Steamboat Springs: The land of 100 Olympians
With four athletes with Steamboat ties making their Olympic debut at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, history was made.
Sure, the athletes made history in their own right, making their first-ever Olympics after years of dedication, but they helped Steamboat Springs make history on a larger scale as well, bringing the total number of Winter Olympians with ties to the the city to 100.
Steamboat has had representation at every single Winter Games since 1932, except for one in 1936. Over 90 years, athletes from eight different disciplines have seen their dreams come true by competing in the world’s biggest athletic arena.
The Steamboat Springs Olympic tradition began in 1932, when John Steele was named to the 1932 Olympic ski jumping team. He is considered the first Olympian from Steamboat.
Steele moved to Steamboat and put on his first pair of skis in 1918, according to the Tread of the Pioneers Museum. He moved to the valley just a few years after Carl Howelsen came to town and built the first ski jump on the hill that now bears his name in downtown Steamboat.
A hundred Olympians
Flash back to the present, and ski jumper Decker Dean became the 100th Olympian out of Steamboat in 2022.
“Steamboat has such a rich history in ski jumping and Nordic combined and skiing in general,” said three-time Olympic medalist Johnny Spillane. “It really started off with Carl Howelsen. Everything has evolved from there, so it seems fitting to me.”
Dean almost didn’t go to Beijing this year. He didn’t make the ski jumping team. Days later, while Dean still mourned the debut that wouldn’t happen, a reallocated quota allowed him a spot at the Games.
“Growing up in Steamboat, it’s such an honor,” Dean said. “The rich history we have in Steamboat is huge. Being the 100th Olympian, that’s just cool. That’s going to be a cool thing I’ll be able to hold onto for the rest of my life.”
While no one with ties to Steamboat attended the 1936 Olympics, there has been one in every Games since. In 1948, Gordon Wren qualified for four events — Nordic skiing, Nordic combined, ski jumping and Alpine skiing. He prioritized his Nordic events though, skipping out on Alpine, and took fifth in ski jumping.
The first women from Steamboat to compete were also the first non-Nordic competitors. In 1952, Katy Rudolph-Wyatt and Skeeter Werner competed in Alpine skiing. Of the 100 Olympians hailing from Steamboat, 28 are female.
One of the Alpine skiers almost everyone knows is Jim “Moose” Barrows.
The Barrows family moved to Steamboat in 1950, according to the Tread of the Pioneers museum, and Wren gave young Jim a pair of skis. Barrows earned the nickname “Moose” and a degree in aeronautical engineering at the University of Colorado.
Before graduating college, Barrows attended the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France. His run for a medal in the downhill event was abruptly halted by a violent crash.
Todd Wilson, a longtime coach at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, went to his first Olympics in 1988. He said walking into the opening ceremony was a moment like none other. For him, everything about making an Olympic debut was exciting.
“How many times have you visualized being in the starting gate at the Olympics as an athlete?” Wilson asked. “For me, that was thousands of times and to finally go, ‘Holy cow, I can’t believe I’m actually here.’”
The first medals
Over the decades, Steamboat had sent dozens of people to the Olympics, earning a reputation for the city, but never a medal.
Then in 1992, moguls skier Nelson Carmichael earned the first medal by a Steamboat athlete when he finished third.
Two years later, there was another Winter Olympics. The Lillehammer 1994 Games were the first Winter Olympics fully separated from the Summer Games. Previously, they were held in the same year but at different locations. The 1994 games marked the start of the modern Olympiad, or four-year cycle.
Moguls skier Ann Battelle was at both the 1992 and 1994 Games. She also made the 1998 and 2002 Games, becoming the first four-time Olympian from Steamboat Springs.
She competed in France, Norway, Japan and the U.S., collecting a wild array of experiences from her travels. Battelle was blown away by the 1992 opening ceremonies, stood under the ski jump in Norway, squeezed down a narrow street in a massive vehicle in Japan and hitched a ride with the Budweiser horses in Salt Lake City.
“That’s what the Olympics is about, the crazy experiences you have that you would never imagine you could have,” Battelle said. “I think I was able to soak it in and be an Olympian in 2002. The pressure was off of me.”
Just three people with ties to Steamboat, including Battelle, have been to four Winter Olympics. Beijing marks Nordic combined athlete Taylor Fletcher’s fourth and likely final Games. The other to compete in four Olympics is Johnny Spillane.
Spillane is a legend for other reasons, as well. Alongside Brett Camerota and Billy Demong, Spillane was a part of the historic 2010 men’s Nordic combined team that went to five Olympics and included Todd Lodwick, who has been to six Olympics.
At the Vancouver Games, Spillane won silver in the normal hill event, becoming the first American to earn a medal in Nordic combined.
“The Olympics are a small fraction of time over the course of a career,” Spillane said. “For me, when I think back on my career, I don’t think of any specific events. I just think about all the different experiences we got to have and doing it as a team.”
Seeing that success, Wilson bought a plane ticket to Vancouver. Wilson had coached at the SSWSC since 1993 and traveled to see his former athletes compete alongside coaches and fellow Olympians Gary Crawford and Martin Bayer.
Surrounded by parents he had seen at local events for years, Wilson watched the U.S. men take silver in the team event.
“A comparable moment to making the Olympic team is watching kids that you have coached win at the highest sports stage in the world,” Wilson said.
That feat was followed by a gold medal performance from Demong in the large hill, while Spillane earned his third silver. With three, Spillane has the most medals of any Steamboat Olympian. He doesn’t have any of them, though. They’re all in museums.
“I’ll get them back eventually,” Spillane said. “They’re either going to sit in the sock drawer at my house or somebody else can look at them.”
First female medalist
Let’s go back a bit. The 1998 Games were the first Olympics with snowboarding events, and Steamboat’s Shannon Dunn-Downing was competing in the halfpipe.
Dunn-Downing got on a snowboard the first winter Steamboat Resort allowed snowboarding, the winter of 1987. She found her love of the sport by going off any side-trail feature she could find.
Ten years later, she went to her first Olympic games and won bronze in women’s halfpipe, becoming the first woman from Steamboat to win a medal.
The Nagano Games in 1998 was a weird place and time to be a snowboarder. Dunn-Downing said riders weren’t sure they wanted to be taken over by the International Ski Federation (FIS) or go to the Olympics. Snowboarders were a grungy, rebellious bunch. They feared the Olympics could make the sport too mainstream.
She said it’s wild to think about the growth of snowboarding since then. Halfpipe is now one of the most-watched sports at the Games.
“I went on a trip with Chloe Kim a few years ago,” Dunn-Downing said. “I was like, ‘When I went (snowboarders) were kind of shunned,’ and she was like, ‘Really?’ She didn’t even know our history with that.”
Steamboat athletes have earned 16 medals over the years, including five gold, eight silver and three bronze.
Vic Wild, who trained in Steamboat but now competes for Russia, earned gold in Alpine snowboarding parallel giant slalom in 2014 and 2018.
At the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, Ester Ledecka won gold in Alpine snowboarding parallel giant slalom and Alpine skiing super-g. Coached by former SSWSC athlete and Olympian Justin Reiter, she became the first woman ever to win two individual golds in Alpine skiing and Alpine snowboarding events. Both are competing in Beijing.
‘It seeds itself’
The thickest thread in Steamboat is that of Nordic combined, and it serves as a great example of the passage of time and torches among athletes.
Wilson looked up to everyone before him. Spillane idolized Dave Jarrett and Ryan Heckman. Fletcher looked up to Spillane, and now the young Nordic combined athletes look up to Fletcher and consider him the “old man” on the team.
“You get to tie your boots next to somebody who’s on the national team or going to junior worlds,” Wilson said. “It seeds itself. It’s a great motivator for these younger athletes and I was no different.”
The 2022 Olympics saw the tally of local Olympians hit 100, and it’s hard to say what that number will be in four years.
“The further I get away from it, the more I appreciate what I did,” Battelle said. “I really was following my dreams. It’s pretty cool to say I had that opportunity and a big part of that is because I had the Steamboat community supporting me.”
To reach Shelby Reardon, call 970-871-4253, email sreardon@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @ByShelbyReardon.
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While warm days and nights are fueling strong flows in the Yampa River through Steamboat Springs, the pace of runoff is expected to dip this week.