Carnival grand marshal 'comes full circle'

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— Lonny Vanatta has skied the circuit both literally and figuratively, and no one could be more proud of him than his wife, Pam.

Pam and Lonny Vanatta are the grand marshals of this year's Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival. For Lonny, the kid who began competitive skiing at Howelsen Hill before he was old enough to ride a bicycle, becoming Winter Carnival grand marshal truly represents coming full circle.

"When Lonny called and told me the news, I almost got tears in my eyes," Pam said. "It was so great for him. He's been involved in the Winter Sports Club for so long he's been skiing at Howelsen Hill since he was 3."

Lonny got his start in the Little Toots program at Howelsen, then rose through the ranks to the U.S. Ski Team and reached the heights of glory on the World Pro Ski Tour in the late '70s and early '80s. No professional American ski racer has eclipsed the accomplishments that Lonny realized.

Pam grew up on Denver's west side but came to Steamboat for the first time after graduating from the University of Northern Colorado in 1979.

"I came up here that summer and I was just going to see how I liked it," Pam recalls. Twenty-one years later, she is one of the leading Realtors in the valley.

Today, Lonny is in the midst of his 15th year of coaching young ski racers at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. He oversees a group of 52 athletes ranging in age from 9 to 12 but works most closely with a smaller group of 11- and 12-year-olds.

"I just really like that age of kids," Lonny said. "I think you can make an impression on them."

He said the hardest-working kids to come through the alpine ski program in recent years have made their mark on the U.S. Ski Team or are banging on the door. Among the skiers Lonny either coached or helped in their careers are Brett Buckles, David Lamb, Gaspar Perricone, Craig Thrasher, Andy Leroy and Scott Wither.

Lonny recalls that he couldn't get enough ski training as a youngster. He always looked forward to training from 4 to 6 p.m. every night after school.

And on nights when he didn't have homework, he would beg his parents to drive him back to Howelsen so he could ski under the lights. Among his coaches were Rudy and Karl Schnackenberg, Jim Annett, Loris Werner, Tom Cannon and Cactus Bryan. He also cites Dr. Hugh Richards as someone who always encouraged him.

Lonny skied on the U.S. Ski Team in 1976 and 1977. But at the age of 18, he decided to turn pro. Lonny immediately entered several Coors Series races, winning two and placing second in another. He didn't know if he could compete with the European World Cup champions on the larger World Pro Series, but when the tour came to Winter Park, he jumped into the race and surprised himself by making the round of 16.

Something about the dual format of the pro series ignited Lonny's competitive nature.

He quickly emerged as the top American on the tour, which featured purses in the five-figure range and more television exposure in those days than World Cup racing.

During a career that lasted from 1978 through 1984, Lonny won 20 professional races. He was the top American pro four years and captured the World Pro slalom title in 1981. His best overall ranking on the tour was third.

Most of the 11- and 12-year-olds he coaches today will never realize how well known Lonny Vanatta was in American ski racing during the early '80s. During the John Denver Pro-Am at Heavenly Valley, Calif., each winter, Lonny rubbed shoulders with movie stars, great boxers and NFL Hall-of-Famers.

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