The Man on the Medal
by Peter Shelton
Nov 11, 2009 | 1734 views | 0 0 comments | 23 23 recommendations | email to a friend | print

In Aspen last week for a pre-season blowout sale, we got the goodies we’d come for (two pairs of ever-so-slightly-used carving skis – cheap), and we got a serendipitous shot of living ski history.

Cecily’s assignment was to score some p-tex candles. Her husband Mike has been up high already making thin turns on Trico Peak. His board has paid a price, and thus the need for base repair.

Cecily looked around at downtown Aspen with almost new eyes. “Where did the Chamberlains live?” she asked. It had been at least two decades since we’d visited friends on W. Francis Street with our little girls. The Chamberlain house had, Cecily remembered, a steep, carpeted stairway, down which both girls plunged head-first on their bellies again and again. It was more memorable than the skiing we must also have done.

Now we wandered quiet streets and pedestrian malls crunchy with leaves, but none of the ski shops we visited had any p-tex. Or they hadn’t brought the ski-tuning stuff out yet. Or in one instance, we’re pretty sure, the twenty-something salesperson didn’t actually know what we were talking about.

Then we spied Durrance Sports, a name freighted with meaning for even casual students of ski history. I didn’t know if Cecily recognized the name, whether I might have mentioned it before, or if she might have read about Dick Durrance in one of the ski books I’ve got downstairs.

The shop was narrow, elegant and spare, with a careful selection of shapely new skis in the window. We asked about p-tex and the balding, bespectacled man behind the counter immediately pulled a drawer and produced two packets.

I directed Cecily’s attention to a book on the counter, Dick Durrance’s autobiography, The Man on the Medal. It’s called that because Durrance’s bas-relief likeness for many years graced the medals awarded at the U.S. National Alpine Championships.

In his day, in the 1930s and 40s, Durrance was the Man. The man who won everything on this side of the Atlantic, went over to the Alps and became the first American to beat the European skimeisters on their hoary courses. He had a nose for speed – literally a hawk’s beak – short, piston legs and an unmatched feel for the snow. And after he was done racing, all he did was help build Sun Valley, run the ski school and the lodge at Alta (his photographer wife, Margaret, sewed curtains and bedspreads and knitted all the ski school sweaters), and then become the first general manager of the Aspen Skiing Company.

In 1950 he convinced the International Skiing Federation to hold the World Championships – for the first time outside the Alps – in ghost-town Aspen.

And then he was a filmmaker, producing and directing 44 movies, many of them about skiing, before retiring in 1993.

The more I looked at the man behind the counter and the picture on the wall behind him, the more it made sense. Another iconic black-and-white photo featured Dick Durrance’s two apple-cheeked sons riding Aspen’s first T-bar.

“I’m Dave,” he said, “the one on the left.” The older brother beside him was Dicky.

I had introduced their father to the Opera House crowd at Telluride’s Mountainfilm festival in the mid-90s, when he came with a bunch of his old movies. My favorite was one of Dick and friends skiing on pine needles in New Hampshire in the 40s – not just slapsticking around but ripping turns back and forth through steep trees, flipping over roots, sticking the landings.

Somehow we segued to Bear Valley in California’s Sierra where Cecily’s mother and I taught skiing in the 1970s. Dave knew it well. He competed in the National Championships there in 1969. It snowed, of course. Three and a half feet in one afternoon. Classic. We laughed. Every time the World Pro Skiing circuit came to Bear Valley in the years Ellen and I were there, it pounded snow. Ridiculous amounts of snow. Too much snow for the kind of racing they do now. Dave’s eyes widened as he recalled shoulder-high ruts for the slalom.

Yes! It was like that when we were there, too. We knew a lot of the same people, some of the same stories. History and memory filled the little space around the counter.

Margaret Durrance passed away in 2002, Dick in 2004, at 89. “He was pissed that she went first,” Dave volunteered, as if we, practically family now, would understand.

After a while Dave had to go help other customers. I stole one more glance at The Man on the Medal. It’s an astonishing photograph, from 1937 on a trip to New Zealand after Dick competed in the 1936 Garmisch Olympics. He’s planing through backlit snow bearing down on the camera, wearing a short-sleeved shirt, no hat, no gloves, arms wide, hickory skis way up on edge throwing precise, matching contrails. Those old boards, with the funny carved points on the tips, are slicing an arc so crisp, so ecstatic, any modern super-sidecut tool would be proud to match it.

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