When winter storms howl through the Rocky Mountains, the roads around Colorado's Aspen ski complex become treacherous and air travel ceases. Aspen's 2,500 permanent residents and 3,000 floating tourists are, in effect, imprisoned. But this never causes undue alarm. In such times Aspen is the swingingest prison in the world.
Last week as storms of classic ferocity closed Aspen in, the more adventurous inmates skied a little and everybody after-skied a lot, from sauna to fireside to jumping jazz spots like the place where Pianist Teddy Wilson's fingers wedeled on the keys.
Out on the mountain Aspen throbbed to a different beat, for the best racers in North America were competing for the 19th annual Roch Cup Championships. For three days they came floating down from the 10,800-foot level in eerie, flat light, slithering like high-speed ghosts through shadowy spruce groves.
This was to have been a meet in which the leading Americans scrapped among themselves for the major victories. Most of these were accorded in advance to National Alpine Coach Bob Beattie and his rigorously trained team. And it should be said at once that the American ace, Billy Kidd, the transplanted Vermonter who races on Beattie's own University of Colorado team, handily captured the most important silver. With reckless poise he swept the men's downhill, slalom and giant slalom and thus the Roch Cup itself, and he is undoubtedly in the form of his life for the international meet that will bring the Austrian and French national teams to America next month.
This was a case of a world-class skier proving his class. Aspen's surprise was its revelation of a bold new Canadian posture in world ski racing—one to rival that nation's successes in indoor track. The Canadians turned up at Aspen travel-weary and unheralded, but with their first full-time coach and an ambitious new goal.
"We did not come here to win everything in sight—this time," said Coach Dave Jacobs, standing above the cloud line on the mountain and feeding his racers one at a time into the starting gate. "But we will win in the future. Watch us. This is our first year under a new Canadian program. It should get results. We copied it exactly—and un-blushingly—from the Americans."
Results? The Canadians got them in a hurry. Jacobs brought along nine boys and eight girls, one of them a moppet of 15. All were in uniforms consisting mostly of ski pants and eager looks. The most eager-looking was 21-year-old Nancy Greene. At 5 foot 2 she could play Little Annie Rooney on the stage. She is wistful and big-eyed and stands small and slender beside the American girls. But oh, what that 5 foot 2 can do! Among other things, Nancy Greene can do 40 deep knee bends with a 170-pound barbell across her shoulders, and she skis like a blizzard. She deceived everybody two years ago and won the downhill at Aspen. As a Canadian Olympian at Innsbruck she dashed to seventh in the downhill, the first North American girl across the line.
Last week Nancy stood Aspen on its frosty ear. On Friday she slashed her way through the gray light on a downhill course that was—to her tough way of thinking—not fast enough, and she outskied all the Americans.
"Mark that one down," said Nancy at the finish line, looking tiny and innocent and eating a chocolate bar that broke into hard pieces in the cold. "Canada won that event. We may look funny here, but we mean business. Do you know how we train in Canada? We didn't have any regulation slalom or downhill poles, see, so we made them ourselves. And know what we did? We painted them in real nice colors. We're the only country in international racing that uses aqua and pink and mauve and pale-yellow poles. They're very pretty, really, and we go just as fast through them. Don't you think?"
When Nancy got through with them the only shade the American girls could see was Greene. On Saturday she slipped in first in the slalom. On Sunday she placed fourth in the giant slalom to America's Linda Meyers. Not winning made her so mad she raced down the giant slalom course again as self-punishment, but she had taken the combined championship and the Bingham Cup, the girls' equivalent of the Roch Cup.
More evidence of the Canadian push came from studious Peter Duncan, a tall stripling unfamiliar to the world of big-time Alpine racing. He followed Kidd home second in the slalom, walloping such American Olympians as Jim Heuga and Bill Marolt, and added a neat third in the giant slalom.
Coach Jacobs sees still faster days ahead. "Canada must first break the psychological barrier in ski racing," he said. "The Americans have already done it. They don't think that European racers are supermen anymore. We're developing that attitude with this new plan."
The new program is familiar enough: the national team is closely tied to a college. In the U.S. the home base is Colorado U.; in Canada it is tiny Notre Dame University of Nelson, B.C.
"We picked Notre Dame last year for a special reason," explained Jacobs. "It is small, with a student body of about 600. There are good facilities nearby for ski training. The town of Nelson has other facilities that fit our purpose: a good high school, a good art school and an excellent vocational school. When I was asked to take on the coaching job full time I contacted all the best young racers in Canada and persuaded them to come to Nelson. That wasn't too hard. Then I had to convince them to pay $1,500 a season to cover their coaching, travel, room and board at the school. Tuition costs them more. Something like another $600.
"We now have a team of 20 racers. Eleven are enrolled at Notre Dame; five are in the high school, one is in the art school. The others work in town. What is important now is that we are all together. We are training as a team for the first time. And we are developing a new mood and sense of national pride."
Not to mention national grit: to get to the races the Canadians piled helmets and skis into two Volkswagen buses and drove four hours to Spokane. Then they took a train to Denver. It was a rattling 30-hour ride. In Denver they rented three cars and a station wagon and drove another six hours to Aspen over snow-slicked roads.
Coach Beattie got the message. "The Canadians are here," he announced to his American team. "This is wonderful. I mean it. We have to have major competition in America on the big mountains. Well, we are getting it."
To an interviewer he added: "Now it all starts for Canada and Coach Jacobs. This meet will touch Canada off. Now national pressures will be on him and his team as never before. Now Canada will want to win."
And then—with the flair for the provocative that kept him lightly sautéing in his personal frying pan last winter until his tough talk was redeemed with Olympic medals—Beattie concluded: "You know what? It looks like the center of international racing competition is moving to the North American continent."
Put that in your Kandahar, Austria; slide that one down Chamonix, France. See you in March.