Editor’s note: During this Winter Olympic year and leading up to the 2015 FIS Alpine World Championships season, this weekly series will tell Colorado’s rich ski racing history and heritage through stories about its ski heroes and legends.
The Winter Olympics roll around every four years and provide a single-event shot at immortality for athletes who often sacrifice their youth while training relentlessly for years. In alpine ski racing, the difference between the thrill of Olympic victory and the agony of defeat is often measured in hundredths of a second or the slightest mistake at 60 mph.
And such a mistake can become as defining a moment as actually standing atop the medals podium. For Jim “Moose” Barrows, of Steamboat Springs, his one shot at what would have been the first ever medal for an American downhiller came at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France.
That’s where Barrows went all out and crashed in such spectacular fashion about two-thirds of the way down the course that ABC featured the footage on its iconic “Wide World of Sports” show — forever labeling Barrows with the “agony of defeat” tagline.
The more famous footage was of a Slovenian ski jumper crashing during the show’s intro, but ABC’s expanded Olympic coverage in 1968 made Barrows famous for his terrible fall, in which he slid an estimated 200 yards, dislocated his hip and was airlifted off the mountain. Jean Claude-Killy won the race (and the other two men’s events at those games).
MISFORTUNE LEADS TO FAME
Barrows never got another shot at an Olympic medal, and he never won on the fledgling World Cup circuit, but he did find fame for his misfortune, and the 1996 inductee into the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum Hall of Fame doesn’t mind that crash being his signature moment.
“It opens doors and it’s a lifestyle that I still live, and that’s the way I want to be remembered,” said Barrows, 69, who grew up and still lives in Steamboat Springs. “That’s fine. It doesn’t bother me at all.”
Barrows’ famous fellow Steamboater Billy Kidd, who did win an Olympic silver in slalom in 1964 — the first ever for American man — is perhaps just as famous for his signature cowboy hat as his skiing.
“Nobody even knows Billy if he takes his hat off,” Barrows jokes, but the former downhill coach for the U.S. Ski Team does take seriously the opportunity the Olympics represent. If he has any regret it’s that he didn’t get another chance to build on what he learned the first time around.
“I guess I was so naive I didn’t realize how big the Olympics were,” Barrows said. “I kept trying to treat it like just another race until I got there and then all of a sudden I understood it was a big deal because we’ve got movie stars and generals and everybody else hanging around and trying to tag along and jump on the bandwagon. So in retrospect, I understood that I wanted to win the race and it would be a big deal winning the race, but the distractions were out there.”
Like having lunch one day with actress Audrey Hepburn. Big events are like that, Barrows said.
“When I became a coach later I understood that it was important … to get the experience of going through that at least one time in order to be successful the second time,” he said. “Some people like (teammate) Spider (Sabich) had the perception to understand what was at risk and what was available there. Some of us were more naive and didn’t do it. Then when it came to the race I understood that there was a big difference between first and the rest, so to speak.”
Bode Miller has been alternately criticized and praised for his win-or-crash style of skiing — and for “partying at an Olympic level” in 2006 — but he’s also learned from his previous stints and collected five medals over the years (including three at last go-around in 2010).
END OF BARROWS’ CAREER
Barrows suffered a head injury after colliding with a French spectator while training for the World Championships in 1970 and wound up going pro a year later. One of the greatest American downhillers of the 1960s, his Olympic career was over.
“The reason for my result (in Grenoble) was I was willing to take a risk and take a chance to try and be successful, and in the end, I wasn’t really as realistic as I should have been, and I should have taken the experience and focused on the future,” Barrows said.
Another factor in his risky all-out attack at Grenoble, Barrows said, was the fact that American men back then had so rarely beaten the Europeans at the Olympic level. That engendered an all-or-nothing approach similar to Miller’s style.
“To tell you the truth, I treated ever race that way, too,” Barrows said. “Especially in that day and age when we didn’t have the credibility that (Americans) have now — the credibility that’s been brought on by Tommy Moe and Bill Johnson and Bode.”
After Kidd and Jimmie Heuga won those first U.S. men’s medals in 1964, no other American man won a medal until Phil Mahre took silver in the slalom at Lake Placid in 1980. And Johnson (1984 Sarajevo) and Moe (1994 Lillehammer) remain the only American men who’ve won the Olympic downhill. All of that may change next month in Sochi, Russia, or somebody may become more renowned for crashing than winning.
“But it’s a great experience no matter the outcome,” Barrows said.
David O. Williams wrote this story for the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum. The museum is located on the third level of the Vail Village parking structure, adjacent to Vail Village Covered Bridge. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, call 970-476-1876 or go to www.skimuseum.net.