Community remembers Larry Mahan, the man who helped bring the ‘Cowboy Image’ to Steamboat’s slopes
When eight-time rodeo world champion Larry Mahan passed away at his home in Valley View, Texas, on May 7, the 79-year-old left behind a legacy that stretches across the county and touches Steamboat Springs.
“When he passed, I just had to think, ‘How in the world could a hero like this to me pass away?’ I mean, he was such a big shining light of life,” said J.C. Trujillo, a Steamboat Springs resident who won a world championship in bareback riding in 1981.
“(Mahan) was such a giant part of rodeo, and a giant part in everybody he came in contact with,” Trujillo continued. “I flew up to Fort Worth for his service a couple days ago on Tuesday. You cannot believe the number of people in the professional rodeo business, and the country music business, and just the whole Western way of life that were there, and how many people that he touched their lives.”
Mahan had plenty of friends in Steamboat Springs including Olympic ski racer Billy Kidd, who jumped at an opportunity to teach the rodeo legend how to ski back in 1972. Kidd recalled that his new friend was a fast learner and quickly developed a love of skiing.
Kidd still has an old photograph that reminds him of those early days — and the beginnings of the Cowboy Downhill, a signature event at Steamboat Resort in which professional rodeo athletes come to Steamboat to race on skis.
“I found a photograph of me, Larry and Glenn parked at the finish line of the Cowboy Downhill, and I think it was the first Cowboy Downhill that we had,” Kidd said. “It’s just so great because all three of us — me, Larry and Glenn — were all laughing and it was just so enjoyable. That’s what the Cowboy Downhill was.”
The two met after Mahan asked Kidd to teach him to ski. Both were standouts in their respective sports, and the 1964 Olympic silver medalist in men’s slalom agreed to teach the rodeo cowboy how to get down the slopes.
A year later, Mahan, who was at the National Western Stock Show’s rodeo, came back to Steamboat with a few friends.
“The way I understand it is that Billy called Mahan and said, ‘You guys are the toughest athletes I’ve ever seen, and anytime you get a couple of cowboys together, it’s always a competition, so I think you ought to bring a few to Steamboat,'” said Barb Shipley, who met Mahan and became friends with him while helping organize those early Cowboy Downhills. “‘We will teach them to ski, and we will have a ski race.’ I guess Mahan thought it was a great idea.”
The first official year, the cowboys got their skis from the Werner Storm Hut Ski Shop and learned to ski on the slopes before running a few gates in the afternoon. A banquet followed the race, and the cowboys spent the night at the Steamboat Village Inn before flying home the next morning.
Shipley said Mahan was instrumental in getting the cowboys to Steamboat Springs in the early years of the event, but as the event’s reputation grew, more and more cowboys wanted to come to Steamboat.
Trujillo was not a part of that first group, but like a lot of the cowboys in Denver for the National Western Stock Show, he heard all about it from the rodeo stars who took part in the Cowboy Downhill.
“He loved doing things like that,” Trujillo said. “The Cowboy Downhill was just one of many things that he gave his magic touch to, and that is one reason the Cowboy Downhill became such a well-known event. It was because of Larry and, of course, because of Billy Kidd.”
Trujillo did not miss the Cowboy Downhill the following year.
“I had heard so much about that first Cowboy Downhill, so when Larry said, “Come on, let’s go to Steamboat,’ I immediately said yes,” Trujillo recalled. “I had never been on a pair of skis. I had never been on a ski mountain or ever been to Northwestern Colorado. We flew up there on Frontier, and that was the first time I ever walked into the valley. I really enjoyed the downhill and had a great time. I won the race that year — but it wasn’t full of top ski racers — and I just fell in love with the whole deal. At the time I was rodeoing, single and footloose and fancy free, and I said, ‘Shoot, I’m going to move to Steamboat.”
The next year, he moved in with Jim Moose Barrows, another famous ski racer at the time, and eventually took on an organizer’s role in the Cowboy Downhill, as Kidd and Mahan were busy with many other projects.
“I was the only real rodeo cowboy that lived in the Steamboat area, and Larry and Billy kind of turned the reins over to me,” Trujillo said. “I worked with the Steamboat Ski Area for 30 years helping them put on the Cowboy Downhill.”
Trujillo’s friendship with Mahan goes back to Trujillo’s days at junior rodeos in high school, and it grew into a lifelong friendship.
“He had an unbelievable positive attitude toward not only rodeo, riding broncs and bulls, but toward life,” Trujillo said. “He was so positive and being around him, that attitude positivity wore off on me … Everybody that met him knew and felt that light.”
Trujillo said Mahan was an excellent spokesperson for the sport and took his brand outside the rodeo arena by making boots, starting a clothing line, and breeding, raising and training his own horses. The legendary cowboy was profiled as part of the Oscar-winning 1973 documentary, “The Great American Cowboy.”
“He was the guy that kind of changed the whole structure and the whole attitude toward professional rodeo cowboys,” Trujillo said. “He made the public aware that rodeo cowboys weren’t just guys off the ranch, going to one rodeo and whooping it up and having a great time. He made the public aware that the professional rodeo cowboy was a professional athlete.”
This week, the people who were closest to Mahan in Steamboat Springs are not only remembering the rodeo star, the celebrity and the athlete they admired, but also the great friend they will miss.
Next January, as the event Mahan helped spark reaches 49 years, they said they will all be reminded of his spirit that lives on in the Cowboy Downhill.
“Larry Mahan was bigger than life — like Babe Ruth and Will Rogers,” Kidd said. “He helped us see how much fun life is. He made the impossible look easy, like Superman, and he was the real American cowboy.”
John F. Russell is the business reporter at the Steamboat Pilot & Today. To reach him, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.
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