Peter Shelton

Greatest of All Time?

Posted in Ski history by pshelton on September 2, 2009

Rob Story penned a fine tribute in the September Skiing magazine to deceased freeskier and free spirit Shane McConkey. My only beef is with the headline writer who blared in all caps across the ‘zine’s cover: “The Most Influential Skier Of All Time.”

Story made no such claim in his article. He rightly described McConkey’s 39 years (before he died in a ski-BASE jumping accident last spring) as “pioneering,” “ballsy” and “hilarious.” Most influential of all time? I don’t think so.

Skiing’s been around since the middle of the last century, but its audience now is mostly young skiers, many of whom have no memory of a world before fat skis, before the gifted, clownish McConkey helped make freeskiing a legitimate (and extremely visible) subset of the sport. Skiing’s editor, Jake Bogoch, knows this (see his very funny piece on the tragic “bro-tilt” epidemic affecting sunglass fashion). But he should have known better than to run the “all time” headline.

Here is a quick look back at four skiers who might really have a shot at the “all time” label:

I’ve got to start with Alf Engen, the man who discovered Alta. Alf invented modern powder skiing when he transformed the Dipsy Doodle into a two-footed deep-snow turn. Before that he won 16 U.S. national titles in jumping, cross-country, downhill, and slalom. Many believe he was the greatest all-around skier in history, maybe the greatest pure athlete ever to take up skiing.

Alf set hill records everywhere he jumped, regularly flying close to 300 feet—without a parachute. McConkey is credited with helping to spur the fat-ski revolution. Engen regularly planed his wooden skis so they would bend and float in powder. Then he’d go out and ski the 1,000 vertical feet of High Rustler in two or three arcing, hydroplaning turns. Like McConkey on an Alaskan spine. Fifty years earlier.

McConkey was a film star for Matchstick Productions. Alf and his brothers, Sverre and Corey, made ski movies in the 1940s that will make your mouth water and your feet dance even today. Alf was not allowed to compete in the 1936 Olympics because he had already appeared, against the rules of amateurism, on boxes of Wheaties. So he coached the 1948 U.S. Olympic team, the one that garnered the first-ever U.S. alpine medals, Gretchen Fraser’s silver and gold.

More than anything else, Alf was a teacher, a proselytizer for the transforming joys of sliding on snow. In 40 years as Alta’s ski school director he taught thousands of people—four generations in some families. Everyone of them remembers his skiing “smooth as silk, pretty much like the path of water. Ya!”

Or, how about Stein Eriksen, so famous he didn’t need a last name. Stein came to America after winning Olympic and World Championships titles in the mid-1950s and proceeded to mesmerize his adopted country during skiing’s most explosive growth decades. Stein was everywhere: on magazine covers, in movies, on TV. He made skiing sexy. Women swooned. Men just wanted to “ski like Stein.”

If only they could. Trained as a gymnast in Norway, Stein presaged freestyle skiing with his swan-dive front flips. His reverse-shoulder technique was so subtly advanced no one could quite copy him. His “style”—and Stein effectively invented personal skiing style—was so elegant and of-a-piece with the reindeer sweaters, the wavy hair and flashing smile, that he came to symbolize an integrated skiing life. Not a ski bum but skiing royalty, a ski prince who lived the dream—effortlessly it seemed—to which so many aspired.

Then there was Hannes Schneider, who created the world’s first organized ski schools in St. Anton, Austria, in 1922. No one before had come up with a teaching progression: from snowplow to stem turn to stem Christiania to pure parallel—the Arlberg technique. If that had been it, Schneider’s place in the pantheon would be secure. But it was just the beginning.

He was the most effective Pied Piper skiing ever produced. His disciples took the Arlberg method to every corner of the skiing world, including virtually all of the early ski areas in the United States in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Schneider directed and starred in the world’s first ski film, a fox-and-hounds chase on skis that is still thrilling to watch. In 1925 he published The Wonders of Skiing, with stills from the movie, which sold 100,000 copies in its first year.

At the outbreak of World War II, Schneider became even more famous. Arrested by Nazis during the Anschluss, he was freed with the help of an America banker who also happened to own the ski area at North Conway, New Hampshire. (German banks owed him money.) The whole country watched as Schneider was greeted off the boat, a free man in America, beneath a gauntlet of raised ski poles.

Going back farther in time, and more fundamentally in influence, we have Sondre Norheim, the man credited with single-handedly bringing skiing from a utilitarian form of winter locomotion to something we would recognize as sport. In the 1860s Norheim, a reluctant tenant farmer from Morgedal, was known throughout Norway as a mercurial, fearless skier who loved fresh powder and jumping off barn roofs. An equally fine craftsman, he built some of the first skis with camber, to better distribute his weight along the edge. He built the first-ever skis with sidecut, to facilitate turning. He built the first heel-stabilizing bindings out of willow root.

Using his sidecut skis and his willow-root bindings he invented the Christiania turn, the first functional turn for controlling steep descents. Simply put, he was the most influential skier from the land that invented skiing.

None of this is meant to denigrate Shane McConkey or his accomplishments. He was a singular hero in a down-mountain age (the 1990s in particular) when it seemed snowboarders were stealing all the fun. Rest in peace, Saucerboy. You’ve earned a place at least in the lineup.

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