Fleischer vs. Obermeyer: A battle for the ages
The real March Madness wasn’t in the East Rutherford regional Thursday. It was at Golden Peak where in the 22nd annual American Ski Classic a Cinderella seed went up against a No. 1 in giant slalom and almost came out a champion.
At 84 years young, skiing-legend Klaus Obermeyer downed alpine giants Adrien Duvillard, Scott Henderson and Otto Tschudi to advance through the 16-seed bracket and earn a shot at recently retired U.S. Ski Team member Chad Fleischer, who at 32 could have been Obermeyer’s grandson.
And, he almost got him.
Sporting a blue speed suit bearing his world famous brand namesake, the crowd-favorite Obermeyer finished four-hundredths of a second faster than Fleischer in their first head-to-head run in the finals. In their second run – the last of the day – Obermeyer looked to have the upset in hand, skiing cleanly through the top part of the course and exploiting his age-handicapped head start. A slight miscue cost him the win, though, as he skied a little wide of a gate at the bottom of the course and Fleischer flew past him for gold, capping what was a legendary Legends race.
In the racers’ corral at the bottom, it was hard to tell who was more in awe of whom – Obermeyer of Fleischer, or Fleischer of the smiling, ageless Obermeyer.
“I’ve had the opportunity to meet (the legends) at different events like this in the past,” Fleischer said. “It’s always nice to come home to Vail, where I’ve spent the last 22 years of my life and be surrounded by great friends, and by new friends. You get to meet people that were hanging on your wall and you dreamed about maybe meeting or skiing with one day. That’s what this event is about I think.”
“He’s so good,” said Obermeyer, when asked about facing Fleischer. “If I had won it was because I got so much extra time.”
Like a true legend, Obermeyer was unflinchingly modest about his amazing performance. He was also humorous in defeat, saying that at 84, he is still a work-in-progress.
“I think it will be better when I’m 95,” he said, smiling. “I’m slowly learning, every day. I just went too fast in that last part.”
Get the sunscreen
Aside from inventing the first down parka, which he made from sewing a jacket together from a down comforter, Obermeyer is credited with overseeing the development of the first high-altitude suntan lotion – a notable first in the history of skiing.
On Thursday, everyone from the athletes to the spectators gathered at the bottom of Golden Peak could have used a bucketful, as the sun beat down from overhead. It was a perfect day for a GS, as racers flew down a slick track under an impossibly blue sky, not having to contend with any flat light or shadows.
The only thing that was more common than the shades of red which began to show up on faces throughout the course of the morning was the contrasting rows of white smiles worn by the contingent of racers.
“I love coming over here to Vail,” said Steamboat Springs’ Billy Kidd, winner of the silver medal in slalom at the 1964 Innsbruck Winter Olympics. “I come over here quite a bit and I love it. This is one of the best events in the world of skiing.”
Last year’s women’s Legends downhill winner, Laurie Graham-Flynn was also reveling in the beautiful weather.
“It’s always fun to be here,” Graham-Flynn said “The weather’s always so great. The course is fast and firm and it’s holding up great.”
Graham-Flynn didn’t repeat as the Legends winner this year, after losing a close head-to-head against Lisi Kirchler of Norway, but she did point out that she didn’t see Kirchler’s win as an upset because of the switch from downhill to GS this year.
“They keep forgetting to mention that I won in downhill,” Graham-Flynn said. “I blew it in the final. Against Lizzie I barged, I don’t know why. I’m kicking myself a little bit.”
Kirchler, a two-time Olympian in 1984 and 1988 for Austria, went on to face American Barbara Ferries-Henderson in the final. After missing a gate on the first run for a DNF and being saddled with a 0.05 second margin to overcome in the second run, she was unable to win the gold, finishing ahead of Ferries-Henderson at the line, but not in net time.
Ferries-Henderson, who is married to former Canadian national teamer Scott Henderson – one of Obermeyer’s victims on Thursday – and was a member of the 1962 U.S. World Championships Team in Chamonix, France, was all smiles after the win.
“You get up there and you get nervous at the gate,” said Ferries-Henderson. “The juices go. It’s very competitive. I’ve been coming to this event since the early, early years – ever since they started inviting me. I quit in ’64 and didn’t do any skiing for about 18 years. So, to come back and watch everybody and to get to know everybody, it’s fabulous.”
Yes, it was a day of laughter and hugs and re-establishing old bonds, but more importantly it was a day where legends got back to doing what made them legends in the first place – competing.
“Sometimes I’m like ‘Hey, maybe I’m a little too relaxed for this race,” Fleischer said. “These guys are getting after it. That’s what I think is fun about it. You get the guys that competed in the same eras and it’s kind of like they’re competing all over again, but at a different venue. It’s the same mindset.”
Kidd, sporting his trademark Stetson cowboy hat, probably put it best.
“It always seems like just yesterday to me,” he said. “You get in the gates and your adrenaline runs. Old ski racers never die.”
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.