McNeill’s spirit lives on in SSWSC and Winter Carnival
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — For Olympian Chris McNeill, the Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival represented many of the things he loved in his life including family, traditions and the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.
“His sister used to come, and his dad and his stepmom used to come, and we would walk over from our house in Brooklyn (a historic neighborhood in Steamboat Springs),” McNeill’s wife, Lenny, said. “We would watch the Street Events, the parade and the Nordic kids racing. It was always a family event.”
But 10 years ago, on Feb. 5, 2011, as McNeill was headed to the Winter Carnival Street Events, he started feeling ill. His brother-in-law decided to drive directly to Yampa Valley Medical Center, but McNeill passed out before they arrived. He died from a pulmonary embolism, which is a blockage of the main artery of the lung or one of its branches, after arriving at the hospital
That night McNeill’s then 15-year-old daughter Dori, who was a Winter Carnival attendant that year, made sure she was at the night events to honor her father and to carry on the traditions that were so important to him.
“It was definitely not an easy thing, but my mom and dad always taught me that no matter what you’re going through you always have to push through it,” Dori said. “The Winter Carnival means a lot to Steamboat, and it means a lot to my family. I think even though it was real hard, I’m happy that I attended the night show and the parade. I’m really glad I did it, and I always look back on it with really fond memories.”
Dori graduated from Montana State University with a degree in animal science and now lives on the small ranch her grandfather Bob started later in life.
In addition to skiing, McNeill also loved horses and would split his time between Montana and Steamboat helping with the family outfitting business. The McNeills no longer have the outfitting business, but Dori lives in Dillon, Montana, where she shares her father’s love of horses and also coaches at a small ski hill about 30 miles from where she lives.
In “The History of Skiing At Steamboat Springs,” author Sureva Towler said McNeill, who was born in Pueblo, began walking and skiing simultaneously at 6 months of age shortly after his family relocated in Steamboat.
McNeill’s mom,, Doris was part of a group of young mothers who decided to start the Little Toots ski program in Steamboat Springs, with hopes of giving their children something to do during the long winters. The group included Audrey Temple, president, and Donna Struble, who acted as secretary and treasurer. Pat Green, Francis Nash and Doris were also part of the group. The women hired Crosby Perry-Smith to give 50-cent lessons on the hill behind the elementary school.
McNeil’s father, Bob, was the president of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club in 1964 and 1965 and he taught night skiing at Howelsen Hill Ski Area from 1967 to 1968.
McNeill excelled at athletics throughout high school, playing football and wrestling. But his true talent showed on the jump hill, where he won the Junior National Championship in 1972 before taking a spot on the U.S. Ski Team from 1972 to 1980.
Lenny said that was in part thanks to John Fetcher, who arranged for McNeill to train with the National Team in Switzerland. McNeill’s career took him around the world and to two Olympics. He was part of the U.S. Ski Jumping Team that competed in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1976 and the team that competed in Lake Placid, New York, in 1980 where he finished 23rd in the 70-meter competition.
When his career with the U.S. Ski Team ended, McNeill went on to coach for the Canadian National Team along with former teammate Bill Bakke for several years. Their efforts helped Canada reach the top level behind the talent of athletes like Horst Bulau and Steve Collins.
In normal years, Lenny and Dori said they rarely miss a Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival and they remain thankful for what the club and the event gave to McNeill when he was alive.
“I think the Winter Sports Club gave him opportunities that he never would have had if he hadn’t been involved with the club or Winter Carnival,” Dori said. “I mean there’s not many kids that come from nothing that by the time they are 16, they are training in Switzerland and will go on to the Olympics.”
Lenny said it also gave him a chance to pursue his other passion — coaching.
“He just liked that whole idea of training and learning — and again that’s what the club is — it’s just teaching and that was his passion,” Lenny said. “Coach would be the number one word I use to describe him. He loved coaching.”
Sarah Floyd, executive director of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, said it’s people like McNeill who make the club so special.
“Chris was involved with the Winter Sports Club his whole life as an athlete and just as a community supporter,” Floyd said. “His heart was at Howelsen Hill, and those jumps. He would be so thrilled to see all the kids who are jumping today.”
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.
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