Olympics series: Wegeman set U.S. on path to success in Nordic combined
Editor’s note: During this Winter Olympic year and leading up to the 2015 FIS World Alpine Championship season, this weekly series will tell Colorado’s rich ski racing history and heritage through stories about its ski heroes and legends.
Norwegian men won the first 16 Olympic medals ever awarded in Nordic combined skiing — sweeping entire podiums at the first four Winter Games from 1924 to 1936 — and no other European country was able to break that streak until a skier from Finland won gold in 1948.
The sport was arguably born in Scandinavia, with prehistoric wooden skis unearthed dating back thousands of years. It was Swedish and Norwegian immigrants who first brought the sport, more as a means of transportation, to the American Midwest in the 19th century.
So it’s no surprise that when Oslo, Norway, hosted the Winter Games in 1952, no one was especially looking to North America for a dark-horse upset, let alone the far-flung Western ranching town of Steamboat Springs.
“We were not heavily regarded at all in the Nordic combined, and nobody did that well,” admits Paul Wegeman, a member of the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum Hall of Fame since 1998.
Wegeman posted a DNF (did not finish) at those ’52 Games, crashing in his third and final ski jump and suffering a sprained ankle, a twisted knee and a concussion that prevented him from competing in the cross-country portion of the combined the following day.
“For me, it was just really exciting being there, and there was a great deal of recognition even after I was bandaged up and healed up and headed back home,” said Wegeman, 86, a Colorado Springs resident who still skis and mountain bikes. “Kids would stand outside the Olympic village and get your autograph, and it was exciting getting recognized and being part of the team.
“For my performance, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage and recognition for what I did, which was very, very minimal, especially with the fall.”
But what Wegeman’s family did — both his father Alvin and his brother Keith are also members of the Hall of Fame — is plant the seeds at Steamboat’s Howelsen Hill that in part led to a modern American renaissance in Nordic combined and helped transform Steamboat Springs into an incubator for Olympians in virtually every snow-riding discipline.
“Out of the 84 or so Olympians out of that little town of Steamboat, I was approximately number four, and most everybody else that early is gone,” Wegeman said. “Being born that early, it’s the other kids that come along and know that you were an Olympian, they kind of look up and they have you as a mentor or a goal and they stand on your shoulders.”
Two Steamboat Olympians finally broke through at the 2010 Winter Olympic in Vancouver, with Johnny Spillane claiming a silver medal in each of the three Nordic combined events — the 10K individual normal hill, the 10-kilometer individual large hill and the 4-by-5-kilometer relay. Steamboat’s Todd Lodwick was also on that silver-medal relay team, and New Yorker Bill Demong broke through with the first U.S. gold in Nordic combined in the 10-kilometer individual large hill.
Spillane retired at the end of this past season, settling down in Steamboat, but Lodwick, at the age of 37, recently won the U.S. Olympic Team Trials and will compete in an American-record sixth Winter Olympics. Lodwick was the first American to win a Nordic combined World Cup race in 1995, and came out of retirement to win two world championships in 2009.
Cancer survivor Bryan Fletcher, along with younger brother Taylor, also call Steamboat home, and both could contend for medals in Sochi.
“Each year since the ’52 Olympics we’ve gotten a little better and a little better and a little better,” Wegeman said. “Training methods have increased and gotten better and new technologies have come along since those early years with heart-rate monitors. They were used way back then by the Swedes and the Swiss and the Norwegians and all of those guys that were really serious about training. I don’t think we took our training as seriously, but we have now.”
Wegeman in 1946 was on the first traveling team sponsored by the Steamboat Winter Sports Club that competed in ski jumping, alpine racing and cross-country at a meet in Salt Lake City. Also on that team was Wegeman’s brother Keith and the famous Buddy Werner, among several other Steamboat pioneers.
Wegemen’s father, Al, was the first ski coach ever hired by a public school, and he made skiing part of Steamboat’s regular physical education curriculum, teaching the basics to 11 Olympians. Al Wegemen was also the very first ski instructor at Winter Park.
One of the Lucky Ones
Paul Wegeman tried five different times to enlist in either the Army or Navy to fight in World War II but was rejected each time due to a dislocated ankle he sustained ski jumping in 1944. Wegeman would eventually serve during the Korean War in the early ’50s, receiving a special order allowing him to compete at the Oslo Olympics in ’52.
He missed the 1956 Cortina Olympics because he was finishing at the University of Denver, winning numerous collegiate ski titles, and later teaching school in Los Angeles. But Wegeman tried again in ’58 when the Olympics were coming to Squaw Valley, Calif., in 1960. During training, though, Wegeman crashed on a jump at Heavenly Valley and broke his neck, ending his competitive career.
Still, the longtime educator and volunteer who several years ago won the President’s Volunteer Service Award for more than 4,000 volunteer hours in the Colorado Springs school system, considers himself very lucky despite the many injuries that kept him from Olympic glory.
Wegeman notes that he suffered the same injury and had the same neurosurgeon at the time as Jill Kinmont, an alpine ski racer featured in the film “The Other Side of the Mountain,” and Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella — both of whom wound up quadriplegics.
“Of the three of us, I never have been in a wheelchair,” said Wegeman. “I’ve been up and hiking and skiing and doing everything after the healing. I’m just very blessed.”
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 http://www.skimuseum.net.