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Long after Olympic breakthrough, Billy Kidd still the king in Steamboat Springs

December 16, 2017 Updated: December 19, 2017 at 11:00 am
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Billy Kidd, wearing his iconic Stetsen cowboy hat, rides the gondola Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017, at Steamboat Resort. Kidd still gives an on-mountain, free skiing clinic at 1 p.m. when he is in town. He meets skiers under the "Ski with Billy Kidd" sign at the top of the gondola and gives pointers on how to make the Olympics while skiing down the Heavenly Daze run. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS - On his daily stroll through the ski resort where his statue stands, he stops when he spots a group of little kids with their instructor.

"Hey, look guys!" says the instructor. "It's Billy Kidd!"

He's in full Billy Kidd form - Billy Kidd Stetson, Billy Kidd racing gloves, big belt buckle to go with Billy Kidd jeans and Billy Kidd cowboy boots - and he begins his enthused spiel.

"Are you guys here training for the Olympics?" he says to a resounding affirmative. "That's what I thought, 'cause I can tell!"

He tells them about Steamboat Springs, his home of 48 years that has produced more fellow Olympians than any town in the country. He's on his way to the gondola, to the top where he will ski most every day of another season at age 74 - so long as he's not out leading a corporate outing somewhere or searching for beloved powder stashes.

As he leaves the kids, he wishes them luck in the Olympics. And they go on seemingly unaware of their encounter with a legend, the man behind the historic breakthrough of 1964.

At the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, Billy Kidd took silver in the slalom, becoming the first American man to medal in alpine skiing.Associated Press file photo. 

At the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, a baby-faced 20-year-old from Vermont took silver in the slalom, becoming the first American man to medal in alpine skiing.

"All sports depend on role models, and he became the role model," says David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. "A lot of people have won more, but the point is, from the U.S. point of view, he set the standard. He showed it could be done."

At the time, Europe ruled the sport. Also at the time, TVs were sprouting in American living rooms, allowing youngsters the chance to admire the kid with the all-American name and realize that could be them on the wooden skis, shooting downhill upwards of 90 mph.

So the way was paved for the nation's long line of champions. That includes Nelson Carmichael, who went on to glory in a different event, mogul skiing, but, nonetheless, knew the name Billy Kidd as he grew up in Steamboat in the '70s and '80s.

Billy Kidd visits with a group of ski school students in the base area Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017, at Steamboat Resort. The legend skier told the youngest he could tell they were going to make the Olympics some day because they were smart and wearing helmets. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

Not that young Carmichael knew exactly why the cowboy skier was a local celebrity, beyond the fact that he was the cowboy skier.

"With kids, they might not know what his connection is to the ski world or the Olympics, but they still know the guy in the hat, with the name Billy Kidd," Carmichael says. "Even if he's not recognized for his previous accomplishments, like people his age know about, he can still have a connection because of that personality. ... He realizes he can have that recognition either way."

So it's strange to follow Kidd around the resort, to wonder how aware people are when they shout his name: "Billy the Kidd! Yeah, baby!"

Many know his official title as the resort's director of skiing, and many know his unofficial title as ambassador of Steamboat's ranching past and sporty present, but maybe they don't know everything in between.

At any rate, Kidd seems to enjoy himself.

"Nice job with the sunshine today," he says to an attendant atop the gondola, who responds: "All for you, sir."

He shakes the hand of a grown man whose knees shake a bit - a sure fan of Billy Kidd the Olympian. He takes a picture with all who ask, including a couple of young ladies not in ski gear. Says one: "You were at an REI in Virginia, and my parents got a picture with you, so I gotta get one, too."

"Well, all right then," Kidd says, posing between them for the camera. "'Skiing' on the count of three. Ready? One, two, three..." And he shouts it the loudest.

A picture of Billy Kidd, right, and Spider Sabich being interviewed by ABC Sports announcer Jim McKay and other pictures fill the walls of Kidd's director of skiing office Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017, at Steamboat Resort. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

Striving for perfection

It's an Olympic year, which means Kidd is especially energetic and reflective. He knows all the names, partially because that was a former responsibility as a TV commentator, but mostly because he's just a big fan.

"It is so exciting now with Mikaela Shiffrin, Lindsey Vonn and Ted Ligety and some of the young racers that you've barely heard of, but just know they could have a good day, like Jimmie Heuga and I did just a few short decades ago."

He smiles. "... Five."

Three years before that historic day on the podium with the bronze-winning Heuga, Kidd was at The Broadmoor, which then had its own ski hill. He'd been invited along with 24 other American racers to meet for some trial runs. University of Colorado ski coach Bob Beattie was to pick his U.S. team. The 17-year-old out of Stowe stood out.

Kidd would've felt unworthy to be competing in his first of five world championships if it weren't for the discovery that he could keep up with his childhood idol who was now his practice mate. Buddy Werner, the Steamboat legend before him, was in the pictures Kidd kept in his bedroom.

He envied Werner for his first-or-crash motto - interesting, considering how calculated Kidd was as a racer. He'd memorize phone numbers and grocery lists as a way to train his memory - vital, as memorizing the race course was more essential to him than physical ability. If he could visualize the gates, his body would react.

He became detail-oriented, a trait learned from his father.

"I can remember an instance where he went to work, and I washed his car and thought he'd come home and (say), 'Oohh thank you, thank you,'" Kidd says. "Well, he was grateful, but he looked very carefully around the car and basically said, 'What about that, you missed a spot here, there.' That could've been devastating for a kid probably 10, 12 or whatever. But it taught me, if you're gonna do a job, do it the best you can."

The margin for error was small on the icy slopes of the East, and Kidd knew the same went for international competition. That made him freeze at the starting gate in 1964.

"I went to take a breath, and it felt like there was a leather strap across my chest," he recalls of the successful finish that was, and remains, a blur to him. Later, during slalom runs, he settled himself by consuming his mind with the crunching sound of his carving skis, rather than with the commotion of 50,000 spectators.

He internalized deeper during his last six years on the international circuit. Coffee made him too jittery, he noticed, and he surmised that hot chocolate made him two-tenths of a second slower.

"When I won gold in the world championship in 1970, they had the racing numbers in those days over your head," he says. "But see, they flapped in the wind, so I cut the number out and sewed it on my racing suit. I thought it might make a tenth of a second difference."

In his office amid the blown-up Sports Illustrated cover he graced in 1968 and promotional brand posters that featured him over the years, some mementos can make him wonder what if. "He beat me by seven-thousandths of a second," he says of his picture with Spider Sabich.

He recalls wrapping presents recently for his five grandchildren, toiling with the folds and the tape and starting and restarting until his girlfriend reminded him that the children are children, that they would really not care about the quality of the wrapping.

Kidd smiles. "It's a problem that I've still got with perfection."

Billy Kidd, 74, holds an old poster of him in his office Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017, at Steamboat Resort. The skiing legend has been identified with the Colorado resort for almost 48 years, since taking the job as the Director of Skiing in 1970. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

Tutelage at 1 p.m.

Adding to the request for an endorsement from Billy Kidd was Steamboat Resort in 1970. Mount Werner ski area was becoming Steamboat Ski Resort under the guidance of Dick Hauserman, who encouraged developers to find a pro that would represent the place.

"He said, 'Why don't you get somebody with a real American name?'" says Kidd, who can't recall a time he went by William. "'How about Billy Kidd?' And that's why I'm here."

Ever since, he's dressed for the part. He has a ranch south of town. "I lease it to a neighbor to run cattle on it," he says with a smile, "so I can pretend to be a cowboy."

Sometimes he'll take visiting dignitaries on scenic horse rides led by a real local cowboy, Ray Heid, the cousin of Werner who also made a name for himself in skiing.

"He's still the king," Heid says of Kidd, "and he will be for a long time yet to come."

Kidd fidgets at the question about legacy - "I've got a long time left," he says. Heid, for one, thinks "it goes beyond just skiing."

"It used to be people got a medal, put it in a drawer, and that's the end of it," he says, "but they realize now, if you love what you did and keep doing what you love and hang in there, you can be a Billy Kidd."

At Steamboat, he is himself an attraction. Whether they know him as the Olympian or the cowboy skier, people take the gondola up the mountain in hopes of catching Kidd for his 1 p.m. run. He considers himself a good coach, and this is his time to offer tips.

His favorites are the kids, unworried by technique or appearance. "All I have to do is say, 'Kids, follow me.' And they just follow, 'cause they don't wanna stop."

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