Wednesday, February 8, 2006
The invisible leather belt tightened around Billy Kidd's chest, choking his breath and momentarily paralyzing the legs that eventually would lead him to a silver medal in the slalom.
It was 1964, and Kidd stood at the top of the downhill course in Innsbruck, Austria. He had skied one of the fastest training runs, and he drew the No. 1 slot for the downhill race.
He had mentally prepared for this moment for the past four years, but all the preparation in the world couldn't ready Kidd for his first Olympic competition.
"You try to tell yourself it's just another competition, but it isn't," Kidd said recently from his office at the base of the Steamboat Ski Area.
"The starter said '60 seconds,' and I stepped into the starting gates. There were 50,000 people just staring at me, and it was eerily silent.
"It really hit me that this was the Olympics. I couldn't breathe."
Kidd's first Olympic run proved that even the best athletes can be reduced to a buttery ball of nerves under the intense spotlight of the Winter Games.
"The pressure got to me. The first four turns I was not good at all. I finished, but I didn't do very well."
Ten days later and comfortable with the pressures of the competition, Kidd skied well enough to win a silver medal, America's first in an Alpine ski event. Teammate Jimmy Heuga won the bronze.
Six years later, Kidd won gold in the 1970 World Championships, but "it was the Olympic medal that changed my life."
Although Kidd's Oly--mpic success may be unique for the thousands of American children who grow up dreaming of Olympic glory, his memories aren't. Talk to almost any former Olympian and wonder at how easily the memories of their experience in the Winter Games float back to the surface.
"I think being in the Olympics burns an indelible memory," Kidd said. "The experience of being in the Olympics, whether you win medals or not, is like nothing else."
Steamboat's Gary Crawford, the son of two-time Olympian Marvin Crawford, competed in the 1980 and 1988 Winter Olympics.
A Nordic combined athlete, Crawford vividly remembers the 1980 Olympics held in Lake Placid, N.Y. But like many Olympians, some of his fondest memories have little to do with his own athletic feats.
During the opening ceremonies in Lake Placid, Crawford and his American teammates entered an arena full of 50,000 spectators cheering wildly for their countrymen.
"Growing up, we had a family whistle," Crawford recalled recently. "My parents were in the stands, and there were 50,000 people there, but when we walked in, I heard our family whistle out of this huge crowd. We picked each other out, and it was so neat."
Crawford also was witness to one of this country's most famous sporting achievements -- the "Miracle on Ice" hockey game, during which the U.S. team shocked the world with an upset of the heavily favored Russians. The U.S. would go on to defeat Finland in the gold-medal game.
Crawford, an Olympian, was just another spectator during the game.
"It was unbelievable," he said. "The energy (in the arena) was just incredible. Even if you weren't yelling, the hair was just standing up on your arms."
Although many say the annual World Cup circuit is more competitive than the Olympics because of the fewer athletes allowed to compete in the once-every-four-year spectacle, Crawford and others cherish the significance of the Winter Games.
"The mood is different," Crawford said. "It's just an incredible thing to be a part of.
"There aren't many that can make the team. These guys put in a lot of time and hard work and effort to achieve their goals. It's not about money. It's in your heart, and it's in the pride."
Sven Wiik is the rare individual able to take part in both the Summer and Winter Games. Wiik, a Steamboat resident and former owner of the Steamboat Ski Touring Center, was a member of the 1948 Swedish gymnastics team. But gymnastics was not an Olympic sport in 1948, so Wiik and his teammates attended the Games to provide demonstrations of their sport.
"It was a fantastic experience," Wiik recalled. "There's nothing greater than the Olympic Games."
The 1948 Summer Olympics, held in London, were special for the historical moment during which they took place. The world still was recovering from the devastation wrought by World War II. It was particularly true for London, which had suffered considerable damage during the war.
"The world came together," Wiik said. "They had one thing in mind, and that was to try to heal the damage that had been done."
In 1960, Wiik was the U.S. Ski Team's cross-country coach for the Squaw Valley, Calif., games.
"Whether you're a coach, an official or an athlete, you enjoy the same type of experience," Wiik said. "You can be a part of almost everything."
For Wiik, the Olympics provided young men and women a chance to travel the world and meet new people. The memories he collected as an athlete and a coach will never leave him.
"It's just so hard to describe," he said. "It's not a matter of winning or losing, it's a matter of taking part."
This month, more than a dozen athletes with ties to Steamboat Springs will take part in the Winter Olympics.
And as Steamboat's newest group of Olympians prepare to take the international stage in Turin, Italy, Kidd, Crawford, Wiik and many others will watch with pride.
But only those select few who were fortunate enough to take part in one of sports' greatest showcases will truly know what it is like to walk into a packed stadium during Opening Ceremonies or stand alone in the starting gates with the eyes of the world on their shoulders.
"Take it all in and enjoy as much of the Olympic feeling and spirit as you can, but you have to stay focused and remember why you're there."
And when these games are all said and done, memories will be the one thing every Olympian will bring home.