Ski racing series: Dynasties are born
Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum
This winter, Vail/Beaver Creek are hosting the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships for an unprecedented third time. The Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum has opened its ski racing archives to tell stories that connect the dots between today’s spectacular made-for-TV competition extravaganzas and their humble beginnings. This series will feature many of the significant milestones, instigated here in Colorado by individuals now enshrined in the Hall of Fame, which helped shape skiing and international racing. When you are in Vail Village, stop by the museum for a trip through skiing’s past. For more information, go to http://www.skimuseum.net.
In the midst of World War II, international ski racing came to a standstill but American skiing unknowingly primed itself for a debut. At the same time that many of the nation’s best skiers joined the 10th Mountain Division, those not enlisted found new coaches in the many German and Austrian instructors eager to flee the Third Reich.
The combination of the 10th Mountain Division’s love of skiing and the influx of knowledgeable instructors nationwide gave America an opportunity to break onto the ski racing scene. America grabbed it. In 1948, the Olympics were held for the first time since 1936, and Gretchen Fraser won gold in slalom and silver in the combined. American ski racing continued developing and growing throughout the 1950s, and laid the foundation for the success of the ’60s.
After returning from the war, many 10th Mountain Division skiers returned immediately to Colorado, enjoying the mountains, nurturing Colorado’s ski culture and set up rope tows across the state. Friedl Pfeifer (Hall of Fame member) originally grew up in Austria, but fell in love with Aspen while training with the 10th. He returned post-war — with one less lung and a Purple Heart to prove it — and started the Aspen Skiing Co. The company struggled until Pfeifer hired Dick Durrance (Hall of Fame member).
Pfeifer and Durrance appealed to FIS for Aspen to host the 1950 World Championships, a bold move for a mining community in the middle of Colorado. Perhaps more shocking than the appeal was its success: Aspen was the first non-European host of the Championships, and the race transformed Aspen from a single-chair hill for locals into an internationally recognized venue.
Around the same time, whole families of prodigious skiers started popping up in mountain towns. Skeeter (Hall of Fame member), Buddy (Hall of Fame member) and Loris (Hall of Fame member) Werner grew up in Steamboat Springs and trained at Howelsen Hill. Skeeter Werner was an alternate for the ’52 Olympics, the youngest member of the US Ski Team at the ’54 World Championships and an Olympian in ’56. Buddy Werner was a three-time Olympian (’56, ’60, ’64), and though he missed the 1960 Olympics due to a broken leg, just a few months earlier he won the Hahnenkamm, still one of skiing’s most prestigious races today.
Max (Hall of Fame member) and Bill (Hall of Fame member) Marolt both grew up in Aspen. Max Marolt was a member of the US Ski Team from 1954-1960, and raced in the ’58 World Championships and ’60 Olympics. Bill Marolt’s career didn’t start until the ’60s.
Dave Gorsuch (Hall of Fame member), who grew up in the mining community outside of Leadville, was a two-time National Junior Olympic champion, an Olympian in 1960, and an NCAA champion, but before all that he skied on wooden skis his dad made him. Dave Gorsuch started skiing at 18 months old at the now “lost resort” Climax, where his dad built a small rope tow and installed lights for night skiing. He and his future wife, Renie (Hall of Fame member), met at a National Junior Olympic Race, and they both competed in the 1960 Olympics. Afterwards, Dave Gorsuch received a scholarship to ski for Western State, and with the opening of nearby Crested Butte the two decided to start a ski shop — the now-famous Gorsuch Limited — in Gunnison.
“At the time, I was lucky to make a sale of a magazine. We (invested) $9,000 the first year and I didn’t know how the hell I was going to pay for it,” Dave Gorsuch said.
Shortly after, the couple had an opportunity to move to Vail, where they found good customers and great friends. Luckily they were much more successful, which kept food on the table and allowed them to help develop the Vail Valley. The Gorsuches helped build the hospital, the Vail Mountain School and Ski Club Vail.
By the end of the 1950s, Colorado was firmly established as a ski racing mecca, producing great ski racers and race hills thanks to the Werners, the Gorsuches, the Marolts, Dick Durrance and Friedl Pfeifer setting the stage for the U.S. ski racing athletes’ successes in the future.