On the brink of making history once again
Steamboat Springs — Maybe you don’t remember Gordy Wren if you’ve just moved to Steamboat Springs in the past couple of years, it’s understandable he died Nov. 25, 1999, at the age of 80. With the Winter Olympics right around the corner, I think it’s worthwhile to refocus on Gordy’s remarkable skiing career, because Steamboat native Gordy Wren accomplished something unheard of in international skiing today.
At the age of 29, and already a veteran of World War II, Gordy Wren qualified to represent the United States at the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz. Not just in slalom skiing or ski jumping, or cross country skiing or downhill skiing, but in all four events. Nope that’s not a typo, although I’ve made more than my share. This guy Gordy Wren qualified in both Alpine and Nordic events in the same Olympics!
I thought of Gordy the other day when I read modern-day Olympian Caroline Lalive’s newspaper column. Caroline wrote about the difficulties of training for four Alpine events. She has set her sights on competing in slalom, giant slalom, super-G and downhill at Salt Lake City. That’s something that’s just not done these days.
Alpine skiers either specialize in the technical events slalom and giant slalom. Or they go in the direction of the speed events super-G and downhill.
Caroline has a serious chance to defy the odds and qualify to ski in all four events, and she’s a legitimate medal contender in super-G and in what else? the combined event, which requires skiers to ski both slalom and downhill.
Some might argue Lalive would be better off specializing the additional travel required to compete in both giant slalom and downhill can drain an athlete, not to mention all of the extra hours devoted to training.
But you’ve got to admire the spirit that drives an athlete to do what few others would even attempt.
Back to Gordy Wren. He and a buddy, Barney McLean, were training for the 1940 Winter Olympics, but World War II interrupted those plans and Gordy wound up as a master sergeant in the U.S. Army’s famed 10th Mountain Division. For a portion of the war, he was attached to British troops in Italy. He taught them mountain warfare, survival techniques and rock climbing. The soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division trained as ski troops and Gordy was the acknowledged expert on ski-waxing techniques.
Immediately after the war, Gordy returned his attention to serious ski competition.
Once he arrived in St. Moritz in 1948, he decided that instead of actually competing in all four of the events he had qualified for, he would focus on the Nordic events he excelled at ski jumping and cross country. That decision paid off. He placed fifth in special ski jumping, a feat that wasn’t surpassed by another American for many years.
Gordy continued to compete with distinction, and in 1950, became the first American to ski jump beyond 300 feet with a leap of 301 feet at Howelsen Hill.
Gordy’s roots in skiing literally went back to the era when skis were an everyday means of transportation in Steamboat; his great-uncle George was a skiing mailman. He himself went on to have a lengthy career as a coach, working with the next generation of Olympians at Howelsen and establishing ski programs in Winter Park, Loveland and at Reno, Nev. He also supervised the original construction of the Jackson Hole Ski Area and managed the Steamboat Ski Area in the late ’60s.
We’re on the brink of an amazing month in Steamboat’s long tradition of competitive skiing, when more than a dozen athletes affiliated with the community and the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club will take the Olympic stage.
Each of them has worked hard for everything that comes to them in Utah. But each has also been gifted with a little piece of immortality as they write their own chapter in the history of Ski Town USA.
I can’t help but envy them.
Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published every Monday in Steamboat Today.
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