Ten Skiers Who Changed The Sport

A Note about these skiers… This list reflects the importance of “amateur” skiers who, by their participation, significantly promoted the sport. No professionals — racers, developers, instructors, manufacturers, architects, sponsored athletes — who directly profited from skiing or the ski industry are considered. Because this is strictly about non-professionals, this list will not include people such as Bob Beattie, Warren Miller, Stein Ericksen, Howard Head, and others who were closely aligned with the sport. This list is of people who derived no income from skiing. Three of the amateurs went on to develop or help develop ski resorts, but because they made a significant impact apart from that, they are listed.

Lowell Thomas • Broadcaster Although this man was best known to our grandparents, and probably our great-grandparents, his influence paved the way for the ski industry as we know it today. Lowell Thomas was a self-promoting travel writer, broadcaster, and creator of newsreels shown in movie theatres. Prior to television, the only visual access to world news was in short clips shown prior to feature films; this time is filled mainly by commercials and trailers today. Thomas created “movietone news” that was a combination of world events, celebrity news, and adventure in exotic locales. Often this adventure included skiing, as Thomas was an avid fan of the new sport. We say “new”, because prior to the 1920s, skiing was mostly about jumping and what we now know as cross-country. Pointing the hickories straight down a hillside was unheard of prior to the 1920s; ski lifts didn’t show up with any regularity until the 1930s and 1940s. And so it was this young sport of “downhill” skiing that Lowell Thomas introduced to the world, long before Warren Miller and others. Thomas’ enthusiasm for skiing was infectious; he was peripherally involved in the development of Mont Tremblant in Canada and he later broadcast some of his radio and television shows from the resort. From the 1930s through the 1950s, most Americans’ first saw downhill skiing — albeit on film — thanks to Lowell Thomas.

Gerald R. Ford • Collegiate Model, US Congressman, US President As president, Gerald Ford elevated Vail to a rarified status previously enjoyed by Aspen, Sun Valley, and few others. It became known as “the western White House” while he was in office; the likes of Henry Kissinger were spotted around town. Christmas 1975 Ford rented a sprawling chalet owned by Dick Bass, later famous for being the first man to climb the highest summits on each continent, not to mention developing a little place called Snowbird. Ford would often make snappy, expert turns to delight onlookers. Even so, his reputed clumsiness would rear its head; on one occasion a secret service agent bodily moved him out of the way of moving chair that the commander-in-chief simply didn’t see. Later as former president, Ford moved his winter home to Beaver Creek, and lent immediate legitimacy to a struggling resort. But Ford’s influence goes back many years. As Michigan congressman he frequented Boyne and then Vail. Turn back the clock even more, and as a Yale law student and part-time model, “Jerry” was featured in a Look magazine photo essay done at Stowe circa 1947, read by millions of Americans. Thus he presented a popular, positive image of skiing for over half a century.

The story behind this photo is that President Ford had landed at Vail earlier in the day after a grueling political battle in DC. He insisted on hitting the slopes despite his exhaustion, and down he went. He was clearly enjoying himself, despite the mishap.

Robert F. Kennedy • Attorney General, US Senator, US Presidential candidate Arguably the second most significant public figure of the 1960s, Bobby would show up for a weekend of skiing with wife Ethel and their small army of kids, and the resort of choice would suddenly go bananas. Papparazzi and fellow politicians would follow, and the resulting photos graced newspapers and magazines across the country. At a time when a lot of celebrity skiers were photographed gracelessly riding t-bars or sitting in snow, Bobby was usually seen skiing, smiling, and looking damn good doing it. Knees and feet were locked together in the parallel style of the day that earned a nod from Stein Ericksen. When Tom Corcoran completed his ski resort on New Hampshire’s Mt Tecumseh, family friend RFK showed up to lend star appeal (along with two others on this list) and immediately launched Waterville Valley to international prominence. He was known to make the morning milk run with the Stowe ski patrol. Once while relaxing with his family apres-ski near Stowe, a photographer made a nuisance of himself and eventually Bobby stood up and calmly put his hand on the man’s arm with a request to leave. The camera fell, and the story went out that Bobby bullied and busted up a poor working man. Thanks to eyewitnesses, we know better. Two months before he was assassinated, Kennedy was photographed skiing Alta with the legendary Alf Engen…and Bobby had the better form.

Robert Redford • Actor, Director & Activist As a rising star with bushy blonde hair and infectious smile, Redford appeared to be just another celeb on the slopes, “an upper ego intermediate,” in his own words. But he was a huge fan of the sport, and went off to Europe to observe ski racing before filming Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Redford’s next project, a starring role in Downhill Racer, which at the time showcased the best quality filming of ski racing to date. It captured the speed, the danger, and the hedonistic lifestyle of top-level skiers. The film also showcased the alpine scenery of Kitzbuhel, Wengen, and Durango Colorado. Combine all this with Redford’s star appeal, and a lot of theatre goers embraced a sport they might not have considered otherwise. The film went quickly to movie-of-the-week status on television, which oddly enough is where it gained its biggest audience. Meanwhile, Redford bought a small ski tow called Timp Haven on Mt. Timpanagos, UT, and a few years later developed Sundance on the location, one of the first environmentally-friendly ski resorts. And although we said this list of influential amateurs would not include resort developers, Redford is here for his high-profile skiing and environmental efforts. And finally, he played a pivotal role in developing the Sundance Film Festival, which regularly brings Hollywood to ski country.


Andy Williams • Entertainer & Record Company Executive Probably more than one reader is saying “who?”, so by means of explanation, this is the guy who sang “Moon River” back in 1962 (music historians know that is an imperfect explanation, but it suffices here). Prior to that Williams had a few hits singing with his brothers, and was frequently seen on Steve Allen’s Tonight Show. In 1956 he hit the charts with one of the ultimate skiing-related pop songs, “Canadian Sunset.” From the mid 1950s until about 1980 Williams was one of those celebrities who showed up at various ski resorts — Sun Valley, Gstaad, etc. — and photos would subsequently appear in various magazines and newspapers around the country. Williams was a close friend to #2 on this list, often joining RFK to ski in Utah and Colorado, and showed up at Bobby’s request to help publicize the opening of Waterville Valley. (a little side bit of history here: Williams was headed downstairs to join his friend’s victory celebration at the Ambassador Hotel, and the elevator doors opened to a chaos immediately following the assassination. When Kennedy’s body was prepped for the trip to New York, but missing a necktie, Williams offered his own. Thus Bobby Kennedy was buried with Andy Williams’ necktie.) As star of a self-titled TV variety show throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Williams’ Christmas specials evoked the skiing lifestyle. In 1966 he featured freestyle pioneer Phil Gerard on his show, more or less launching an explosion in trick skiing. After dumping his semi-bizarre wife Claudine Longet, Williams gained further skiing noteriety when she (accidentally?) shot her live-in lover Spider Sabich. Andy rushed to Aspen to lend support to his ex; he was so well known in skiing circles that the Aspen airport was opened in the middle of the night to allow his jet to land. At the time he looked like a cuckold, but in the end it’s been universally agreed that Andy was being a gentleman and doing the right thing for his children, a concept which eluded most. Incidentally, during the trial Claudine was ensconsed at the home of our next celebrity skier.

John Denver • Entertainer & Actor More than any other celebrity, John Denver was the guy who championed environmental activism and skiing. Environmentally he was a 1970s version of Al Gore — do as I say, not as I do — as his carbon footprint was only slightly more enormous than his Aspen home in the trendy Starwood section. That home was so magnificent that Denver kept quite a few ski bums employed during the summer months, as carpenters creating fabulous wood appointments throughout. And much like his friend Andy Williams (and one-time houseguest Claudine Longet), JD would often champion the skiing lifestyle on his television specials, even filming lip-synched videos while skiing. Despite missing a few toes, Denver was a talented skier who would attempt the stunt jump, go big, crash and laugh at himself. Supposedly some of his hit songs were penned while he stayed in backcountry ski huts. He was also a very likable guy, and people listened to his activism despite the fact that he talked the talk better than he walked the walk. It made others aware of the potential downside to overdevelopment…we can only imagine what the western resorts might be like otherwise. Beyond that, his enthusiasm for the sport was infectious. JD produced a series of celebrity/Pro ski races in Aspen and Lake Tahoe that were featured on ABC-TVs Wide World of Sports. Recently, his tune “Rocky Mountain High” was named the Colorado State Song, and he was nominated for the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame by none less than Warren Miller. Perhaps even more telling is that after Denver’s untimely death, local skiers including the Aspen ski patrol established a shrine of sorts on Ajax Mountain, maintained to this day.


Title screen from Denver’s celebrity/pro ski racing series, which included Bruce Jenner. Before becoming a reality TV buffoon, Jenner was an accomplished athlete. Hard to believe, but true.

Sonny Bono • Songwriter, Entertainer, US Congressman In a career that began as a gofer for music producer Phil Spector and ended in the US Congress, Sonny Bono was a shrewd guy who didn’t mind at all if people underestimated him. Same thing on the tennis court or on the ski slopes; Bono was better than most and generally left people behind. So it was a tremendous shock to skiers and the public when this popular personality died by slamming into a tree at Lake Tahoe’s Heavenly Resort in 1998. The news came just a week after Michael L. Kennedy (son of #2 on this list) died when he slammed into a tree at Aspen. Kennedy had gone through some issues with a teenage girl, and besides he was horsing around playing football on skis…but now the popular Congressman was dead too, and the American public took notice. Is skiing safe? In Bono’s case, he was nailing a powder stash when he slammed into some rather sturdy lodgepole pines and died from (among other things) a massive head injury. Right about now you’re probably wondering what this has to do with a list of 10 influential skiers, so we’ll explain. At the time Bono crashed, virtually nobody skied with a helmet, unless they were racing. Even snowboarders eschewed helmets. It woke up a lot of people to the dangers of skiing, particularly skiing off-piste. Within five years more than 1/3 of the skiing public donned helmets, and the percentage climbed steadily. Today it’s more like 9 out of 10. Yes, Natasha Richardson’s tragic death did re-focus the spotlight, but the advent of helmet use began with Sonny. Whether or not you like helmets, Sonny Bono changed the sport.

Edward M. Kennedy, Jr. • Investment Banker As the youngest son of America’s best-known youngest son, “Teddy Jr.” grew up on ski slopes and by age 10 was more or less keeping up with his Senatorial father. Because dad was the surviving Kennedy, Junior was in the spotlight and often photographed at family ski outings. Like most Kennedy kids he was good-looking and smiled easily, and the public loved him. As a 12-year-old in November 1973 he was looking ahead to the ski season when he was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer in his right leg. The leg was amputated, and America grieved for the latest chapter in the “Kennedy Curse.” So why is he on this list? Well, four months after the amputation, Teddy Jr. caused a sensation when he showed up for the family’s winter holiday at Vail — and skied. Under the direction of pioneering instructor Blair Ammons, the young Kennedy skied with outriggers on his poles, one ski on his remaining leg, and a neatly pinned up pant leg on the other. Photos ran everywhere from daily newspapers to People magazine, showing that good-looking blonde kid skiing confidently with the special devices. “Are you going to help him with his skis, senator?” the papparazzi asked. “No,” Ted Kennedy replied, “He usually helps me with mine.” And so while Uncle Bobby was the epitome of skiing cool, and cousin Michael helped usher in the use of helmets, Ted Kennedy Jr. introduced an entire planet to the idea that disabled people are perfectly able to enjoy skiing. He didn’t invent it, but he opened the public’s eyes and helped propel adaptive skiing to widespread acceptance.

John Glenn & The Mercury Seven • Astronauts Young, handsome, confident, athletic, intelligent…the Mercury Seven were the best of the best. Throughout the program they would push and test each other in games of macho one-upmanship, and legend has it that one of the astronauts intended to show up the others on the ski slopes. While many of them were experienced skiers, some had never skied at all. According to Scott Carpenter’s memoirs, the trip to the ski slopes failed to embarrass any of them. Even the pure beginners had such tremendous balance, reflexes, and natural athleticism that although imperfect, they all gave a good accounting of themselves. Could anything be cooler than bombing down the hill with seven of the coolest Americans who ever lived? I don’t think so. Photos of the Mercury 7 on skis ran nationwide, and every red-blooded American boy now wanted not only to be an astronaut, but also a skier. John Glenn is singled out here because he was the astronaut who recognized the importance of public image, and through the 1960s he was often photographed at various ski resorts, including the opening of Waterville Valley, with friends Bobby Kennedy and Andy Williams.

From left, Alan Shepard, Scott Carpenter, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra. It’s interesting that the two Mercury 7 astronauts missing from this photo — John Glenn and Gordon Cooper — were the most avid skiers of the group.

Hugh Hefner • Publisher, Hotelier, Pervert Huh? Well, you have to turn back the hands of time a bit, but when you do, you’ll find that the old man who shuffled around in a filthy satin robe and allegedly preyed on young women previously championed the ski industry in a big way. First, Hef promoted skiing as part of the “Playboy” lifestyle in his popular magazine, creating an image and definition of “apres-ski” that continues to this day. As the printed page became reality in the form of Playboy Clubs and hotels across the country, a couple of them were located at ski resorts. Now there’s nothing really special about that, except the fact that Hefner sunk millions into massive hotels to co-promote with some rather modest hills. The first “Ski Playboy” was at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, which featured a number of chairlifts and was part of the resort. (Again, we said no resort developers, but in this case the actual ownership is not a factor). The modest hill opened the eyes of many Chicago men to the joy of skiing, and still others figured out that they didn’t need to travel 1,000 miles to try the sport. Hefner later built a monstrous Playboy Club in New Jersey that was loosely affiliated with Great Gorge ski area. Calling it Playboy Great Gorge, the ski area and the sport in general got a huge boost in the New York city market. Hefner supported his efforts in print with ski fashion layouts and other articles to promote the sport. And in the 1960s and 1970s, a “push” in the pages of Playboy was a pretty big push.  Again, all of this prior to having his skeevy laundry aired in public.  Consider the statue torn down.

Top photo CC BY-SA 3.0