Sunday, May 8, 2011

Notes from the Sun Valley reunions

While Thousands Cheered: Skiing Heritage Week Scores Record Turnout

By Seth Masia

Skiing Heritage Week, held at Sun Valley in honor of the resort’s 75th anniversary, drew a record turnout. Well, it had some help from half-a-dozen overlapping events. Running concurrently were the U.S. National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame Induction, the Pioneers of Freestyle Skiing Reunion, the first Ishpeming Film Festival, and a reunion of Head, K2 and Scott reps from decades past. There was also a very quiet reunion of SKI Magazine staffers in acknowledgement of the book’s 75th anniversary.

K2 Wet Tee-shirt Contest
2011 Edition
Bernie Weichsel, chairman of the Hall of Fame, ISHA board member and impresario of the early pro freestyle circuit, functioned as the chief conspirator. According to his notes, 110 people attended the ISHA Awards Banquet, 80 old hotdoggers showed up to receive awards as Pioneers of Freestyle (plus about 40 of their parole officers and attendants), 582 people sat down to dinner at the Hall of Fame Induction, with another 70 standing-room folks at the back of the room. Rick Moulton reports that the Film Festival filled 2,000 seats at the Sun Valley Opera House for six evenings straight, and 250 people attended the Jerry Awards on Tuesday night. I don't yet know how many middle-aged adolescents attended the K2-Head-Scott reunion, but I personally trod on the toes of several hundred at the Wet Tee Shirt Contest, held at Whiskey Jacques on Thursday night.

How many people attended?  The permanent population of Ketchum is 3,500, which seems a reasonable estimate.

Beekley Memorial Lecture

The Mason Beekley Memorial Lecture, an annual fixture of Skiing Heritage Week, was conducted this year as a panel discussion on the subject of ski racing on television. Featured speakers were veteran NBC sportscasters Tim Ryan and Christin Cooper, and the session was moderated by ISHA president John Fry and Tom Kelly of the U.S. Ski Team. The burning question: Why do the television networks no longer carry live coverage of ski racing?

Tim Ryan and Christin Cooper
Ryan and Cooper explained the economics, which boil down to increased competition for commercially-valuable air time and reduced budgets for crew travel. Then Cooper made a passionate case for the idea that a tape delay gives the broadcast team the chance to turn ski racing into a better show. They can select the significant runs, and explain what they’re seeing.

During the actual race, Cooper said, she’s busy making sense of what’s happening on the hill. “I use all the technology available,” she said. “I use Skype to call the coaches on the hill to ask if the snow is softening and the course getting slower. Why is the race unfolding the way it is? Then I have a two-hour window to compose the story.”

Part of the problem in preparing a story is that the athletes don’t have time during the season to talk to the press. The World Cup schedule is just too tight.

Ryan pointed out that television is all about audience. Alpine ski racing is still the number two Olympic sport for TV viewership in the United States, he said, behind figure skating. To build an audience, it’s critically important to develop athletes with star quality. “Lindsey Vonn typifies the media-savvy athlete who explains herself to the audience,” Cooper said. “Bode Miller had to learn how to do that, and he was unpopular until he did. Athletes today are aware of how much they owe to the sport, and to the fans.”

Ryan elaborated. “America is celebrity-driven, and the athletes know it. The FIS doesn’t get it. If they want an audience, they have to focus attention on how great the athletes are.”

Cooper thinks the FIS has plenty of opportunity to build ski racing into great television. “Slalom under the lights, at night, is a slam dunk,” she said. “It’s a stadium, with thousands of cheering fans. What a party! I’m a huge fan of dual slalom. The guys with great fundamentals do well, and it’s a show the average viewer understands.”

Cooper is also a fan of Universal Sports, which streams live ski racing on the Internet. “They also run (remote) Skype interviews with all the athletes, from their hotel rooms – five to ten minutes of good talk,” she said.

Movers and Shakers

The annual Movers and Shakers event, held Wednesday evening at the Ketchum Public Library, was emceed as usual by Doug Pfeiffer. In honor of the venue, the program kicked off with a showing of Otto Lang’s 1947 film Skifully Yours, and highlights included colorful reminiscences by Nelson Bennett, 96, one of the original Sun Valley ski patrollers, and Ralph Harris, a longtime fixture in the Sun Valley Ski School whose drawings illustrated SKI Magazine’s ski instructional features for many years.

ISHA Awards

On Friday evening, ISHA held its annual Awards Banquet, honoring the creators of the year’s top books and films on ski-history subjects.

Tim Ryan received a Lifetime Achievement Award for broadcast journalism for his work telecasting major ski races since 1980, including several Olympics and World Championships. He graciously thanked the racers who have worked with him over the years providing “color,” including Billy Kidd, Todd Brooker and his current on-screen partners, Christin Cooper and Steve Porino.

Dick Dorworth, another Sun Valley local, accepted an Ullr Award for his book The Perfect Turn and Other Tales of Skiing and Skiers, a collection of short pieces (reviewed in the March-April issue of Skiing Heritage). The essays (and one short story) reflect on the people and mountains, the lives and deaths that have touched Dorworth across half a century of skiing at the very highest levels.

Stephen Waterhouse accepted an Ullr Award for the book Passion for Skiing, the result of the Dartmouth Ski History Project. Waterhouse raised the money to support publication of this history of Dartmouth skiing, edited the content and wrote the first chapter, which recounts the story of Fred Harris, founder of the Dartmouth Outing Club.

The Kitzbuehel Ski Club sent a delegation to accept an Ullr Award for Hahnenkamm: The Chronicle of a Myth, detailing the 100-year history of the classic downhill race. Half the book is devoted to turn-by-turn and racer-by-racer accounts of every HK race since 1931.

Frequent Skiing Heritage contributor E. John B. Allen accepted an Ullr Award, in part on behalf of his co-author Egon Theiner, for 100 Years of International Skiing, a history of the FIS. The book breaks new ground in a well-researched section on early alpine events and the formation of competition rules.

Arthur Haechler of the European Broadcasting Union accepted an ISHA Film Award for 100 Years FIS, a collage of film clips drawn from the entire history of skiing competition. The 20-minute film was commissioned by FIS to help celebrate its 100th anniversary.

Dave Irons accepted a Skade Award for Sunday River, a history of the Maine resort. The ski area opened in 1959, after locals raised $90,000 to build a T-bar, rope tow and base lodge, aided by a $40,000 grant from the Small Business Administration. It grew into the major driver of local business, with 590,000 skier visits annually.

James Benelli, a veteran bartender, ski patroller and instructor, accepted a Skade Award for Ski Tales: The History of China Peak and Sierra Summit. The resort launched in 1958, and Benelli arrived in 1960. He prefaced his speech by pointing out that most of his writing is humor, and that brevity is the soul of wit. He earned the warm gratitude of the audience by delivering the shortest speech of the evening.

As the evening wound down, John Fry and Barry Stone each accepted an ISHA Service Award in recognition of years of hard work to help ISHA grow and prosper.

Hall of Fame Induction

On Saturday night, the week climaxed with the U.S. National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.

Carol Holding spoke on behalf of Earl Holding, who revitalized Sun Valley after purchasing the resort in 1977, and went on to do the same for Utah’s Snow Basin, where he turned a small ski area into a world-class venue for the 2002 Olympic speed events. She thanked “everyone in this room for the support and loyalty you’ve given to our Sun Valley.”

Bobby Cochran, Hahnenkamm combined champion and 1972 Olympian, charmed the crowd with good-spirited and self-deprecating humor. “I wrote out a speech, but I’m a physician and I can’t read any of this,” he began. Referring to the fact that his sisters Marilyn and Barbara Ann had preceded him into the Hall of Fame, Cochran noted “I’ve recently heard the term ‘girled,’ which is apparently an insult meaning ‘You got beat by a girl.’ Well, I got girled every day.”

Muffy Davis, a local junior racer who shattered her spine in a downhill training crash in 1989, went on to win several paralympic medals, a World Championship and seven World Cup titles. She burst into tears while thanking her family, coaches and the community for their support in her recovery and career.

Daron Rahlves, winner of 12 World Cup races including the Hahnenkamm, and Super G World Champion, recalled beginning his racing career on the NASTAR course at Alpine Meadows. He thanked his coaches, his wife, and his ski tuner, Willie Wiltz.

Extreme skier Shane McConkey was honored posthumously for his roles in promoting competitive freeskiing and the design of “rocker” skis, and for his film career. The honor was accepted by his widow, Sherry.

Glen Plake, another extreme skier, has parlayed his film career into a platform for promoting the sport at small venues across the country. In the process he has become, arguably, the most recognizable skier of his era. His talk served as a bridge to the final event of the evening, presentation of medals to 80 Pioneers of Freestyle Skiing.

The party went on into the early morning hours.

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