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The Snow and Mr. Eriksen

Stein Eriksen on skis at Deer Valley in Utah
Photo caption
Stein Eriksen takes to the slopes in Deer Valley, Utah.

So how did a pretty little Utah ski area called Deer Valley, known for its ego-building runs, gold bathroom fixtures, and rich snow bunnies, grab the men's and women's slalom, aerial, and mogul events at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games? The answer may have something to do with the presence of a grand old Olympian named Stein Eriksen, one of the most charismatic figures in the history of skiing. Fifty years ago, Eriksen came out of nowhere and stunned the world with his grace, good looks, and astounding speed on the slopes, winning gold and silver medals for Norway at the 1952 Oslo Olympic Games. The 2002 Games have yet to begin, but Eriksen has already pocketed a different kind of prize: a showcase for the rustic gem of a resort he helped found almost two decades ago.

Norwegians, it was thought in the years before and after World War II, were sturdy cross-country skiers. Very admirable, certainly, but no threat in what the Austrians and the Swiss tended to think of as real ski races. These, of course, were the downhill, slalom, and giant slalom, the legendary alpine events. Alpine racers, it was assumed, were born and learned to ski in the Alps. Moreover, during the war, the occupying Germans restricted skiing in Norway because Resistance fighters were using skis to collect supply drops flown from England. Teenage racers set up slalom gates and trained illegally, but it wasn't enough. At the 1948 Winter Games in Saint Moritz, the inexperienced Norwegians couldn't judge speed on the big runs; they fell.

Two years later, things began to change when Eriksen, then a flashy Norwegian gymnast who skied with a fluid, legs-together style that he seemed to have invented himself, won a bronze medal in slalom at the World Championships in Aspen.

Still, it came as a shock to the ski world—the races and racers that skiers call "the white circus"—when, at the 1952 Olympics in Oslo, Eriksen won the gold in giant slalom and the silver in slalom. Two years later, he ruled the World Championships in Åre, Sweden, winning gold medals in slalom, giant slalom, and combined, a three-event category that included the downhill.

And then Stein Eriksen moved to the United States to teach Americans to ski. He presided as celebrity skimeister at a succession of resorts, beginning with Michigan's Boyne Mountain. He moved on to Heavenly Valley, Calif.; Vermont's trendy Sugarbush; and Aspen and Snowmass in Colorado. In 1981, he came to Utah's brand-new Deer Valley resort, lending his name to its plush lodge, which opened the following year.

We Americans, it should be said, needed his help. Ski instruction when Eriksen arrived on the scene was in its "Bend zee knees, five dollars please" phase. Newspapers dispatched fearless reporters to write stories that amounted to "I went skiing and fell down a lot." Skis were long and wooden, boots leather and squishy, technique a shaky and hard-to-learn matter of grinding skis through turns by rotating the hips.

To "Ski like Stein!" as a slogan quite impossibly urged, meant to ski gracefully, always in balance, legs together, seducing the mountain rather than fighting it. Nothing wrong with trying to fake a little grace. But as more than one striver with snow in his ears and lost sunglasses grumbled: Nobody skis like Stein. Nobody looked as stylish as Eriksen in a ski poster. For the baby boom generation, skiing began to seem romantic, and Stein was skiing—or rather, he was what skiing should be, minus sprains, frostbite, and eggbeater falls.

A wise-guy reporter for the Saturday Evening Post described the ski school director at Sugarbush in 1967: "He is easily the most flamboyant figure in U.S. skiing. . . . He has blond hair and blue eyes, and his dazzle could not be greater if the colors were reversed."

Of course, the unnecessarily handsome fellow was Stein Eriksen. I was the writer, a half-good civilian skier respectful of Eriksen's medals but thoroughly awed by the fact that he skied, always, in a sweater. And without a cap. And smiling. Didn't this guy understand hypothermia?

And then there was the flip. Every Sunday afternoon Eriksen came down the Sugarbush exhibition slope at speed (wearing his usual 220-centimeter skis), elevated off a small snow kicker, flew for 30 or 40 feet—good hang time—and flipped head over heels in a beautiful forward swan dive. This was astonishing. Teenage freestylers throw triple backward flips these days, and other skiers had done somersaults even then. But for us, the flip was Stein's.

The flip and the flash carried Stein a long way, and in his unmarried days he had a reputation common to ski instructors. "It was a different time," he recalls somewhat mistily, not exactly addressing the issue, not exactly not. "To be a ski instructor then, ah, that was it . . ." He rolls his eyes upward.

He guesses that he has taught some half-million Americans to ski. Many of these, one gathers, have been adoring women. As the developer of Boyne Mountain told Harper's in 1966: "This business is built on sex, sex, sex. It's sex that brings young men and women up here and sex that brings them back. Stein knew what they wanted; they wanted him bareheaded in a bright sweater."

He also just happened to be, the story noted, "the best skier in the world."

Eriksen is showing a visitor around his big new house near Deer Valley. On a wall of mementos is a photo of a young flier at the cockpit of a World War II Spitfire. Ten swastikas, for German planes shot down, are painted on the fuselage. Eriksen explains that the airman is his older brother Marius, who escaped from Norway in a fishing boat at the outset of the war and at 17 enlisted in the Royal Air Force. He was shot down over Holland and survived two years in a prison camp. "He is the hero," Stein says.

Eriksen is 72, with wavy, silver yellow hair—no, don't ask—and his eyes are the same startling blue. At a guess, he is a bit lighter than when he raced, pared down by time. As Deer Valley's ski director, he's on the slopes 80 or 90 days a year. Not all day, only two or three hours, but still with grace, still flattering guests at his namesake lodge by saying, "Come on, let's take a run, let's run some gates."

The Stein Eriksen Lodge, which is adding 40 new rooms for the 2002 Games, is comfortably luxurious, tucked into a valley a few feet from Deer Valley's lifts. Rates run from $500 to forget it. A one-bedroom suite cossets guests with—in addition to the gold knobs in the two loos—a Jacuzzi, a kitchen, two fireplaces, and, for those unexpected guests, a bed that swings down out of what looks like a 16th-century armoire. The Glitretind restaurant is a short toddle through the lobby. Order buffalo steak with foie gras. Bring money.

If you want to work the shine off your credit card and can swing reservations during the Games, you can sit in a private hot tub with a view that lets you ogle Olympians training for the slalom, recalling, as you do, that Stein—you call him Stein by now—was talking wistfully the day before about the harsh nature of today's slalom racing, as skiers bash pop-up gates flat with armored forearms.

"The way we did it was more graceful," he says. "We had to turn around those old bamboo poles, not ski through them. But we were breaking too many." He remembers one year—"thank goodness, only one"—when racers used rigid aluminum gates. "We were all black and blue," Stein says.

The Salt Lake Organizing Committee denies that Eriksen's stature influenced its decision to bring high-profile Olympic events to Deer Valley. But his presence there will give the races uncommon historical resonance. Eriksen will almost certainly be what is called an "Olympic Ambassador," waving at all his friends in the white circus and talking a half century's ski history with the overwhelming array of officials, unofficials, and VIPs that the Games collect. Schmoozing like Stein.

Some of the talk will be about the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, where Eriksen helped carry the Olympic flag at the opening ceremonies. Most of us who were there thought the Lillehammer Games were close to perfect. Meters of snow fell before the Games and the sun shone every day during the competition. Norway, being small, could not afford a monstrous Olympic spread. Corporate logo plastering was minimal. The little town of Lillehammer did not metastasize.

Best of all, the Norwegians seemed to have a great time at their own party. Fans without car permits hiked to the racecourses singing songs, hurrahed until the last straggler crossed the finish line, then hiked back down to town, some even sliding on plastic garbage bags. Flash-frozen cops directing traffic waved cheerfully.

How much of this felicity can be repeated in 2002 is a question. A big country probably can't have a small Olympics. Park City, the sprawling resort town of which Deer Valley is a satellite, is already swollen by new construction.

But Deer Valley will still be a village. And unlike big resorts and their ultraserious skiers, who may not welcome the disruption that an Olympics brings, Deer Valley's customers tend to be prosperous and less than hard-core. They probably won't mind interrupting their skiing to sit in their hot tubs and watch.

After half a century, Eriksen is about to win another Olympics.

Photography by Deer Valley Resort

This article was first published in November 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.