Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs Leif Hovelsen, who died in Oslo, Norway, on Sept. 18 at age 88, was an honorary resident of Steamboat Springs if ever there was one.
Leif (pronounced “life”) was the son of Carl Howelsen, a Norwegian ski champion who taught locals in 1913 that skiing could be a form of recreation, then established the first Winter Carnival in 1914. Carl, who died in 1955, set in motion this community’s enduring romance with competitive skiing in all its forms. In particular, he built the first ski jumps here and taught local youngsters how to soar over the snow.
Leif took an enduring interest in the little Rocky Mountain community that has cherished and kept Carl’s tradition alive. And he’s done his part by giving us the gift of a biography of his father, “The Flying Norseman,” published by the National Ski Hall of Fame in 1983.
One of my favorite pages in the book contains five photographs of Carl ski jumping in Hot Sulphur Springs, Steamboat Springs and outside Denver. The book also includes a photograph of the log home in which Carl lived in Strawberry Park from 1913 to 1921.
But Leif’s own story is interesting in its own right, and far different than his father’s, who was a stone mason by trade.
While he embodies his father in many ways, his story also transcends that of his father. As a teenager during World War II, Leif aided the Norwegian resistance by smuggling shortwave radios out of his city. He rolled them up in a sleeping bag and took them into the countryside on his bicycle.
When a friend betrayed him to the Nazis, Leif was pulled from his parents’ home, imprisoned in Oslo and later transferred to a concentration camp. There, his tormentors tried repeatedly to break his will by telling him that his death was imminent. He told me he achieved a level of tranquility by accepting that he would not survive the ordeal. He emerged as a young man greatly changed by the experience.
“I felt like I had been given my life,” he recalled in the 2009 documentary “Out of the Evil Night,” by Routt County’s F.M. Vandergrift and Cynthia Rutledge. “After a thing like that, you cannot be indifferent. You have to do something.”
While Carl traveled to Norway to see his ailing parents in 1922, where he met his future wife and never returned to Steamboat, it was Leif, in his later years, who embodied the genesis of competitive skiing here.
It’s no coincidence that today’s American Nordic combined Olympians enjoy a rousing welcome from Norwegian ski fans when they take part in Norway’s annual Holmenkollen ski festival. And it’s no coincidence that the Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival is deeply ingrained in local culture after almost 100 years. (The 99th Winter Carnival will be held Feb. 8 to 12.)
In a letter I received from Leif datelined Oslo, 16 Feb. 1994 (during the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer), he described his pleasure at seeing two Americans win gold medals in Alpine skiing. “One day, youngsters from Steamboat Springs will also win some gold medals, I believe,” he wrote.
I’ll let Leif describe in his own words the essence of skiing and jumping in an excerpt from “The Flying Norseman”:
“Sweeping down a slope, curving gracefully into a turn while the wind whistles past your ears and a cloud of powder snow shoots into the air — down, down, faster and faster, feeling your skis skimming lightly through the white surface of snow at top speed like a hydrofoil on the blue sea, still body and skis under control … does something to you.
“Sailing like a bird in space, stretching out and resting on the air, then landing on the out-run and carving to a stop … does something to you.”
I promise you Leif, we know exactly what you mean.