Skiing down the mountain at Steamboat Ski Area with former Olympic racer Billy Kidd (Econ’69) is no fast feat.
There’s the woman in her mid-70s who schusses over to take a photo and to invite him to cruise with her ski club. Then, two elementary school girls wearing admiration in their eyes tag along for tips on how to become future Olympians. A middle-aged dad rides up on a snowboard with his son, hoping to snap a photo. Kidd’s signature Stetson cowboy hat spins heads right and left.
And this is only the first run of the day.
Bearing an iconic Western name, it’s no wonder the Vermont native was scooped up in 1970 by Steamboat Springs, an old ranching town looking for star power to develop a major ski area. Six years earlier Kidd, along with Jimmie Heuga (PolSci’73) became the first American skiers to medal in the Olympics. Wasting no time, he settled into his tenure as director of skiing, a position he still holds.
Nearly four decades later, Kidd’s legend has grown as he has skied his way around the world hosting clinics, writing books on ski racing, designing signature skis and calling races for CBS Sports. Planting his poles wide to pose with a grin, it’s obvious Kidd still adores interaction with his fans. Part of his job includes making a daily 1 p.m. run from the top of the gondola with anyone who cares to join him.
“I figure any year now I’ve got to get a real job,” he says.
Kidd says it’s all a dream come true – and his genuine passion for skiing has driven him to spread his love and inspiration with everyone from Special Olympians to Ute Indian schoolkids.
It’s not about the skis
He learned early that his story wasn’t only about skiing. He recalls a Boston ski show in the early 1970s when someone asked him to speak at an inner city school.
“I thought it wasn’t fair to go down and talk to these kids about skiing because skiing is a rich man’s sport unless you grew up in a little town in Vermont like I did, where you can ski in your backyard,” he says. “These kids, they can’t really dream about skiing.”
Reluctantly, Kidd went to the assembly. He told stories about the Olympics, skiing and growing up in Vermont — where he made a ski rack for his bicycle and wrapped rope around the wheels to be able to bike to the slopes after school. He told them about learning to ski without lifts, remembering the slope in Burlington he’d climb up to ski down before his family uprooted to Stowe, Vt., in order to nurture their aspiring ski racer.
Fifteen years later a young man introduced himself to Kidd at another program in Boston Commons. As a child, he’d been awestruck by Kidd’s speech. He’d spent years saving his snow shoveling money to learn how to ski, and now, he proudly told Kidd, he was a ski instructor.
“It just showed me these impossible dreams,” Kidd says, “but it was similar to me when I was growing up in Vermont dreaming about the Olympics and American men hadn’t won medals before.”
Skiing into the Special Olympics
Over the years, he has realized other far-reaching dreams like helping start the winter version of the Special Olympics, nurturing ski programs for wounded military vets and establishing ski camps for Ute Indian youth.
“If there’s an icon in the ski industry you could ever imagine working with, he’s right up there,” says Steamboat Ski Area public relations director Mike Lane, who has traveled the world marveling at Kidd’s magic for the past 14 years. “He loves skiing, and I think people see that whether it’s their first time skiing or they’re 70 years old. He takes the time to talk to folks and make them feel like they’re the only person on the hill that day. It’s amazing the impact he’s had on the world of skiing. He’s done something a lot of athletes haven’t been able to do.”
When Kidd initially went to Washington, D.C., to talk to the Kennedy Foundation about creating a winter Special Olympics, he faced a lot of skeptics.
“The reaction of a lot of people was Special Olympics athletes could swim the length of the pool or they could run the 100-yard dash, but they couldn’t do something as complicated as skiing,” he says.
But Kidd’s persistence won out, and in 1977 the first Special Olympics World Winter Games came home with him to Steamboat Springs. Kidd has been nurturing Special Olympics athletes and events ever since.
“It was the beginning of the learning curve,” Kidd says, as clinics for skiers with disabilities started emerging all over the world. “What we realized with Special Olympians is they learned how to ski more quickly than the regular people who came through ski school. They’re not distracted by who is watching them on the lift or whether their gloves match their outfit.”
Pole planting on sacred grounds
During the same years, Kidd served on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. This led to an experimental session in teaching wounded Vietnam vets to ski — the beginning of a long tradition of national ski camps for vets, including those from current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Before long Kidd joined forces with 1968 Olympic teammate Suzy Chaffee to introduce skiing to Native American children. Kidd, who is part Abenaki (a northeastern tribe), worked with the Ute Tribal Council in Utah to develop a program he calls the Ute Future Olympians.
“The idea is . . . to get these kids back to their ancestral grounds because, as you know, the Ute Indians lived in the valleys of Steamboat, Aspen, Vail and Telluride,” Kidd says. “These were their homelands. We invite them to come back and learn how to ski and snowboard.”
More than 200 Ute students have since skied Steamboat with Kidd. It’s become an incentive for good work in school, spurred by an essay contest asking students what they can do to give back to their community, their school, their family and their tribe.
Kidd himself could write a novel on giving back. His lifelong friends say he’s mentally tough, close to the chest and deeply thoughtful. Olympic and CU teammate Heuga remembers a typical scenario of waiting on the team bus while Kidd meandered down the street with a camera intently looking at the local sights. It’s the same curiosity that has led Kidd in pursuit of the history of his famous forefather, 17th century pirate Capt. William Kidd.
“He’s always had this wonderful curiosity about every place he’s ever gone to,” Heuga says. “He’s very much true to himself. In many ways he’s never changed, and that has been his strength.”
Jennie Lay (MJour’05) is a freelance journalist based in Steamboat Springs.