Tom Ross' column appears Tuesdays and Saturdays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs Skiing great John Clendenin came to Steamboat on Dec. 3 and reminded us what the word “free” in freestyle skiing meant in 1974.
Back in the wild and woolly days of freestyle, freedom stood for self-expression, creativity and flying through the moguls on the ragged edge of crashing.
Clendenin was the two-time World Freestyle Skiing Champion in 1973 at Sun Valley and 1974 at Heavenly Valley in an era when all competitive freestyle skiers were professional and those at the top of the sport lived more like rock stars than do today’s Olympic athletes. It also was an era when competitive freestylers took part in three distinct disciplines: moguls, ballet and aerials.
Today, Clendenin runs his own instructional ski camps in Aspen. During his visit to Steamboat, he delighted a packed house at Library Hall with his memories of how professional freestyle was born and exploded onto the national scene only to fade quickly away.
The most eye-opening part of the evening was the screening of a re-edited version of Bill Burks’ documentary film, "Winter Equinox," chronicling all the wild action on the ski slopes and afterward on the 1974 Freestyle Skiing Pro Tour, from Waterville Valley to Park City, Sun Valley, Jackson Hole and Heavenly Valley.
What stunned me most was how ragged the bump skiing was in the era when I first showed up in Steamboat (1975) as a clueless Midwestern kid with stiff giant slalom skis and very little actual skiing ability. Compared to today’s Olympic mogul champions, the pros in "Winter Equinox" were off balance and fighting to stay on their skis a good part of the run. But it sure was exciting to watch. For my money, the bump skiers of the 1970s and the bump skiers of today are thrilling to behold.
Clendenin said his approach to skiing then and now is to manage speed.
“Think of skiing as a stage,” Clendenin urged his audience. “When Alpine had its grip on the world, to become a (ski) hero, it was whoever could cross the stage the fastest. When I was growing up, Billy Kidd was the man. He was the best skier in North America.”
America’s notion of skiing heroes began to change in the early 70s, Clendenin said, when the late ski cinematographer Dick Barrymore began filming impromptu “hot dog” skiing competitions in places like Aspen.
Barrymore once announced, “We’re going to see who’s the best skier in this town on the baddest run in Aspen, and we’re going to put on a hot dog competition,” Clendenin recalled. The next day, 100 competitors and as many as 3,000 spectators showed up at The Ridge of Death to see who could get down the slope in the most spectacular fashion.
“The stage of skiing changed with that event,” Clendenin said. “It was, who could make the most exciting run on the stage? Who could jump the highest? Excitement became a key factor.”
Barrymore rounded up some of the most dynamic skiers he knew and took them on a van tour making films like “The Performers.”
By 1974, the freestyle tour had TV contracts and national sponsors, including Chevrolet and Midas.
“We had 1,000 certified competitors," Clendenin said, "and the main thing we had, was we had a party at every place we ever had a competition.”
In all three events, managing speed was the key issue in Clendenin’s mind.
In freestyle aerials, the pros of the 1970s launched off three jumps in succession.
“Managing your speed was absolutely essential,” Clendenin said. “In moguls, you had to go right up to the edge of just hanging on. In ballet, you had to be one with momentum.”
The pro freestyle tour came undone quickly after a couple of serious accidents involving aerials where the host ski areas took the blame because they built the jumps that the accidents happened on.
The sponsors and the television contracts went away seemingly overnight.
Freestyle regrouped with safer events — Clendenin says the essentials of his design for an aerial jump with a safer transition and landing still are used today — but ballet was a casualty, and Clendenin laments the fact that freestyle skiers have become specialists. Today, they are mogul skiers or high-flying aerialists but not both.
But the untamed nature of freestyle in its early days is still there to behold in a few documentary films like "Winter Equinox."
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com