Dick Mize: Eagle County’s first Olympian
February 8, 2018
Eagle County's Olympians have been sent off with justifiable hoopla and celebration.
By comparison, Eagle County's first Olympic competitor, Dick Mize, slipped rather quietly into the international competition. In 1960, Mize competed in the Olympics' first biathlon, a winter sport combining cross-country skiing and rifle shooting.
Now 82 years old, Mize lives in Anchorage, Alaska, where he still regularly cross-country skis. Although he has not recently been on the competition circuit, he is a six-time World Masters champion, pulling in medals from races as far away as Sweden, Norway and Italy.
In Alaska, Mize is known for his work in helping to develop a popular network of cross-country ski trails in Kincaid Park. In 2011, he was inducted into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame.
Mize was born in 1935 at the mining company hospital in Gilman. His parents, Harry and Pearl, both worked for the New Jersey Zinc Company. Dick grew up in Red Cliff, although the family moved to Gilman during Mize's junior year of high school. He graduated from Red Cliff Union High School in 1953.
As a kid, he skied with family and friends on the small trails close to the Mize home on Turkey Creek.
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"We would go up the road to Shrine Pass. We had a tiny little area that we would pack out and ski on," he recalls.
On weekends, the family skied Cooper Hill on Tennessee Pass. At Red Cliff High School, basketball was the big sport, and Mize enjoyed playing for Coach Alan Albert, who was also the school's bandleader. Mize played saxophone.
With Albert's encouragement, Mize headed off to Western State College in Gunnison after high school, with the intent of playing college basketball. A talk with the basketball couch discouraged Mize from even trying out for the team. Instead, he joined the marching band.
One day, as the band practiced on the football field, Mize noticed a group of guys playing a lively game of soccer. Itching for some athletic activity, he approached the coach, Sven Wiik, and asked to join the soccer team. The coach kindly advised him that it wasn't a soccer team. Rather, it was the cross-country ski team, getting in shape for the season. He invited Mize, who had never cross-country skied before, to give the team a try.
"My whole life and career really took a right turn at the right time," Mize said.
Wiik, a Swedish immigrant, is legendary among that era of skiers. At the time, college ski athletes competed in four events, including cross-country, downhill, slalom and ski jumping. Although not many excelled at all four events, Wiik had a knack for finding each skier's particular talent and honing it to a competitive level.
"If anybody wanted to work hard, he could teach them to cross-country ski," Mize said.
At the time, Western State was a National College Athletic Association school, and something of a breeding ground for Olympic athletes. Wiik's cross-country skiers proved particularly strong in NCAA competitions.
"He got our whole team going," Mize said.
As a freshman in 1954, Mize competed in his first NCAA championships in Reno, Nevada. Wiik's team won the NCAA titles in 1956 and 1957. Mize placed fourth in 1955, second in 1956 and third in 1957.
Ever the loyal fans, Mize's parents put hundreds of miles on their car traveling to ski meets throughout Colorado.
Olympic tryouts at Tennessee Pass
After graduation from Western State in 1957, Mize found another avenue for his cross-country skiing skills — he joined the Army, negotiating a place on the Army's Biathlon team at Fort Richardson, Alaska. The heroics of the 10th Mountain Division's skiing soldiers in World War II were well known, and the Army saw value in training soldiers to ski and shoot high-powered rifles
In 1958, Mize competed in the first Biathlon World Championships in Austria. The following year he took part in the pre-Olympic tryouts at Squaw Valley, California, and competed in the second World Biathlon Championships in Courmayeur, Italy.
Then came a welcome announcement: Camp Hale in Eagle County, Colorado, would be the training site for the U.S. Army Biathlon Team. The Olympic tryouts would be held on Tennessee Pass.
"It was just like being home," Mize recalls.
He and his wife stayed with his parents during the tryouts.
He remembers the 20-kilometer course (about 12.5 miles) with four different target ranges laid out at Mitchell Creek, directly across the highway from Cooper Hill.
"I was lucky enough to make the team and compete in the 1960 Olympics," Mize said.
That accomplishment earned him a note in the Gilman gossip column of the county's only newspaper, the Eagle Valley Enterprise.
"Gilman is just more than proud of Dick Mize, the young man who has made such an enviable record at the big time ski meets," the columnist wrote.
Mize placed 21st at the Squaw Valley Olympics.
Growing up in Red Cliff definitely played a role in getting him to the Olympics.
"It was an ideal place to grow up. We were in the mountains, climbing hills, going fishing. That's what started it, having the endurance to get into the other activities," he said.
Legacy in Alaska
After the Olympics, Mize returned to Anchorage for a career in the local school system. He taught physical education and biology, and coached the track and field teams as well as the downhill and cross-country ski teams. He moved into assistant principal and principal jobs, and he eventually became the district-level activities director.
During all those years, he worked with the Parks and Recreation Department to develop good public cross-country ski trails, including a biathlon range. Those trails have drawn national events to Anchorage.
When he was inducted into the Alaska School Activities Association Hall of Fame, it was noted that "there are few individuals that have contributed more to Nordic skiing than Dick Mize."
Eagle County can still be proud of this native son.
Kathy Heicher, president of the Eagle County Historical Society, lives in Eagle. She can often be found in the Eagle Public Library archives, searching out stories of the past. Contact her at email@example.com.
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