Tom Ross: Steamboat’s great four-way skier

Wren made U.S. Olympic team in slalom and ski jumping

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

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Courtesy photo

Gordy and Jean Wren. In 1948, Gordy became the first American to ski jump more than 300 feet. He also was crowned the national giant slalom champion that same year.

At Home, Winter 2009-10

This story appears in the Winter 2009-10 edition of At Home in Steamboat Springs magazine. Find the magazine in racks across Steamboat. View the online edition of the magazine here.

Have you ever wondered who would win a four-way ski competition between Nordic combined World Champion Todd Lodwick and Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety?

Lodwick is a dominant Nordic skier and Ligety is perhaps the most versatile Alpine skier among American men.

By four-way ski competition, I mean one in which the athletes are required to compete in cross-country skiing, downhill and slalom racing and ski jumping.

Such a competition is unheard of today, but two generations ago, four-way skiers were fairly commonplace at the University of Colorado and Denver University. Steamboat Springs’ Gordy Wren might have been the greatest four-way skier America ever knew.

This is the age of specialization, but it’s fun to contemplate which of today’s skiing greats might excel in a four-way meet.

I wouldn’t underestimate Ligety for one-thousandth of a second. But logic tells me Lodwick would have an unfair advantage in ski jumping and cross-country skate skiing. Ligety is a certified speed demon in a giant slalom course and skis slalom and downhill well enough to have won the combined gold in Torino, Italy, in 2006.

However, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that Lodwick and Nordic combined teammates Bill Demong and Johnny Spillane are capable of skiing slalom and downhill courses and faring better than Ligety would in ski jumping and in a 10-kilometer skate race.

Of course, the debate is academic. Because you’ll never see such a match-up between two of America’s best medal hopes going into the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, in February 2010.

Just the same, if I had a time machine, I’d send Lodwick and Ligety back to 1948 so they could face off against the great Gordy Wren.

Gordy who?

I forgive you if you don’t remember Gordy Wren. He died Nov. 25, 1999, at age 80. As a competitor, coach and ski area manager, Gordy was one of the most influential personalities of his era in American skiing.

Wren qualified for Alpine and Nordic events in the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Try to imagine the contemporary athlete who could qualify for the Olympics in ski jumping, slalom skiing, downhill racing and ski jumping. Gordy Wren was the only American ever to pull off that feat.

Author Sureva Towler wrote in the “History of Skiing at Steamboat Springs” that Wren was born in Steamboat where his grandfather ran freight wagons over Buffalo Pass and his great uncle George was a skiing mailman.

I’d like to see a modern Olympian deliver the mail on skis.

Gordy’s father, Lawrence “Tuffy” Wren, was a rodeo cowboy who competed in ski jumping in Steamboat’s first Winter Carnival in 1914.

Gordy and his pal Barney McLean were training to compete on the U.S. Alpine Olympic team in 1940 when World War II canceled the Winter Games.

Instead, Wren joined the famed 10th Mountain Division and spent the war attached to Italian troops whom he taught mountain warfare, survival techniques and rock climbing. The soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division trained as ski troops, and Gordy was the acknowledged master of ski-waxing techniques.

In 1948, already a war veteran, Gordy once more prepared himself for the Olympics. He was good enough to be named to compete in all four events he tried out for. After arriving in St. Moritz, he decided not to compete in the Alpine events, but instead he chose to focus on cross-country skiing and jumping. The decision paid off as he placed fifth in ski jumping.

He returned to Howelsen Hill, where he became the first American to ski jump the length of a football field with an effort of 301 feet. That same year, he was crowned the national giant slalom champion.

That won’t happen in 2010.

Gordy coached the next generation of Olympians on Howelsen Hill and went on to have a career as a ski area manager. He was the ski area manager and an instructor at Mount Werner from 1967 to 1970, moving on to play similar roles at Loveland Basin, Jackson Hole, Winter Park and Alta, Utah.

His legacy is preserved in the national and Colorado ski halls of fame and in the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.

Gordy Wren will always have a unique place in the history of competitive skiing.

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