Steamboat Springs Family and friends of two-time Olympian Chris McNeill remembered him Monday as a loving family man who always gave 110 percent and encouraged those around him with his ever-present desire to learn.
“He always tried to help me learn,” daughter Dori McNeill said Monday. “He always wanted to absorb as much information as he could.”
Those who were closest to the family still were in shock Monday after the sudden death of 56-year-old McNeill. He was a two-time Winter Olympian, a father and a husband who split his time between winters in Steamboat Springs and summers in Dillon, Mont.
Routt County Coroner Rob Ryg said McNeill was headed to Saturday morning’s Winter Carnival street events with his brother-in-law when he started feeling ill. His brother-in-law decided to drive directly to Yampa Valley Medical Center, but McNeill passed out before they arrived.
Family members said McNeill had not been feeling well the past several days and had seen a doctor. Ryg said McNeill died from a pulmonary embolism, which is a blockage of the main artery of the lung or one of its branches, after arriving at the hospital.
“We are still in shock,” said Gary Crawford, a former U.S. Ski Team Nordic combined jumper who traveled, trained and competed with McNeill. He remembers McNeill as a great competitor who always was willing to encourage young athletes at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club through his words and his actions.
“He was one of the strongest guys I’ve ever known,” Crawford said. “He would do upside-down pushups in the gym, and nobody got higher off the takeoff when we were jumping than he did.”
Rick DeVos, executive director of the Winter Sports Club, said the news of McNeill’s death came as a surprise to everyone. DeVos said McNeill has been involved with the club throughout the years, and his daughter Dori is a member of the cross-country program. She was an attendant in Winter Carnival celebration and attended the night events after learning about her father’s death.
“I did it for him,” Dori McNeill said. “He would have wanted it that way.”
DeVos said he visited with McNeill last Wednesday as the proud father escorted Dori during the carnival’s opening ceremonies.
“It’s just so hard to believe,” DeVos said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his friends and the entire McNeill family.”
McNeill grew up in Steamboat and worked for the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. for the past 25 years. He began as a ski instructor at the ski area, and in 1996, he became a special coach for the Billy Kidd Race Camp.
“He was a true coach,” McNeill’s wife, Lenny, said. “He was a born coach that loved to see athletes reach their full potential.”
He managed the program from 1998 to 2000. In 2001, McNeill returned to instructing and continued to oversee the Billy Kidd Race Camp for the ski area. He also was a videographer for special ski groups such as the Women’s Ski Camps, Crescent Ski Club and many others.
“Being Olympic athletes, Chris McNeill and I shared a common bond and a passion for skiing and the outdoors,” Billy Kidd said. “I saw him share every day that same dedication in the Billy Kidd Performance Center, taking the time to help people ski better, enjoy the slopes and life. His influence in skiing was a model for future generations and brought credibility, honor and tradition to the Ski Town USA legacy.”
McNeill graduated from Steamboat Springs High School in 1972. He excelled at athletics throughout high school, playing football and wrestling. But his true talent showed on the jump hill, where he won the junior national championship in 1972 before taking a spot on the U.S. Ski Team from 1972 to 1980.
McNeill represented the United States as a special jumper at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, and at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., where he placed 23rd in the 70-meter jump.
Roger Perricone worked with McNeill at Steamboat Ski Area, and said he was one of the good guys who brought the same skills he used as an Olympian to the Billy Kidd Race Camp. He said his energy level, his dedication and his commitment made the Billy Kidd Race Camp what it is today.
“He was one of those guys who had the experience he needed to do just about anything,” Perricone said. “He was a hard worker, and he never wanted to put anyone out.”
When he wasn’t in Steamboat Springs, McNeill spent his summers in Montana, where the McNeill family has owned and operated Diamond Hitch Outfitters since 1972. His family said McNeill loved training horses and mules, and as an outfitter he provided backcountry tours and excursions.
A celebration of his life is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at Olympian Hall at Howelsen Hill. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial donations be made in Chris' name to the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.