often tumbled down the steep slopes.
Through the years, Kreamelmeyer was a part of the Summit Nordic community that helped shepherd the talents of motivated youngsters, such as eventual Olympian Pat Ahern. It’s guys like Ahern, Scott Peterson, Jon Zdechlik and others that Kreamelmeyer credits with having the drive and determination to reach their potential in a sport Kreamelmeyer said is much like wrestling — one where only the toughest survive and thrive.
Once he began working with Drolet, Kreamelmeyer found she was much like those special Summit youth skiers. She had the old-school, wrestling-like grit to be a champion. And they were a team. Similar to his ski earlier this week out to Sentinel Island, Kreamelmeyer can fondly remember taking Drolet out to ski on a lake in Montana. Dialing in the element of guide and blind athlete being one in the same, he taught Drolet what many thought impossible for a blind skier: how to skate ski. Using the lake’s open terrain, he skied circles around her, communicating proper body positioning.
Once the duo was out there competing together, such as at the 1994 Paralympics, Kreamelmeyer would ski in front of Drolet and look over his right shoulder to share instructions with her.
He’d scout the courses and take meticulous notes and pair them with special, topographical maps she could feel out to understand the terrain. All their effort led to that bronze.
“It was pretty cool to be on the podium with Michelle,” Kreamelmeyer said. “It’s cool to hear the national anthem and know that through all of the hard work that you did, things worked out well.”
Nearly three decades later, still coaching Summit Nordic youngsters on a daily basis, Kreamelmeyer sometimes wonders why he’s still doing it.
Why at 73 he bears the cold on the Frisco Peninsula to pass along knowledge to Olympic hopefuls, like young Nina Shamberger. The answer, he always realizes, is as obvious as it’s ever been.
“Because I really, really like kids,” he said. “I like to see them grow.”
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This past season brought with it Hailey Swirbul’s greatest individual result as a professional cross-country ski racer. But any real satisfaction she received always came when racing alongside her teammates, notably during world champs.