Billy Kidd’s 1964 Olympic medal paved the way for American skiers
February 9, 2014
Sochi, Russia — Billy Kidd stood poised in the starting gate at the opening event of the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria; he was sure this was his moment.
He'd had the fastest time in qualifying. He was confident and truly thought that the downhill event was the one in which an American would break through and earn a spot on the medals podium.
But then, at just 20 and in his first Olympic Games, Kidd couldn't feel his legs. Never one to notice the crowd, Kidd's eyes scanned the sides of the runs.
Kidd knew he wanted to open it up as much as he could and look for more speed. In the downhill, he said, there isn't any other way.
But days earlier on the same exact course, Austrian skier Ross Milne died in a training run. Lose control, Kidd said, and a crash may not just mean the loss of a medal.
All these pressures and fears rushed from Kidd's toes through his ankles, up his calves and numbed this thighs.
Always analytical about a course, Kidd's head was a jumbled mess.
"It felt like I was wearing a leather strap around my chest," he said. "My knees were weak. I thought I was going to fall down in the start gate. My first three to four turns were horrible. Finally, I snapped back into it and finished 16th. In the downhill, the pressure got to me."
In 1964, no American male had won an Olympic Alpine medal. But this was a team for the ages.
Kidd, Bill Marolt, Jimmie Heuga and Buddy Werner were on the men's side.
"We needed a breakthrough desperately," said Bob Beattie, who coached that U.S. Alpine team. "With our goals in the early '60s, we needed some success."
The downhill did not produce any American medals, and four days later, the U.S. men again failed to win a medal in the giant slalom.
It came down to one last chance for the American skiers — a slalom event Feb. 8, 1964, the last day of the Winter Games.
"This was our chance," Beattie said. "Every little hill in America is a possibility for a slalom guy. Fortunately, we had the last event of the Olympics because after that, we didn't have any other chances."
Once a generational team
Kidd, Marolt and Heuga were 20 years old at the 1964 games, while Werner served as the old man on the team at age 27.
The three young guys had met years earlier as freshmen in high school. Kidd was from Stowe, Vt., with Marolt from Aspen and Heuga from Squaw Valley, Calif. — all three growing up in different parts of the country but certainly aware of one another.
"The boys had a lot of fun," Beattie said. "They used to drive me crazy. I could get back at them when we were conditioning. If they got too crazy, I could punish them."
Kidd came to Colorado when he was 14. Alpine racing wasn't well known in the states, but for Kidd, it became an instant passion.
He was 5 years old when he started skiing. He began racing when he was 12, the year his family moved from Burlington to Stowe.
In Stowe, two afternoons a week, skiers would leave school early to go skiing. If they didn't go skiing, they had to go to study hall.
Needless to say, everyone went skiing, Kidd said.
"I was 14 walking through (Idlewild Airport, now known as John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City) with skis on my shoulder," Kidd said. "People were asking me what these things were. The average person in the city didn't know what skis were."
By 1962, the goals for the 1964 games had been set. Beattie and the team made a decision to train with the French team in Val d'Isere. It was at a time when the Europeans and Americans didn't always agree, especially when it came to seeding.
Unlike today, seeding wasn't based on results. Instead, it was completely arbitrary.
"Every time there was a fight, we were right in the middle of it," Beattie said. "We had to defend the U.S. position. We got a lot of press, and it made for a colorful Olympics."
And after the initial failures in the downhill and the giant slalom, only the slalom remained.
Moment in history
To Marolt, it seemed odd.
The team didn't have race technicians, so the day before the slalom, the team was sharpening and waxing its own skis.
The rest of the team was done — all except for Kidd.
Kidd "took twice as long (working on his skis). He spent his time thinking about the next day of the race," Marolt said. "It applies to not only getting skis ready. Preparing for a big event, he was very analytical and thought about how he stood on his skis. Technically, he was solid and sound, but it goes back to his ability to focus and concentrate. That was a huge difference maker."
Kidd wasn't nervous this time. He had studied the course from top to bottom, and still, 50 years later, Kidd is able to recite the terrain and gate patterns. He specifically recalled a stretch about 15 seconds from the finish in the slalom that was the key to everything. There was a delay that required skiers to slow down and then get on edge before the final push.
Kidd's second run put him in second place behind Austrian Pepi Stiegler. After Heuga came down next and was in third, America finally had its first medals in men's Alpine.
"You would memorize numbers in different languages," Kidd said. "You would look up at the scoreboard, and they'd announce the time before they'd put it up. It seemed to take forever. But that moment changed our lives forever.
"It's pretty exciting to be second in the world," Kidd said. "But I spent the next six years not trying to be second. I wanted to be the best."
Toward the future
No one's life on that team ever would be the same.
Kidd purchased his first cowboy hat at age 14 on his way out to Colorado. He thought with a name like Billy Kidd, he needed that hat.
Things rapidly changed for Kidd after he won his Olympic silver medal. By 1970, he added a World Championship gold medal in the combined event.
"To get that close at 20 years old, you realize a silver is a great accomplishment," he said. "But I wanted gold. You don't have the rest of your life to chase gold. To have that goal of trying to take something really good like a silver and improve on that — that's what I'm most proud of."
Kidd was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1965 and 1968. He was on Johnny Carson and the cover of Life magazine.
He'd gone from unrecognizable young man to a notable celebrity.
On a 1969 trip to Bora Bora, Kidd rode a bike around the island all day. It started to rain so he popped into a grass shack for a beer. The barkeep was asking questions.
"He asked if I was American, if I had ever been to Europe, if I had ever been to France and if I had ever been to the mountains in France," Kidd said. "Finally, he said, 'Are you Billy Kidd?'"
The impact on the U.S. Ski Team was also indelible. What that group of 20-year-olds accomplished in 1964 changed the landscape for American men's Alpine skiing going forward.
Heuga became a champion for multiple sclerosis, which took his life in 2010. His foundation, MS Can Do, was formed in 1984 and still is going strong today.
Marolt went on to serve as U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association president, overseeing America's most successful Winter Olympics.
Kidd moved to Steamboat in 1970 after graduating from the University of Colorado in 1969 with an economics degree. He hoped to eventually get his MBA, but the snow, the position as Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.'s director of skiing and that iconic cowboy hat just seemed to fit so well in Steamboat.
Eventually, an American men's skier would have medaled, but by doing so in Austria, at such a young age, Kidd's defining slalom runs changed the mentality of the team going forward.
"That time is part of your personality," said Marolt, who is participating in his last Olympics as president of the U.S. Ski Team. "It's part of the way you live every day. It's a great time to be part of great memories like that. That was the start of an era 50 years ago.
"It was a landmark time," Marolt continued. "It was like Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile. Once it was done, it gave everybody confidence it had been done and could be done. From there, there wasn't a person involved that made a team that didn't think they could do it."