In these days immediately after the Winter Olympics, I still feel the excitement generated by a world of amazing young men and women compressing a life of effort into a day or two. With only one goal in mind...
Years ago, my Dad gave me a valet box. I think every man should own a valet box. My first one looks like a pirate's treasure chest, made of dark wood and brass. Apropos since one uses a valet box to store valuable things. I have not used this particular box on a daily basis for some time, but I still keep it in my closet. It contains some of my most prized possessions. Such as my skiing medal.
In 1973, Gustav Thoeni was certainly the best ski racer in the world, in the midst of a run of four World Cup overall championships in five years. In 1973, I was certainly one of the worst ski racers in the world. Not just the state of Wisconsin. The entire world. I began skiing when I was very small. Typical for a Norwegian boy. I was pretty good at it too. But, as any competitor in any sport will testify, there is a big difference between the sort of skiing required to navigate a steep hill in style and the sort required to navigate a steep hill rapidly while weaving between a series of poles stuck into the snow.
As I started High School at age 15, I was highly excited to learn that there was a ski racing team. That even I could join. It was a small team, with only six boys racing every week. Six of the seven of us racing every week, that is. I raced in qualifying runs for each week's meet, but I could never defeat one of the other six boys to make the varsity team. It didn't bother me too much. I could see that the other fellows were a lot better than me. And I could see that I was getting better each week. At least I thought that I was a ski racer. Finally, one week, I made the competition team. Due to some vacation or illness of one of the others. But there I was. Adorned in my competitor racing numeral, standing atop the slalom run in the starting gate.
It was an overcast, brutally cold day. Even by Wisconsin standards. Since I had no competition history, I was required to start in last place, after all the other skiers. When the snow in the many turns of the course was worn into deep, icy, choppy ruts. Slow, deep, icy choppy ruts. That made the edges of your skis jump and chatter as you tried to bend your body into each turn. The combination of ice and ruts threatened, with each turn, to eject even the most skilled racer from the course into the snow fencing which outlined its edges. And those of us going last were not the most skilled racers. Not by a long shot.
Each competitor races two times down the course and the fastest time counts as your official team score. The course we were running that day was set down the middle of the steepest hill in the state. As I made my way toward the starting gate, my stomach clenched as I looked through my goggles at a seemingly incomprehensible forest of red and blue flags. Around which I was supposed to weave at a high rate of speed. In theory. When you put your ski poles into two holes in the snow cut for them at the starting gate, you cannot see anything on a steep course but the tops of the first few flags. On this particular day I could not see even that. Due to a slashing snowfall and dark gray skies which resulted in significantly obscured vision. Another stomach clench ensued. As I waited my turn at the starting gate, behind the second worst racer in the meet, the captain of our team appeared at my side.
Out team captain was a skiing god. A gifted racer. Dashing good looks. Long blond hair. Sort of a ski racer version of a singer we would learn about years later. A fellow named Jon Bon Jovi. A natural leader, the captain clapped me on the back, flashed his big white grin, and said
Hey, isn't this great!! You are going to kick it today man!!
Then he glanced at me and added one tip...
Um, but you probably want to put this on right side out...
My racing jersey numeral was on backwards. We pulled it off and fixed it, which provided a comic interlude and discharged a lot of tension. But not all the tension. I fell about half way down my first run. I was not the only one. But my team needed all of us to post a time to have a chance to win. The other fellows had been pretty good that day. I had to make it through the second run. I had to.
As I approached the starting gate a second time, the snow was really falling hard. And blowing sideways. I was the last skier down the course. Several more falls had resulted in a chance that we could take one of the first three spots in the meet. If I could finish upright. And if I could post a decent time. Imagine the fifteen year old, pre-Epic. Standing at the top of a mountain. Facing either redemption, or doom. I felt like Charlie Brown of the Peanuts comic strip. Again, The Captain appeared beside me.
This snow is awful...is there a ski race out here someplace?
Again, the big grin. Again, it made me laugh.
Lots of guys fell that first time man, this time...you OWN this thing. Let it fly man!!!
Another clap on the back. The starter turned toward me....ice and snow crusting his wool face mask. Looking like a not so good character from Lord of the Rings. A cloud of breath-smoke came from his mouth as he called my number and motioned me to the starting gate. I put the tips of my ski poles into the starting holes, now deep and worn. The start was called. I shoved myself forward into the abyss. Unable to see much of anything in the fading light of a winter's late afternoon.
I do not really remember how I got down that course without falling a second time. Or how, from dead last position, I managed to make the fifth fastest time of the day. Enough to secure a team bronze medal. One for each of us. The other guys were so shocked that I even finished they all stared mute for a second at the bottom of the run before they ran over en masse [we ski racers all use a lot of French words] and almost beat me to death with excited congratulations. We each got a little bronze medal as a keepsake. It is just about one-half an inch long and it came in a plastic box of a size sufficient for a tie tack. I keep it, to this day, in my valet box.
Later that year a lot of things happened. Gustav Thoeni won the overall World Cup skiing championship and the gorgeous cut crystal trophy made by Baccarat that comes with the title. I never qualified for the varsity team again that season, and after its conclusion my family moved to tropical climes, ending my putative career in slalom, giant slalom and downhill. But every time I open my old valet box and look inside, I know one thing. For one three minute space within one winter long ago, I was a Ski Racer. And I have the medal to prove it.
This is Mr. Thoeni. Not me. We did have the same brand of skis though. Spalding is not paying me for this post. I wish they were.