Tom Ross: Olympian Paul Wegeman recalls moments when course of Steamboat ski history shifted forever
Steamboat Springs — A recording of a long forgotten trio of singing ski jumpers harmonizing to tunes like “Wacky Waxers” and “Under the Takeoff” set the mood Friday as more than 50 people turned out to hear Steamboat Springs Olympian Paul Wegeman, 86, talk about the early days of Nordic skiing on Howelsen Hill.
Wegeman and his brother Keith took part in the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway, as Nordic combined skiers, which required them to ski jump and cross-country ski race. A longtime resident of Colorado Springs, Wegeman’s talk here represented the final Brown Bag Lecture Series event of the summer hosted by the Tread of Pioneers Museum.
As well as a skiing family, the Wegemans were a musical family. And in 1959, Paul and his brothers Keith and Loren went into a Los Angeles recording studio with lyrics for 10 classic skiing songs and vocal arrangements by Paul’s wife, Nancy. It was then that they cut the album “Gentlemen Skiers” that was released by Raynote records in 1960.
The vinyl disk is a little difficult to track down these days, but you can listen to a sample on the Internet. Paul is on the right on the album’s front cover.
As well as a successful international skier, Wegeman was one of the leaders of a dominant University of Denver collegiate team and was a four-way skier, competing in ski jumping, cross-country, slalom and downhill in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The success Paul and Keith Wegeman experienced later would serve as a foundation for the modern generation of Nordic combined skiers from Steamboat, including Todd Lodwick and Johnny Spillane, who have had Olympic medals draped around their necks.
But Wegeman, clad in a navy blue blazer with a USA Olympics patch on the pocket, did not come all the way to Steamboat to regale his audience with stories of his own skiing success. Instead, he chose to talk about the little town in the Rocky Mountains that supports competitive skiers so well and the role his ski instructor father, Alvin “Al” Wegeman, played in the late 1940s and early 1950s in establishing ski classes within the Steamboat public schools. The classes were intended to teach technical skill sets and instill a work ethic and joy for skiing among a coming generation of Steamboat youngsters who achieved international stature. The list includes Buddy, Loris and Skeeter Werner as well as Chuck Leckenby (later to become a four-way skier at the University of Colorado), Katy Rodolph, Marvin Crawford, and Corky and Ray Heid.
“The Wegeman family came here in June 1944, and we had lived in Denver all our lives, and Denver was a bustling place,” Wegeman said. “When we came here, it didn’t take long to adjust because of the people, the opportunities we had and the surroundings.”
Al Wegeman was hired to manage the swimming pool at the hot springs and to teach skiing. And teach skiing he did.
The elder Wegeman, who was nicknamed “Bird” growing up in Wisconsin because of his ski jumping prowess, had become certified as an instructor by the National Ski Association of America while teaching across the Front Range from downtown Denver civic parks to Genesee and Loveland Pass to Winter Park. He was well-trained in the Austrian method of teaching Alpine skiing.
When he arrived in Steamboat, his son said, Al Wegeman couldn’t help but notice the close proximity of the public schools at Seventh and Aspen streets and Howelsen Hill, just across the river. With a large collection of rental equipment already in his possession, he successfully integrated ski lessons at Howelsen with physical education classes at the schools.
Wegeman said as Al’s son, skiing meant climbing the small hills of the Front Range on his skis, packing the track, sidestepping and then getting a thump in the rear with a ski pole because he didn’t perform the movement perfectly.
“Dad could be a taskmaster,” Wegeman said, but in Steamboat, he made certain to keep skiing fun for the schoolchildren. In the course of instilling a passion for skiing in local youngsters, he said, his father sewed the seeds of future greatness.
Wegeman recalls a week in winter 1946 when he and his brother Keith, Perry Crosby-Smith, Crawford and future great Buddy Werner (only 9 years old at the time) went to Salt Lake City to take part in an early four-way skiing competition on Ecker Hill. He now thinks that was a pivotal moment that led to the broadening of competitive skiing in Steamboat.
The Steamboat skiers weren’t surprised at dominating the ski jumping in Utah, but when Perry-Smith and Keith and Paul Wegeman swept the podium in that order (and Crawford added a sixth place) their perception of competitive skiing was altered forever. (Werner didn’t take part in the cross-country race because Perry-Smith commandeered his lighter Alpine skis.)
“We brought home a lot of hardware,” Wegeman told his audience.
When he came home to Steamboat this week, Wegeman brought a sense of humility, an appreciation for the ongoing support the community of Steamboat Springs provides young competitive skiers and a sense of humor.
At age 86, Wegeman still skis a few times each winter, but he’s begun to notice the wear and tear on his body.
“Will Rogers said, ‘Eventually you reach a point when you stop lying about your age and start bragging about it.’”
Paul Wegeman has arrived at the station in life, but his enthusiasm for competitive skiing still shines through.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com
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It was a love story that brought Jason Erwin to Steamboat Springs from Nashville, Tennessee.