On May 11 of this year, Steven McCain, 65, sat in the district
courthouse in Arapahoe County, Colo., waiting for his past to
unravel. The case concerned McCain's alleged failure to pay full
child support to his ex-wife Wendy, the mother of his teenage
sons Michael and Hans. While McCain fiercely denied the charge,
he had not obeyed a court order to produce complete copies of
his tax returns. As a result Judge James Macrum was obliged to
find him in contempt. "You are going to back yourself into the
county jail," warned Macrum.
This is an article from the Dec. 3, 2001 issue
As McCain heard himself being sentenced to a weekend behind
bars, he knew a few things that the judge did not. For one, he
knew that his real name was not Steven McCain. He knew that he
had once been among the world's most acclaimed freestyle skiers.
He knew that in 1978 he had made an unsuccessful attempt to
import 38 tons of marijuana into the U.S. And he knew that in
addition to Michael, 18, and Hans, 14, he was the father of four
other children, whom he had not seen in more than 23 years,
because, for that time, he had been a fugitive from the law.
"When they fingerprinted me at that jail in Colorado, I knew I
would get caught," he said last month in an interview with
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED at the Federal Detention Center in Seattle.
McCain, though, was not found out immediately. He was released
on Monday, and rather than return to his home in Santa Barbara,
Calif., he stayed in Colorado to spend a few days with his boys,
who lived with their mother in Aurora. They went fishing that
afternoon and then checked into a Motel 6 outside Denver. The
next day McCain was standing in the motel parking lot with his
sons when two U.S. marshals approached him and told him to put
his hands behind his back. "Are you Michael Lund?" one of the
"Yes, I am," he said. Michael and Hans looked at their father,
"Do you remember 23 years ago?" asked the marshal.
"Yes," replied Michael Lund. "Yes, I do."
Stanley Larsen, who was among the handful of freestyle skiers in
Michael Lund's elite class, lives in an airy bungalow in
Seattle, and, like most of the original freestylers, he
remembers his heyday fondly. He maintains a collection of old
videotapes, event programs and advertisements for the
freestylers' frequent appearances on ABC's Wide World of Sports.
He also has mementos from the 52-minute ski show that he, Lund
and two other skiers performed through Europe in the mid-1970s.
The show, an exhibition that featured spectacular aerial
acrobatics, drew huge crowds. After the Shah of Iran saw them
perform in Gstaad, Switzerland, he invited them to ski for him
on a slope in the mountains north of Teheran. The skiers lived
large, flying in private jets, staying in extravagant hotels and
earning thousands of dollars per show. "I had a lot of souvenirs
from those days, too," says Lund. "But the DEA got them all a
Rooted in a grassroots tradition of acrobatics, freestyle skiing
began to catch fire in the early 1970s when filmmakers such as
Dick Barrymore and Warren Miller organized events for their
cameras. The competitions were raucous affairs, and the term
freestyle was apt: Apart from the requirement that you had to
finish the run to get a score, competitors could ski, jump and
flip however they pleased. "If you wanted to ski down on one
ski, the judges scored you for it," says Lund. "If you could do
a flip and land in the chairlift, they scored that. It was all a
form of expression."
No one expressed himself as powerfully as Lund. The old films
show him with a rare combination of elegance and guts. When he
performed his signature Moebius Flip (a reverse somersault with
a 360-degree twist), his midair fluidity resembled a bird's.
Lund excelled in each of the sport's three disciplines--aerial,
mogul and ballet--and in 1975, before a crowd of 35,000 at Sun
Valley, Idaho, he won the freestyle ballet world title with a
slow, wheeling dance down the hill to the strains of Johann
Strauss's Blue Danube. "Mike was a beautiful, beautiful skier,"
recalls freestyler Jake Jakespeare. "He also had a lot of
mystique and intrigue about him, partly because he was older."
By the time freestyling really took hold, Lund was in his
mid-30s and two decades removed from the day in 1952 when, at
age 16, he bought a one-way bus ticket to Sun Valley and left
his parents' home in San Diego to pursue a life on the slopes.
Lund, an only child, had been smitten by skiing when the family
lived in Northern California years before. "I sent my stuff
ahead, care of general delivery, which I guess was a tip that I
was running away," Lund says. "When I got to Sun Valley,
railroad agents were waiting for me. But when they called home,
my parents said, 'Let him stay.'"
Years later Lund had established a reputation as a different
kind of freestyler. "Most of us gave a rebel yell and went out
skiing," Larsen says. "Mike got up early to do yoga and
meditate. He had a connection with the slope no one else seemed
Lund's fellow freestylers dubbed him the Gull, after Jonathan
Livingston Seagull, the eponymous hero of Richard Bach's
best-selling novel about a bird that, by dint of discipline and
perseverance, learns to fly more swiftly and gracefully than any
gull before him. "We gave him that nickname because when you
were around Mike, you felt anything was possible," says Larsen,
47, who today directs commercials. "His name always came up at
our freestyle reunions. Everyone figured he'd sailed off into
the sunset with a lot of money or weed or both. Then a few
months ago an e-mail started circulating around our group. It
said: 'They caught the Gull!'"
By the autumn of 1977 Lund was 41 and his freestyle career was
over. The sport had taken a violent tumble off the public stage
after a series of accidents--and lawsuits against sponsors and
mountain managers--scared resorts away from hosting events.
Lund, a skilled sailor, had taken a job as a yacht salesman in
San Diego when an acquaintance of his, a mechanic named James
Turner, made him an offer he didn't refuse. According to court
documents, Turner and some partners wanted to bring a load of
marijuana into Seattle, and they needed a seaman to captain a
sailboat that would ferry the weed into shore. When the deal was
done, Lund would receive a fee and get to keep the boat. He
procured the Joli, a gorgeous 61-foot racing sloop with a
cobalt-blue hull, a luxury cabin and a seven-story mast. When SI
asked Lund what motivated him to accept the smuggling offer--was
it the money? the adventure?--he replied, "The boat. It was my
opportunity to have a boat I never would have had."
In April 1978 Lund got word that the "mothership" had arrived
from Colombia and was floating off the Washington coast. Lund
was living with Pat Karnik, a woman he'd paired with on the
freestyle circuit's two-person ballet routine. He took her with
him to meet the boat. "We got out there and I saw this huge
freighter, and I knew right then there was no way it could
work," says Lund. "The boats weren't compatible. I thought
they'd have a much smaller vessel."
Making the transfer in the open sea was out of the question--the
mismatched boats clattered against each other in the roiling
waters--so Lund and the freighter's captain agreed to try an
offload at a calm spot in the nearby Strait of Juan de Fuca.
When Lund pulled up to the ship again, a dozen Colombian crew
members spilled onto the deck and began loading bales of
marijuana into the Joli's cargo hold. In response to their
complaining about the cold--hace frio, hace frio--Lund handed
out a bunch of ski sweaters he'd gotten from a sponsor.
The crew filled the Joli's small storage space with more than a
ton of marijuana, but there was much more to unload. While Lund
went to find and purchase a tugboat and barge, the freighter,
named the Helena Star, cruised in a circle offshore. Suspicious
Coast Guard officers stopped the freighter, boarded her and
found the cargo holds packed with 37 tons of marijuana. The haul
was worth about $75 million, making it at the time the largest
drug bust ever in the Pacific Northwest.
As the Coast Guard escorted the Helena Star into port, Lund and
Karnik were on their way out to sea with the tug and barge. "We
saw them passing us, and I said, 'Stay calm. We're just going to
go on about our business,'" says Lund. He steered the barge over
the Canadian border and abandoned it off Vancouver Island.
Karnik returned to Seattle, but Lund remained in Canada. When he
called Karnik a few days later he learned that he was a prime
suspect. "I saw a clip of the bust on TV," Karnik said. "All
these guys were being led off the Helena Star, and they were all
wearing your sweaters."
People say that Michael Lund was a compassionate man, and people
say the same of Steven McCain. For the better part of 10 years
McCain has worked for a construction company in Santa Barbara
and been the loving companion of Gayle Sandell, an elementary
school administrator. "I love him, but this is a shock," says
Sandell. "How could he have not seen his kids all that time? Or
his mother? He told me his mom died when he was two." Sandell
pauses. "I don't know Mike Lund," she says. The statement raises
an obvious question: Does anyone?
After the bust Lund, who was charged with conspiracy to
distribute marijuana in a plot that sent six people to prison,
spent several months moving from hotel to hotel, using various
aliases. He finally settled in Santa Barbara, where in a simple
if somewhat macabre process he assumed his new identity.
Searching graveyards, Lund found the tombstone of a Steven
McCain, who had been born in Pomona, Calif., around the same
time as Lund and had died before he was a year old. Lund went to
a Pomona county office, claimed to be McCain and got a copy of
his birth certificate.
At the time he became McCain, Lund had fathered four children,
two each from separate marriages in his 20s (both of which ended
in divorce). Although he had not been a daily presence in their
lives during his freestyling career, he had often visited his
kids, written them and sent them gifts. Now he didn't contact
them at all. For about a year he spoke sporadically with his
mother, Dorothy, until he worried that her phone was tapped. In
the spring of 1979 Lund met his mom a final time, at a park in
San Diego. They hugged and said goodbye.
Lund speaks of his life with an almost surreal detachment. There
is no remorse but rather a stony aloofness when he talks of his
decision to obliterate one life and embrace another. "Sure, I
was melancholy at times, but I'm a pragmatist," he says. "I look
at things as how they are, and I do what has to be done."
Shortly after moving to Santa Barbara, McCain met Wendy
Starcher, who became his third wife. In the early '80s the
couple moved to Jackson, Wyo., where McCain worked as a handyman
at an inn and Wendy gave birth to Michael and Hans. McCain had a
tight bond with his sons. On Christmas he would ski into the
woods and leave gifts for them to find beneath trees. Even after
the marriage dissolved in 1989 and McCain moved back to
California, where he got his job in construction and fell in
love with Sandell, he saw the boys several weeks each year.
McCain says that he was recognized only once in those years--by
an old acquaintance who promised not to turn him in--and that he
never felt in jeopardy of being discovered. Yet federal agents
kept alive the search for Lund. In 1992 a marshal named Todd
Kupferer, a former California ski bum who had followed Lund as a
youngster, took a keen interest in the case. He staked out the
nursing home where Dorothy lived and was there the night she
died, in 1996. Lund didn't show; nor did he come to her funeral.
"I didn't know Mom had died until I got caught," he says.
Kupferer also monitored Lund's children from his first two
marriages--Eric, now 43; Jody, 42; Heidi, 37; and Kastle, 34. An
agent went to Heidi's San Diego home to ask if Lund had
contacted her. Heidi had last seen her father when she was 13
and believed he was dead. "When we got that visit a chill went
through me," Heidi says. "We made ourselves keep believing he
had died. But we wondered."
McCain was wondering about his old life, too. For all the
happiness of his life in Santa Barbara, the loss of his
identity, and of the children he'd left behind, at last began to
weigh heavily upon him. In early 2000, approaching his 64th
birthday, McCain contacted the county recorder in Beloit, Wis.,
the town where he had been born, and obtained his original birth
certificate. "I was thinking about becoming Mike Lund again," he
Before appearing in court last May for failure to pay child
support, McCain knew the chances were good he would be held in
contempt. He could have avoided it. Wendy wanted less than
$9,000, a sum he could have raised. His tax forms were in order,
yet he failed to produce them. McCain says he wasn't consciously
setting himself up, though he can't explain a slip he made
during testimony: Late in the proceedings he referred to his son
as "Michael Jr." Amazingly, the error went unnoticed; everyone
there thought the man speaking was named Steven.
On Nov. 16 of this year Michael Lund sat in the district
courthouse in Seattle waiting for his future to be decided. Eric
and Heidi were present, seeing their father for the first time
in nearly 25 years. The figure before them--a slight,
white-haired, bespectacled man--cut a contrast to the dashing
athlete they remembered. In a letter Heidi wrote to the court,
she says that she had "loving memories of my father," that she
"never held any animosity or ill feelings" toward him and that
she's "sure he thought of us all often." In interviews with SI
and court documents, Eric and Kastle echoed the sentiments. They
want to know their father again.
Lund's lawyer, Richard Troberman, attached Heidi's letter to his
sentencing memo. "His case is so intriguing," says Troberman.
"It was a high-profile crime, but when you look at it you see
the gang that couldn't shoot straight. It was a big-time venture
but the work of amateurs."
Troberman argued that Lund's "likelihood of recidivism is nil,"
and in addition to Heidi's letter he included one from Michael
McCain, now 19. "[My father] has shown me that a humble man is
one that others can trust and respect," Michael wrote. "I've
learned modesty as more than a word...[it's] a great tool to
achieve satisfaction." Judge John Coughenour said the letter
made him cry. It showed, he said, that Lund's transformation
from glamorous skier to fugitive to quiet role model was
complete. He gave Lund the sentence that Troberman asked for: a
year and a day. With time served and other reductions, Lund
could be free by February.
The slopes will be covered then, and Lund hopes to ski with the
children who are back in his life. His form is still
exceptional, and he can imagine no greater thrill, he says, than
to be bombing down the lift line and hear someone shout out
above him, 'Hey, look at that old guy ski!'"
mystique and intrigue about him, partly because he was older."
"His name always came up at our reunions. Everyone figured he'd
sailed off into the sunset with a lot of money or weed or both."
children he'd left behind began to weigh heavily upon him.