Olympics series: Werner’s legacy lives on in American ski-racing lore
Editor’s note: During this Winter Olympic season and leading up to the 2015 FIS Alpine World Championships, this weekly series will tell Colorado’s rich ski and snowboarding history and heritage through stories about the sport’s heroes and legends.
The most famous downhill ski-racing course in the world, bar none, is the Streif on the Hahnenkamm at Kitzbuhel, Austria. Literally translated as the Streak, the Streif downhill has been won by the legendary likes of Franz Klammer, Jean-Claude Killy and Hermann Maier.
But only one American has ever won on the full-length (2,822 vertical feet over 2.06 miles) Streif course: Steamboat’s Wallace “Buddy” Werner.
Werner accomplished the feat in 1959 — the first year the “Super Bowl of ski racing” was televised on Austrian television — cementing himself in the annals of the sport as the first great American alpine racer, although he never won an Olympic or World Championship medal.
“But here’s a guy who even to this day is known all over Europe,” said his former U.S. Ski Team and University of Colorado coach, Bob Beattie. “He is a legend. I hope he’s never forgotten.”
Werner would have been a home-snow favorite at the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, but he broke his leg in slalom training a couple of months before those games and couldn’t compete.
He was banged up again coming into the 1964 Winter Olympics at Innsbruck, Austria, and placed eighth in the slalom in which younger teammates Billy Kidd and Jimmie Heuga claimed the first ever Olympic medals (silver and bronze) for American men.
A little over two months later, on April 12, 1964, Werner, 28 at the time, and Olympic medalist Barbara Hennenberger were killed in an avalanche near St. Moritz, Switzerland, while making a ski movie with Willy Bogner.
“A short life but very fruitful,” Beattie said of his friend Werner, whose rancher parents Ed “Pop” Werner and Hazel Mae “Hazie” Werner produced three Olympians, including Buddy’s siblings Gladys “Skeeter” Werner and Loris “Bugs” Werner.
“He was a hero of mine growing up because he was the best skier in America and the first American that could really beat the Europeans,” Kidd said of Buddy, “and he was basically doing it by himself because there wasn’t really a U.S. Ski Team in those days.”
Werner in the 1950s, while training both as a ski jumper and alpine racer on the tiny Howelsen Hill in Steamboat, helped scout out the runs on what was then called Storm Mountain at what would later debut as Steamboat Ski Resort on Jan. 12, 1963.
After Werner’s death, the name of Storm Mountain was changed to Mount Werner, and a collection of funds to honor the great racer went to start the Bud Werner Memorial Library — the iconic ski town’s current public library.
Buddy’s Run at Steamboat was originally laid out by Werner with drops and side hills as a downhill course, according to Kidd — who still lives in Steamboat and serves as its cowboy-hat-clad ambassador and director of skiing — but those features were bulldozed to make it more of an intermediate run.
“His philosophy was that there were only two places to finish in a ski race: first or fall,” Kidd said of Werner. “And he fell a lot, but sometimes he bounced back up and finished the race. He was just absolutely incredible.”
If that style sounds familiar to modern ski-racing fans, it’s because Bode Miller — the greatest American ski racer of all time with 33 World Cup wins and five Olympic medals — espoused the same win-or-crash philosophy for years.
“You can still go all out, but you have to realize that at the highest level the course setters will always set a couple of gates that will trick you if you’re not paying attention,” said Kidd, who missed slalom gold by 0.14 seconds in 64 and spent the next six years chasing it until he finally won a combined world championship in 1970. “In other words, if all you’re doing is going full speed all the time, you’re going to fall down most of the time.”
But when great racers don’t fall, when they put everything on the line and come dangerously close to destruction (think Klammer in the 1976 Olympic downhill), the rewards and lasting legacy can be spectacular.
A decade ago, Californian Daron Rahlves won at the Hahnenkamm on a Streif course shortened some 40 percent by fog, and no other American — including Miller — has ever been able to duplicate Werner’s full-course victory at Kitzbuhel’s famous race.
Werner was a ski-industry innovator and a great skier, Kidd said, but mostly, Beattie adds, “He was a great guy.
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.