Retrofitted: Zeke Zdechlick and Frisco’s days of ski-jumping past
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In the 1960s, not far from where Frisco native John “Zeke” Zdechlick and Sherri Steeves raised a family, young Zeke and a few neighborhood kids would trek two or three blocks from his home on Pitkin Street to an open field at the base of Mount Royal.
Looming some 1,500 vertical feet above them was Peak One, the youngster’s favorite summer hike and a sentinel he’d climb regularly until cancer started to take its toll in 2015. Zeke and friends made the trek with enormous Nordic jumping skis — some twice as tall as the kids, who were no older than 12 or 13 years old — and practiced on a handmade jump, over and over, until his dad got home from the mine.
“They were always jumping,” said Marie Zdechlick, Zeke’s mother and a resident of Frisco since 1946, when she and her husband, Robert John, started working at the Climax mine south of Frisco en route to Leadville. “When they were 6 years old even, they’d go to a small jump, and when my husband got done at Climax he’d come home and coach the kids. It wasn’t so much coaching — it was more patting them on the back, telling them, ‘Good job.’”
By the mid-’70s, Robert John — RJ to some, Bob to others — had met with a man from the Midwest — maybe Minnesota, or maybe it was Michigan, Marie said — who built and designed ski jumps. The two surveyed the land where Peak One neighborhood now sits on Second Avenue and built an Olympic-sized, 40-meter ski jump for the locals, who, like Zeke and most of his five siblings, were in their teens and ready for serious training.
Never mind that Frisco was home to fewer than 500 full-time residents then — they wanted a ski jump like Winter Park and Steamboat Springs and the other Colorado mountain towns. Even Old Dillon had one in the ’50s, Marie said, before the Denver Water Board moved the town and closed the jump to make room for Dillon Reservoir in 1961, when Zeke was still a toddler.
“They didn’t have carpenters back then, so you built your own house, you built your own ski jump — you built everything,” said Marie, who played host to neighborhood kids between shifts as nurse at the Climax mine hospital, complete with inpatient surgery ward and outpatient physicians. “We had croquet and softball for the little kids. It was quite interesting when you had 20 kids in your front yard.”
Time keeps ticking
Marie still lives in the Pitkin Street home she and RJ built in 1947, located one block south of Zeke and Sherri’s home on Frisco Street. The front porch of one looks at the chimney and outhouse (now shed) of the other. The town has ballooned to more than 3,000 residents since then and the ski jump is long gone, dismantled nearly three decades ago in the name of town planning like its Old Dillon predecessor.
But the streets of Old Frisco still hold remnants of the town’s ski-jumping past. In Marie’s outhouse-turned-shed, buried under three feet of snow this winter for the first time in several years, Sherri recently unearthed a pair of Zeke’s Fischer ski-jumping skis from a bottomless pile of retro gear.
“Truly, jumping and these Nordic skis gave him the chance to travel the U.S. and the world, and not only as an athlete, but as a coach,” Sherri told me on the first bluebird day in a week or two, when we stood in her front yard and soaked up the sun while talking about Zeke and his 276-centimeter Fischers. “This pair of skis brought him a lot — a lot of camaraderie and mentoring and lifelong friends.”
After honing his skills on the Frisco jump, Zeke joined the U.S. Nordic Combined ski team in his late teens and moved east to compete with the University of Vermont. He studied recreation management and competed in Nordic Combined all four years there, learning under the guidance of fabled Nordic coach, Chip LaCasse.
When Zeke returned to Frisco in the ’80s, the jump was under siege. It had long been a favorite training ground for dozens of up-and-comers — local high school and club teams, filled with kids no older than Zeke when he started — but with growth came oversight, and with oversight came insurance.
“Zeke was bummed they got rid of the jump because the town felt (it) was a liability,” Sherri said. “No one could afford the insurance.”
Zeke toyed briefly with installing a jump at the Frisco Adventure Center, Sherri said, but he gave up on that fight in the late ’80s. In the early ’90s he started coaching Paralympic Nordic athletes, balancing travel and contests with his new role as general manager for Frisco’s playground on the peninsula. The Nordic trails there pay homage to the Zdechlick clan: the mellow M’Rezy trail is named for mom, the rolling RJ’s Vista route is named for dad.
“The amazing part about the Nordic world is how connected it can be,” Sherri said as she swapped the ski-jumping Fischers for a smaller pair of racing Fischers. “He knew people from everywhere and they stayed close right up until the day he died.”
Zeke passed away in July 2016 after a three-year-long battle with lung cancer. He’d never smoked a day in his life. Both pairs of Fischers are lathered in signatures and well-wishes — “All our love,” “You inspired all of us,” “Keep drummin’,” — enough so that a list of European championships on his Nordic classic skis, the 205-centimeter Fischer Racing SCs, is buried beneath red and black and purple Sharpie.
“Even though Zeke traveled everywhere in the world, he never got tired of Frisco,” Sherri said with clear eyes and a steady hand. She was on her way to the Front Range, where her daughter — one of she and her husband’s four children, all collegiate Nordic athletes or coaches — is applying to a doctoral program at Regis University in north Denver.
“He’d drive to the Adventure Park every day,” she continued, “And say, ‘I have the best office in the world.’”
The ski racer turned hotelier who was close to President Ford embodied the soul of Vail for nearly 60 years.