Growing up in Stowe, Vt., Billy Kidd never dreamed that one day he would ski alongside his hero, Buddy Werner.
In the 1950's and '60's, Wallace "Buddy" Werner was one of the best U.S. skiers and is known as the first American international skiing superstar. His popularity was so big that even the Europeans, who had dominated the sport, would flock to the slopes to see him race.
"Buddy was one of the few Americans that could beat the Europeans and do it not just once and awhile by luck, but often enough so that the Europeans really loved him," said Kidd, a friend and former teammate of Werner on the U.S. Ski Team. "They loved his style of going for it and taking chances."
For young athletes like Kidd who were growing up in ski racing at the time, Buddy was their idol and the kind of skier that they hoped they would be someday.
"I had pictures on my wall of Buddy Werner because I wanted to ski like Buddy," said Kidd of his hero growing up in the small Vermont ski town.
But what intrigued Kidd and many others about Buddy as a skier was his risk taking and at times dangersome style as he made his way down the mountain and through hazardous turns on the race course. That style of racing would result in several amazing falls for Buddy, but it also helped him reach the top of the podium in most races.
"In downhill racing, in order to win at the highest level, the international level, you have to be able to push yourself to the absolute limit at 80 or 90 miles per hour and then still look for some more speed," Kidd said. "That is a difficult thing to do psychologically, but Buddy was seemingly fearless. But he wasn't fearless, he was just good. He would push and take chances, but also make unbelievable recoveries."
Werner performed one of those amazing recoveries one time in a race in Aspen in which he fell on his back during the competition. Somehow Werner was able to get back on his skies and finish the course. Buddy would go on to win that race.
"Buddy felt that there were only two places to finish in a ski race," Kidd said. "You either won or you fell. There was no such thing as second place, silver medal, bronze medal, none of that for Buddy Werner. It was either first or fall."
Beating the Austrians on their home mountain
Of Werner's many accomplishments and victories as a skier, his biggest and probably most famous came at age 22 in the 1959 Hahnenkamm race in Kitzbuhel, Austria.
Kidd described Hahnenkamm as the most difficult downhill race in the world and at the time it had been dominated by Europeans, mostly by the Austrians who had won the previous five years and 15 of the first 17 races.
Werner's surprise victory was the first by a non-European and put the Steamboat Springs native on the international map.
"He beat the Austrians in their home territory when the Austrians were the best in the world," Kidd said.
After 1959, the Europeans would return to their domination on the dangerous course with only Todd Brooker, Steve Podborski and Ken Reed of Canada able to break Europe's stranglehold on the race in the early 1980's.
It took 44 years for another American to repeat Werner's success on the Hahnenkamm downhill course with Daron Rahlves winning the race in 2003. However Rahlves won the race on a shortened course due to fog.
The pursuit of a medal
Though he had seen him race in person, Kidd had never met Werner until he was 17 and trying to make the U.S. Ski Team in Colorado as a senior in high school. Kidd, along with two future University of Colorado alums, Jimmie Heuga and Bill Marolt, would make the national team and compete in the 1962 World Championships in Chamonix, France.
Buddy Werner's 1959 win at Hahnenkamm in Austria put him on the international skiing map.
During the competition, the U.S. finished fourth overall with them garnering two bronze medals in the women's downhill and giant slalom. Like at previous championships, Werner was close to getting a medal but just like in 1958 when he finished in fifth in the giant slalom, Buddy would finish in the same spot in the event in 1962.
With the World Championships over, Werner and the U.S. Ski Team's focus turned to the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. At age 28, the games would be Werner's last chance to get a medal as he would retire from competitive skiing at the end of the season.
The U.S. women had won medals in alpine skiing at the Olympics, but the American men had never reached the podium going into the '64 games.
In what might have been an attempt to help fundraise the U.S. team's trip to the games, Coach Bob Beattie made a statement in that the U.S. men would bring back medals from Innsbruck.
At first Beattie's guarantee wasn't taken seriously but as the Olympics quickly approached, the Americans began to dominate the slopes. Chuck Ferries won two slalom races; Werner, and the women's squad all were winning, making the idea of U.S. medals at the Olympics not so farfetched.
With the Americans recent successes on the slopes, the pressure and attention on the U.S. Ski Team put on by the U.S. and international media began to increase, especially on Buddy.
"There was a lot of anticipation on whether if Buddy Werner was going to come through in his last Olympics and win the Gold medal like everyone expected," Kidd said.
After poor performances in the downhill and giant slalom at the games by the Americans, the U.S.'s last chance for a medal came in the slalom where Werner and Ferries were the favorites.
The ski conditions during the games were not ideal as there was hardly any snow on the mountain as the Olympics approached. In an attempt to get snow for the skiing competitions, the Austrian Army gathered snow from surrounding towns, mixed it with water and packed it on the hill. The result would be icy race courses, something that is not seen too often in the Western United States.
"It was literally just like a skating rink," Kidd said of the Olympic race courses. "I grew up in Vermont where you got harder snow so I was used to the ice and loved the ice, but it was literally rock hard ice that you could ice skate down."
Beattie's medal prediction became a reality as the American men didn't just win one medal, but two. However Werner would miss the podium by 1.94 seconds, finishing eighth his final Olympic race after falling in a run earlier in the day.
Kidd picked up the silver medal while Heuga the bronze.
This year at Heuga's memorial service following his death in February, Kidd told the story of how after he and Jimmie had received their medals, and were heading back to the Olympic Village, that Jimmie was agonizing over what to tell Buddy, who happened to be his roommate for the games. Jimmie felt that Buddy should have won the medal, not him, a 20-year old that still had a long skiing career ahead of him.
"Jimmie felt that he wanted to give his medal to Buddy," Kidd said.
Buddy declined his offer and wanted Jimmie to keep the medal
"It said something about Buddy and it said something about Jimmie," Kidd said. "Buddy was so gracious in whatever he did that unfortunately he came close to winning medals in the Olympics and the World Championships. He was so close but he never won a medal."
Prior to the 1964 games, Werner's best chance to medal was going to be at the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics. But two months prior to the opening ceremonies, Buddy broke his leg while training in Aspen and was unable to compete at the games. Buddy also competed in the 1956 games in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy.
Though Werner wasn't able to capture a World Championship or an Olympic medal in his final season, the lack of hardware didn't result in a lack of support for Buddy as he was one of the most popular skiers at the '64 Olympics.
"At Innsbruck, it seemed to be that there wasn't a European who was not for Werner," said U.S. women's ski team member Starr Walton after those Olympics. "He was the nucleus of our team. He never demanded anything, but we gave him respect for what he was and looked to him for advice, companionship and leadership."
Werner retired a month later after his final race at the U.S. Alpine Championships in Alaska and began a new career in ski movies.
On April 12, 1964 while filming the movie, Ski-Fascination, Buddy and the group of skiers he was with suddenly became trapped in an Avalanche while on the Trais Fleur run near St. Moritz, Switzerland.
Werner was able to escape the initial Avalanche, but he and German Olympic medalist Barbi Henneberger got caught in a second one where they became trapped and died. Their bodies were found in the early evening.
When news of Werner's death spread, the U.S. skiing community was in shock on how their hero, their international star wouldn't be with them anymore.
"It's a great loss," Heuga told the Colorado Daily newspaper the next day. "Almost everyone who's had success owes a lot of it to him."
Kidd, who is entering his 41st year of Director of Skiing at Steamboat Ski Resort, is one of the people who owe much of his success as a skier to Buddy.
"I have Buddy Werner to thank for that," Kidd said. "Not only for helping me to ski better and to ski race better and get results, which would let me travel all over the world and benefit from the results of a few medals in my pocket, but also because Buddy opened up so many doors and set so many precedents for ski racers in America. I feel really fortunate that my life has turned out the way that it did and a good deal of it is because of Buddy Werner."
Buddy was posthumously inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame in 1964, the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 1967 and the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 1977. This last Thursday, he was officially inducted into the University of Colorado Athletic Hall of Fame.
Today in Steamboat there are several reminders of Buddy Werner, the man who helped put the town on the national and international skiing map.
After his death, the Steamboat Springs council unanimously voted to rename the town's ski mountain from Storm Mountain to Mount Werner. A ski run was also named after him called Buddy's Run and a bronze bust of him sits atop the intermediate trail that dawns his name on the ski hill.
Nearly three years after his death, the Buddy Werner Memorial Library opened in Steamboat Springs thanks in part to contributions from all over the world that were given in Buddy's memory.
Star athlete at the University of Colorado
Werner may be best known for his skiing on the international level, but Buddy was also a dominant collegiate skier who began his career in 1959 at the University of Colorado.
In his time at CU, he was named an All-American twice, was the 1961 NCAA slalom and alpine combined champion, the 1963 NCAA alpine combined and downhill champion, and helped lead the Buffs to National Championships in 1959 and 1960.
The CU ski team honored Buddy's memory in 1973 because of the example he set for young athletes with the Buddy Werner Memorial Scholarship Award. The award benefits a deserving ski team member with the 2010 recipient being alpine skier Katie Hartman from Breckenridge, Colo.
Though Buddy Werner never had the opportunity to feel the weight of a World Championship or Olympic medal around his neck, the kid from Steamboat with the breakneck style of racing might always be remembered for the influence that he had on young athletes both on and off his team.
"He was as good of a person as he was an athlete," Kidd said. "He was an outstanding guy and was really helpful to young racers like me, Jimmie Heuga and Billy Marolt. He was also fun and funny and it was really a treat to not only ski with him but try to ski like him."