When he is traveling down a mountain with a pair of skis strapped to his feet, Buddy Werner is the fastest man in America. But in overland travel of the more conventional type he has set one record notable for its slowness: 24 years to negotiate the 87 miles from Steamboat Springs to Boulder, Colo. This is not because Buddy, who was born and raised in Steamboat Springs, had an uncommon urge to stay home. Quite the opposite; he has spent the past five years in a spectacular winter carnival that took him to the leading ski palaces of the world—St. Moritz, Bad Gastein, Kitzb√ºhel, Aspen, Portillo. Now, back from the grand tour, Buddy has finally turned up in Boulder—as a sophomore on the University of Colorado ski team.
"I decided it was essential to finish college," says Werner. "I've had a lot of tempting offers to go into business, but I've turned them down. Right now my name means something, but if the day comes when it doesn't, I'll need something to fall back on. Besides, my parents would like to see me do it. They never said anything while I skied all over Europe and had a good time. I'd like to do it for them."
Whatever joy he brings his parents by studying will be at least equaled by the joy he brings the university by skiing. For the past two years the Colorado ski team has won the national intercollegiate championship. And now, with six of the eight members of last year's title-winning squad already back in school, Colorado finds itself blessed with Werner, probably the most accomplished sophomore athlete ever to appear on any college team.
In fact, Werner's appearance is a double blessing at Boulder: not only is he skiing for Colorado but, equally important, he is not skiing for Denver University.
Until the emergence of Colorado, Denver, under the coaching of Willy Schaeffler, was the No. 1 power in college skiing; and it was at Denver that Buddy Werner first enrolled as a freshman. That was in 1954; but he left in the middle of his freshman year to go on the international racing circuit. When he decided to go back to college, a number of people, not the least of whom was Schaeffler, thought he would naturally go back to Denver. But Buddy switched colleges out of friendship for Colorado's 28-year-old coach, Bob Beattie, under whose supervision Werner had trained during his last season on the circuit.
Pleased as Beattie is to have Werner on this year's team, he feels that it could create a number of problems. One of them is morale. "Our team is made up of young American boys from small towns," says Beattie. aware of the Europeans and Canadians—some as old as 30—who abound on rival teams. "We treat everybody the same. We train hard. No smoking, no drinking. We push pride and spirit. Much of our success in the last two years has been due to discipline.
"Now, along comes Werner. Most people don't realize it, but in Europe he's a celebrity. He can't walk down the street without getting mobbed by autograph hounds. Since coming here he's received a lot of attention. Having someone of Buddy's stature on the team could wreck our system. But it won't," says Beattie, firmly. "It won't because of the way Buddy is. He may have been around the world, but he's still just a kid from Steamboat Springs."
How are the girls?
Of course, Buddy is not just a kid from Steamboat Springs. He is no longer Der Bashful Skiboy von Colorado, as a German sportswriter once described him. He is poised, quite worldly and will never be just one of the troops on the Colorado squad. True, the other skiers kid him a lot—the ancient cliché of acceptance on an athletic team—but they also never seem to tire of asking him questions: how old he was when he competed for his first world championship (17), does he get his ski equipment free (yes) and how the girls are in Europe (pretty).
"Buddy has been sort of an idol to us all," says Larry Simoneau, one of the team's best jumpers. "He's a real hard worker and that sets a good example for the rest of us. It's great to have him on the team."
Another question mark about Werner has been the condition of his right leg, which he broke while preparing for the Olympics a year ago, thus forfeiting an odds-on chance for anywhere from one to three gold medals. Werner was skiing a practice slalom at Aspen when the tip of one ski crossed the other. As he fell he heard a loud pop and he recalls thinking rather casually, "Oh, hell, I broke my leg." Then he felt the pain.
The bone below his right knee had twisted and shredded apart. It was an ugly break to repair, and had to be set twice before it was perfect. Five screws were inserted into the bone to keep it in place. When the screws were finally removed not long ago, Buddy took them home in a bottle, a souvenir of disaster.
During the summer he took long hikes through the mountains to strengthen his leg. He also got a job with a power-line company near his home, climbing telephone poles. When the fall term began, his leg was strong again, although he still feels an occasional ache after a workout.
If Werner uses any caution at all, the leg should hold up. But Buddy has never been a cautious skier. In fact, he is regarded as a daredevil, and though his daring has made him the only American ever to win a major European ski title, it has also cost him a number of major championships that a more cautious skier might have won. When he broke his leg, Austria's top skiers, Anderl Molterer and Karl Schranz, said, "The trouble with Buddy is that he risks too much. If we were to take all the chances he takes, we'd probably be five seconds faster. But taking all the chances is not the best way to ski in a race."
Werner himself concedes he takes a lot of chances, but says that because he has generally been America's lone contender in Europe his spills have been more noticeable. In most meets it was Werner against dozens of Austrians, Germans, French and Swiss. When one of them fell, there were always others. When Werner fell, America fell, too.
Werner thinks things will be easier skiing in college. "Chances won't need to be taken," he says. "At least, not as many. In Europe the top five skiers in a meet are likely to be the top five skiers in the world. That won't be a problem in college skiing."
Assuming that he can overcome his fame, his bad leg and his tendency to take spectacular spills, Buddy faces yet another challenge. In college ski meets a team's final score is figured by the point totals accumulated in four events: slalom, downhill, jumping and cross-country. Beattie hopes that Werner will be able to score in all four. This is a little like asking Herb Elliott to run the mile and half mile, then go out and throw the javelin and put the shot. The slalom and downhill are Werner's money events. Against college competition he will win both in almost every meet. But Werner hasn't jumped since he left high school, and he has almost never tried cross-country. Still, there is the possibility that in any given meet he could win three events and, before he is through, perhaps even four.
"I'm certain he'll be able to jump," says Beattie. "He was good at that when he was a kid. As for cross-country, right now he doesn't look good. But I'd hate to bet against him. Anybody with his talent and his desire to win can't be ruled out."