Vail alpine coach Martin Bell shared the spotlight with Eddie the Eagle | VailDaily.com

Vail alpine coach Martin Bell shared the spotlight with Eddie the Eagle

Eddie "The Eagle", the man and the movie, fly in so many ways, some more gracefully than others.

You know Martin Bell, the famed British Olympian and Vail alpine coach.

Bell knew Eddie when they were little kids with big dreams.

You also remember Eddie "The Eagle". So does Bell.

Bell is Britain's most successful ski racer, eighth in the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympic downhill, a British record that still stands.

He smiles as he reminds us that he finished ahead of all the Canadians and Americans that year.

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"I was the top-ranked English speaking ski racer," he said, grinning.

But before we can tell you that story, we have to tell you this story.

Simon says

Bell and Simon Kelton, one of the "Eddie The Eagle" screenwriters, worked in Vail as British ski ambassadors.

Kelton had already written the script 15 years ago when he was in Vail, which makes Kelton's another of those never-give-up stories.

Before Eddie took up ski jumping, he was ski racer, and quite a good one, Bell said.

When Eddie was about 13, plastic-covered dry slopes became popular around Britain and parts of Europe. There were races and championships, and Eddie won more than his share.

He wanted more than anything to be an Olympian, but that pathway was blocked by better skiers such as, well … Martin Bell.

When he realized he wasn't going to be an Olympic alpine racer, he tried speed skiing. It was fun and he was good at it, (he was ninth in the world at 108 mph) but it wasn't yet an Olympic event.

In 1985, he moved to Lake Placid. Any ski racer's parents can tell you the sport is oh-my-gawd expensive. Among his jobs, Eddie worked as a nanny so he could scrape together the money to train. He barely missed the British downhill team.

Not long after, he spotted a ski jump in Lake Placid.

"Ski jumping had two major advantages," Kelton wrote in the London Telegraph. "First, it was cheaper, and second, there were no other British jumpers."

A couple of Lake Placid coaches, John Viscome and Chuck Berghorn, gave Eddie some advice and some second-hand equipment, including a pair of boots so big that he needed six pairs of socks to keep them on, Kelton said.

In less than one hour, Eddie took his first 15-meter jump. He flew the 40-meter jump the next day.

He made the 1987 World Championships, which was very exciting, but not like cracking a spot in the 1927 New York Yankees lineup. Bell explained that you need 126 FIS points.

"Most Ski & Snowboard Club Vail competitors get that their first year," he said.

Eddie still didn't have any financial backing, and would do anything to attract fun and funding.

"Whether it was dressing up as a chicken to open a tourist office in Devon (they couldn't find an eagle suit) or bolting himself to the roof of a Lotus Esprit and going 119 mph to break a speed skiing record, if it would help him ski, Eddie was up for it," Kelton said.

And so, because there were no other British ski jumpers, and because the media and public loved him, the British Ski Federation put Eddie on their 1988 Calgary Olympic team.

"They said something like, 'He's doing it, and we don't have anyone else. Let's take him,'" Bell said.

Dedicated and endearing

Eddie was dedicated, athletic and endearing, Kelton said.

"Eddie came across like a classic British comedy act, a bumbling but kind and courteous anti-hero, like Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther films," Kelton said.

Eddie portrayed himself as the British version of the Jamaican bobsled team and Olympic swimmer Eric Moussambani Malonga, "Eric the Eel."

When he jumped, you couldn't take your eyes off him, Bell said. His crashes were spectacular.

President Ronald Reagan once excused himself from a nuclear disarmament conference to watch Eddie fly, Kelton said.

"It was a little bit of a ghoulish interest. You were watching because you were waiting for him to crash," Bell said.

Eddie was also self-effacing, a great interview and pretty good at self-promotion. He once did a press conference in a strip club, as scantily clad women flounced about calling themselves The Eaglettes.

"He once missed an important competition after oversleeping in a cowshed, famously lost his ski boots and Union Jack underpants on the baggage carousel at Calgary airport, and then followed that up by walking straight into a glass exit door in front of the world's press and legions of excited fans," Kelton said.

We love Eddie

Crowds loved him. Crowds still do.

"When Eddie finally stepped out on to the top of the 90-meter jump in Calgary, he was greeted by 100,000 fans chanting his name," Kelton said.

"Eddie The Eagle" enjoyed the biggest opening of a British film since the James Bond movie "Spectre." It debuted at No. 2 behind "Batman vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice."

An Eddie "The Eagle" appearance would earn him several thousand pounds.

"I won't say we weren't jealous, but he was a phenomenon. It's impossible to predict who'll become a media sensation," Bell said of his old teammate and friend. "You have to give him credit for courage, switching from alpine racing to jumping. Everyone else had done it since they were 8 years old."

About the movie

"Eddie The Eagle" is the story of Michael "Eddie" Edwards (Taron Egerton, "Kingsman: The Secret Service") who became Great Britain's first Olympic ski jumper. Reluctantly aided by former ski jumper Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman) as his coach, Eddie is unrelenting in his goal to reach the 1988 Calgary Winter Games.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

Where to watch

The film “Eddie the Eagle” is playing at the Riverwalk Theatre in Edwards. Check page B2 of the Vail Daily High Life section for show times.