Smalley’s big passion
'Father of Freestyle' takes his place in Colorado Ski Hall of Fame
It’s hard to talk about freestyle skiing in Colorado, or anywhere else for that matter, without referring to Park Smalley.
Smalley’s passion for skiing has earned him the title “Father of Freestyle” and his influence has helped shape the careers of Olympic skiers such as 1992 bronze medalist Nelson Carmichael, 1992 gold medalist Donna Weinbrecht and four-time Olympian and World Champion Ann Battelle.
So it seems only fitting that Smalley will become the first freestyle figure to be inducted into the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame in the institution’s 27-year history. He will join 23 other Steamboat skiers when the official announcement is made during a Saturday ceremony at the Hyatt Regency in Denver.
“This is just a huge honor,” Smalley said. “But it’s not the main reason I got involved with the sport. I’ve always had a passion for freestyle, and it’s nice to see it getting the recognition it really deserves.”
Getting the sport recognized pretty much defines Smalley’s skiing career. He helped the sport break down many barriers and constantly promoted it as a competitor, coach and commentator.
Smalley is recognized as the driving force behind getting freestyle into the 1988 Olympic Games and coached the first American Olympic team, which won two gold medals and one silver.
Smalley retired from coaching in 1996, but remains active as a consultant for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club and as a color analyst for television. He has worked for ESPN, NBC and ABC. He also was a commentator at the 1992, 1994 and 1998 Olympic Games for CBS.
It’s no small accomplishment for the former hot-dog skier, who feels the sport’s early image may have delayed its — and his — acceptance as legitimate.
For most of his career, freestyle was shunned by ski areas afraid to gamble on the sport, the insurance companies who backed those areas and the traditional hard-liners who preferred to spend their days on the slopes making left and right turns, Smalley said.
“Back in the old days, the people in the chairlifts would yell down at us: ‘Short skis suck, long skis truck,'” Smalley said.
But Smalley knew it was going to take more than a few catchy sayings to keep the sport from growing.
In the early 1970s, freestyle skiing drew thousands of spectators to grass-roots events. Smalley and a group of about 250 professional nomads traveled across the country from event to event, exposing the public to the thrills and spills of freestyle skiing. Sponsors followed, and the sport rocketed in popularity, after an evolution strikingly similar to today’s free skiing movement.
“Freestyle back then was more of a show than it was a competition,” Smalley said. “It was like someone wanted to take the circus and put it into a competitive format.”
Smalley helped initiate the International Freestyle Skiers Association and the first professional freestyle tour. He traveled around the world promoting the sport as a member of the Marblo Ski Show and later the K2 Demo Team.
“I went to Iran and performed for the Shah,” Smalley said. “In the mid-’70s, freestyle skiing was the biggest thing going.”
But while the sport was growing, Smalley admitted that athletes had little off-snow training and took a lot of chances while pushing the limits of what could be done on skis. Some unprepared skiers simply paid an entry fee and took their chances.
Several well-publicized accidents at major freestyle events made ski areas re-examine the sport. Many areas refused to hold events, and by the late 1970s, the sport was banned from most major areas in the United States.
Smalley made the transition to coaching in 1976, while he was still competing, when he started the Great Western Freestyle Camp in Steamboat Springs with his brother, Jon.
The camps ran at the base of Howelsen Hill through 1986 and were designed to teach skiers in a safe situation before they got on snow. The camps were moved to Mount Hood in the late 1980s because of insurance concerns. They continued there until 1996.
Despite the sport’s problems, Smalley’s summer camps in Steamboat thrived, and in 1978, he started a competitive winter program within the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.
A small but dedicated group arrived for Smalley’s early years, among them, future U.S. Team members such as Carmichael, Kris Feddersen and Cooper Schell.
Thanks to his relationships and knowledge of the sport, Smalley was asked to coach the U.S. Junior Freestyle team in 1981. He went on to become the first head coach of the newly formed U.S. Freestyle team a few years later.
He wrote guidebooks for the U.S. Team about the proper way to perform tricks, he pushed to get World Cup events back in the United States, and he worked diligently to develop training programs that were aimed at producing safer better-trained athletes.
“It was a rough road,” Smalley said. “But freestyle is a better sport today because of it.”
While the sport has changed over the years, Smalley said his passion for it has not.
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