Sven Wiik remembered for ensuring Nordic skiing’s place in Steamboat, gently encouraging young athletes

Tom Ross
Dr. Dan Smilkstein, left, and longtime Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club cross-country skiing Coach Greg Burkholder, right, were among the many well-wishers at Sven Wiik's 94th birthday party in 2015 who were eager to be photographed with the skiing hall of famer who died July 5, 2016, at 95.
file photo

Services for Sven Wiik

The family of Sven Wiik is tentatively planning an autumn memorial service.

— Sven Wiik, a genial and tireless proponent of Nordic skiing in Colorado and a member of both the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame and U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame, died of natural causes July 5 at Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs. He was 95.

Among his accomplishments, Wiik coached the 1960 U.S. Olympic cross-country ski team in Squaw Valley, California, as well as the 1958 World Championship team, and with coach Marty Hall, designed the course of the Birkebeiner — North America’s premier ski marathon from Cable to Hayward, Wisconsin.

United States Ski and Snowboard Association President and CEO Tiger Shaw wrote in an e-mail July 6 that the pioneering efforts of coaches like Wiik helped to set the stage for the success American cross-country ski athletes are having today.

“Our country was blessed to have him bring his passion for skiing to America and to give so much back to the sport he loved,” Shaw said. “I was proud to ski on some of the trails he developed for the Slumberland American Birkebeiner this past season.”

Wiik was born in Solleftea, Sweden, on Feb. 27, 1921, and competed in the demonstration sport of gymnastics in the 1948 Olympics in London. He came to America the next year, landing briefly in Chicago. Wiik had an offer to coach at Lake Placid, New York, but Gerry Groswold, who would later become the president of Winter Park Ski Area, urged the young man to contact Western State College in Gunnison.

Wiik followed up on that advice, which led to a 19-year role as an assistant professor of health and physical education and ski coach there.

After the 1960 Winter Olympics, Sven and his wife, Birthe (Bitte), moved to Steamboat from Gunnison where they built the Scandinavian Lodge. Later, they established the Steamboat Ski Touring Center on a golf course not far removed from Steamboat Ski Area. Their daughter Birgitta Lindgren and granddaughter Kajsa Lindgren are continuing the family tradition at the touring center.

In 2012, at Wiik’s 91st birthday party, one of his former collegiate athletes explained what made “coach” so effective. Tiger Demers, a two-time NCAA skiing champion and 1964 Olympian, said Wiik’s approach to coaching was lighthearted.

“Sven made training fun,” Demers said. “Everything we did, he made it fun.”

Encouraging developing Nordic skiers with kindness

Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club cross-country program director Brian Tate, who named his sun after Sven, said Wiik was an inspiration for his constant presence on the trails.

“We were touched by his kindness and enthusiasm for the sport, all through the years,” Tate said. “He never let up with his support for the kids. His passion for cross-country skiing and the admiration for kids who put effort into the sport was always present.”

Former longtime U.S. Nordic Combined (cross-country skiing and ski jumping combined into a single event) head coach Tom Steitz said Wiik’s credibility within the Steamboat resort community as well as in international skiing was a significant factor in Steitz’s efforts to elevate the stature of his sport and the U.S. team into a World Cup and Olympic medal contender and winner. But first, Steitz said, Wiik was instrumental in ensuring Nordic sports in general would always have a place here.

“Sven was an ally of mine,” Steitz said. “When he got behind a project, it was not just a crazy coach trying to do something. He had deep connections and the respect of the community.”

Olympian and current Winter Sports Club ski jumping and Nordic combined program director Todd Wilson said in his opinion, Wiik and his family put cross-country skiing on the map in Steamboat and Colorado while extending hospitality to athletes.

“The Scandinavian Lodge was where all Nordic skiers stayed in Steamboat, and where we stayed when I was on the U.S. Ski Team training here,” Wilson said. “Of course, we all skied at the touring center, and everyone who walked in the door at either place became a friend of Sven’s.”

It should not be overlooked that Wiik’s own competitive drive continued to smolder just beneath the surface, well into his 80s.

Upon returning from the 2008 Masters World Cup cross-country ski championships in Idaho, Wiik, 87, at the time, was barely hiding his disappointment over bringing home two silver medals instead of gold in the men’s 85-99 age group. Never mind that he had been competing in the championships for 28 years and had a chest full of medals, many of them gold.

Always the gentleman, he told Steamboat Today, “I (compete) to stay active and for my health. It gives me a reason to get out there and ski. And I look forward to visiting with friends I’ve had for 30 years.”

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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