By tradition, great ski racers sprout like edelweiss from the sides of 10,000-foot Alpine peaks and learn to ski by racing downhill to school each morning. As a group they run curiously to a definite type: stocky and thick-legged, with the glow of rugged good health about them and names such as Christian and Karl and Francois. They are artists, in a way, as jealous of their supremacy as concert violinists, and one does not join the troupe simply by knocking on the door and asking to be let in.
In the midst of this tight little European fraternity there appeared last winter a tall, asthmatic 22-year-old American named Chuck Ferries (see cover) who had sprouted from the side of a 400-foot hill in Houghton, Mich. Although not a complete stranger to the territory, he looked less like a ski racer than some university student who had missed connections to Vienna. If so, this was about all that Chuck Ferries missed. He won two of five major slalom races in Europe, including Austria's own backyard World Series, the Hahnenkamm at Kitzb√ºhel, and at season's end was ranked among the half dozen best slalom men in the world. Never before had an American skier made a score like this in one winter. Now, with the 1964 Olympics less than a year away, Ferries must be given as good a chance at a gold medal as anyone else.
This is a most unusual development in the world of Alpine ski racing, where only Buddy Werner, among all the American men who have tried, ever arrived at a position of such eminence before. But Werner did it in the downhill, and he was a special case, almost a freak, whose skills and ability developed long before and far beyond those around him. Ferries, on the other hand, seems to have arrived at the peak only a step or two ahead of an American horde, and this, in some ways, is the most unusual development of all. Close behind Chuck—and sometimes all around him and occasionally on top of him—swarms a double handful of Americans in the same class, so many good ones, in fact, that Ferries is never quite sure from week to week whether he really is the best.
"People ask me why I didn't go back to Europe this year," he says. "Heck, I've got all the competition I can handle right here."
March 11, 1963
There is Werner, of course, more determined than ever at 27 to prove himself again, to capture some of the almost certain glory that disappeared in a shower of snow on the day that he broke his leg in the training camp before Squaw Valley. But there are also young Billy Kidd of Stowe, Vt., who on occasion has soundly trounced both Ferries and Werner this year, and two other 19-year-olds of talent, Jimmy Heuga and Billy Marolt. Gordy Eaton, 23, has long been considered an outstanding downhill prospect, while Ni Orsi, only 18 and a superb all-round athlete, may turn out to be the best downhiller of all. Dave Gorsuch, a member of both the 1958 FIS and 1960 Olympic teams, has been racing hard again—he has beaten Ferries, too—and there are others. Together they offer promise of fulfillment of a dream that has tantalized U.S. ski officials for years: that a day would come when American men could challenge Europeans in a major meet with not one but half a dozen racers capable of finishing first.
"I think we're about there." says Bob Beattie, the young Olympic coach whose organizational ability and enthusiasm (SI, Jan. 14) have produced these results far sooner than anyone dared hope. "We're not trying to build a team around Ferries and Werner. We want 10, maybe 20 boys, any one capable of beating the others. But to be realistic, you'd have to say that Chuck got there first. By winning those two big races in Europe last year he proved that he was the best U.S. slalom racer and one of the best in the world. He also proved what we have been telling the lads: an American can finish first. Now it should be easier for others to follow."
It will be easier for others to follow Ferries than it would have been for Ferries to follow anyone else. Stubbornly independent, he is the product of his own fierce determination and little else.
Had America's early pioneers been just a shade less adventurous, for example, Houghton, Mich., would not have been discovered yet. It lies on the Keweenaw Peninsula, jutting into Lake Superior north of Ishpeming and Watersmeet and Iron Mountain, far north of Madison and Milwaukee, north of almost anyplace. "It takes two days to get there from Chicago," Chuck says. "You can't believe where Houghton is unless you look it up on a map."
Above Houghton, where his father was a dentist, Chuck began to ski at the age of 5 on Big Quincy Hill. Near by was Mont Ripley, a ski slope operated by Michigan Tech; at Mont Ripley, as college coach and head of the ski school, was Fred Lonsdorf. "I began to notice this little kid hanging around the edge of ski classes," Lonsdorf says. "He was sneaking lessons—and he never missed a day." When Chuck was 7, Lonsdorf shrugged and invited the boy to join in. Lonsdorf soon discovered that he had also inherited Mary Ann Ferries, who was to become a good racer, and Barbara Ferries, who sometimes looks like a great racer, and eventually Jimmy Ferries, now 14 and a member of the Houghton High School team. "Chuck won his first slalom when he was 10," Lonsdorf says, "and by the time he was 13 he was beating my college men." When he was 16 Chuck ran away from home to find a bigger mountain.
"All those years I had been practicing slalom three hours a day," Chuck says. "Then I would go off to a junior race in Wyoming or Montana and get beaten in the downhill. I decided that I'd never learn to race on a 400-foot hill."
In October of 1955 Chuck told his mother that he was going to spend the night with a friend. He gathered up $300 he had saved from a summer job with a power company, lowered his suitcase and ski poles down a rope from his bedroom window and fled on a train to Chicago. "I was afraid to take my skis. I even asked a stranger, some guy hanging around the station, to buy me a ticket." From Chicago he went to Sun Valley. No snow. He went to Alta, Utah and got a job washing dishes and pouring coffee in a lodge to pay for his room and board. And he began to ski on a real mountain.
"For two weeks I had a ball. Then I began to worry. So I called home and told my parents where I was. 'I'd sure like to stay out here,' I said. Since I was all right and had already missed so much school anyway, they decided that I might just as well stay until the next semester. Boy, was I happy. Then I broke an ankle the next week." Back home by Thanksgiving, Chuck caught up on his grades—but never really took his eyes off the Rockies.
By the fall of 1956 the Ferrieses were more or less resigned, and they let Chuck go off on his own to Aspen. He lived in a bunkhouse that belonged to the Snow Chase Ski Club of Chicago and earned his bed by getting up every two hours of the night, all winter long, to put coal in the bunkhouse stove. He also made the honor roll in the local school and learned to ski a big mountain. "I began to think seriously about the '60 Olympics," he says. "I was winning junior races by three and four seconds. When I finished fourth in the 1957 Roch Cup slalom behind the best men, Toni Sailer and Christian Pravda and Tommy Corcoran, I figured I had it made. I was only 17 and I was the hottest thing on skis. Then I really began to learn about ski racing. I cooled off and skied badly the rest of the year."
Sleep in the Red Onion
In the next four years Chuck won a few and lost a lot. Sometimes he was ready to quit, and then a race, usually a late-season race in which he did very well—he has always been a slow starter—would encourage him to keep on. He received a scholarship to the University of Denver and went there to study finance and to learn more about skiing under that controversial technician, Willy Schaeffler. He was more or less adopted by Francois de Gunzburg, an independent oil operator and promoter who was to develop ski facilities at Mt. Alyeska outside Anchorage, Alaska, where the national championships will be held early next month. When his money ran low in the winter quarter of 1958, Chuck dropped out of college temporarily and went back to Aspen, where he worked and slept in the Red Onion restaurant and skied on the Aspen Ski Patrol. And, naturally, raced.
With the best Americans in Europe for the 1958 FIS meet. Chuck won both the downhill and giant slalom in the Roch Cup, and he won the national slalom by almost six seconds. He went to Europe in '59, with De Gunzburg's help, and discovered what American skiers had been discovering for years: "I just wasn't in their class." Out of condition, he was injured in a fall at Chamonix, and only the encouragement of America's best woman racer. Penny Pitou, kept Chuck from catching the first plane home. "Buddy Werner and Max Marolt were over there, too," says Chuck, "but they would hardly speak to me. I was just a cocky kid and I had to learn for myself. Buddy is funny. When you're good and you prove it to him, he's the first to welcome you to the crowd. But until you do prove it, you're an outsider. We're the greatest of friends now, but we weren't then and we weren't for a long time afterward, either."
Back in the States at the end of the season, Chuck finished second by just .1 second to Werner in the slalom at Stowe and also ran second to Buddy in the giant slalom. This earned him a place on the '60 Olympic training squad, and although he failed to complete the first run at Squaw Valley another season finale at Stowe kept him from chucking the whole thing. He tied Guy Périllat of France on the first slalom run there and would probably have won the race except that he straddled the last gate the second time down.
"I began to realize what I was doing wrong," he says. "All I could think about was winning. Second place was nothing. So I was trying to ski every run faster than I could ski. I was pushing too hard, driving myself beyond my ability. You just can't do that in slalom racing; you can only go as fast as you can go. Beyond that point you miss a gate or you fall, and you can't win many races by falling down."
In 1961 Chuck beat Werner for the first time, winning the Snow Cup giant slalom at Alta. "Buddy was rusty," Chuck says now. "Maybe he hadn't recovered from that broken leg. But the important thing to me was that I had beaten him." Ferries also won the Roch Cup slalom by six seconds and then skied on the Denver team that won the national collegiate championship from the University of Colorado. "That was important to me, too," Chuck says. "College skiing is much more of a team sport, and maybe I learned something about being part of a team."
Last winter Chuck moved on to another team, the young, highly promising FIS crew that Beattie took to Chamonix. Also a member of the group was Barbara Ferries, who at the age of 17 seemed about to ski right past her big brother. She had arrived with a rush the year before, sweeping almost every women's race in the U.S. Now Chuck really felt that he belonged. Barbara was there, Werner was his friend, everything was all right. The only trouble was that Chuck seemed to be the least promising skier in training. "I couldn't finish a course," he says. "I fell, I missed gates, I did everything wrong. I was trying to ski too fast again. I was so mad at myself that I was tied up in knots. Beattie was great, but I think he must have begun to wonder."
Just before the team broke training camp at Val-d' Is√®re, Werner and Ferries went up the mountain to work on technique together. "When we came down," says Chuck, "I felt a lot better. Then we had a week's holiday over Christmas. Buddy, Gordy Eaton and I rented a car and drove into Switzerland. We didn't put on a ski for seven days. When we came back I finished fourth in a slalom race in a little French town no one had ever heard of. Just a local affair. But I finished, and I knew then that everything would be all right."
This unknown American
After the first run of the slalom at Kitzb√ºhel, Chuck was in eighth place. But on the second he tore the course apart, turning in a time of 69.7 seconds, which was the best of the day, and he beat Perillat by .7 second, Behind the two came some of the great slalom racers of the Alps: Gerhard Nenning and Pepi Stiegler of Austria, Fran√ßois Bonlieu and Charles Bozon of France, Austria's Hias Leitner. The next week at Cortina, Ferries won again, beating Bozon, Karl Schranz of Austria and Périllat, among others. The European papers were full of this unknown American and his remarkable feat. The Americans—Werner, Heuga, Kidd, Marolt, Beattie, the entire team—were ecstatic. "You see, you can do it," Beattie kept saying, "you can do it." Chuck grins. "It was wonderful," he says.
In the terrible snowstorm that enveloped Chamonix on the day of the world slalom championship. Werner ranked third after the first run and Ferries fourth. Both fell down the second time-along with a long, distinguished list of others—while Bozon stayed on his skis to win. But for the trip as a whole the Americans had done well. Werner was winning again—the giant slalom at Courchevel, the giant slalom at Oslo—the youngsters were beginning to finish in the first 10 with consistency and Ferries had won those two big races. Beattie and his team were already looking ahead to Innsbruck in 1964.
Before 1964, however, there is the rest of 1963, and it is during this season that Chuck Ferries and the others must perfect their skills if there are to be medals at Innsbruck after all. No one realizes this more than Ferries. Married to Judy Voyles in October and studying hard so that he can finish college this fall, he has still managed to find time to race almost every weekend since going to the national Alpine training camp in December at Vail, Colo.
"As usual," he says, "I got off to a lousy start."
In his first race, a downhill, he was disqualified for jumping the start. A few days later he caught a tip on the first gate of a slalom race and was disqualified. Then Chuck won the slalom, finished second in the downhill and won the combined at the Southern Rocky Mountain championships. He was second to Gorsuch in both the slalom and giant slalom at the Air Force Academy Invitational on January 19 and 20 but sharpened up and walked off with the big Broadmoor International Slalom Derby at Colorado Springs, Colo., finishing ahead of Werner and Gorsuch. In early February he won the Roch Cup giant slalom and combined (Billy Kidd won both the downhill and slalom, with Werner second), and since then it has been nip and tuck among the three Americans, who really don't seem to need that European competition so much anymore.
"Personally, I still think Buddy Werner is the best American skier," says Chuck. "I'm not convinced that he isn't the best in the world. But the big thing is that a lot of guys are catching up. The entire attitude has changed. Beattie isn't looking for someone to go along on the team just for the ride. He wants people who can win. And everybody seems to want to win now. Most U.S. skiers used to spend all their time drinking and having a good time and running around. Now they spend all their time trying to beat you."
As far as the other Americans are concerned, the man to beat in any slalom race is Chuck Ferries. "He never looks so good in training," says Schaeffler, "and he seldom wins the little race. But in the big race he is always ready, like a racehorse. He's the coolest person around. Tremendous concentration. Sometimes he gets a little mad at himself and he gets a little too tight, physically, but mentally he is perfect. He makes a mistake and forgets it. He doesn't let it bother him for two weeks, like it does other people. He goes right back up and the next time he does it right.
"The first time I ever saw Chuck, in a junior race, he didn't look any better than half the kids around. But I liked the way he made his own way, not asking anything of anybody. That showed determination and spirit. There was never any question what he was there for; he was there to win. He wanted to be better than anyone else. I think in the slalom, at least, he is. On a really steep hill, on hard, icy conditions, he's the best around."
As a skier Chuck is unusually strong for his 5 feet 11 inches and 160 pounds. He has amazing leg muscles and incredibly quick reactions. "Like a snake," Schaeffler says. He has also learned a great deal about slalom racing, and he continues to learn every year. "This season, for example," says Chuck, "I have been turning more on my uphill ski." He grins. "Against all the basic lessons of good skiing. But I find that I can come out of a gate six inches or a foot higher than before, and you have to use everything you can. I've learned to handle the ice—in fact, I can't even race on soft snow anymore—and this is important, particularly in Europe.
"I want to win this year, of course. There is still the collegiate meet, the Harriman Cup at Sun Valley and the nationals in Alaska. I worked for Francois up there the last couple of summers as assistant area manager, and I really want to win in Alaska. But the important thing is Europe next year. All the big races and then Innsbruck.
"I know how to win now, and I know that I can win. The important thing is to go over there and win. We surprised them a bit last year. We might really surprise someone in '64."