It was a chaotic scene in the finish area of Axamer Lizum outside of Innsbruck, Austria. Two 20-year-old men stood locked in embrace. One was this clean cut young man from Stowe, Vermont wearing a stocking cap, the other a powerful looking Basque from Lake Tahoe, California.
In between them stood their coach. The two athletes looked stunned after their come-from-behind Olympic medals on the final day of the 1964 Olympic Winter Games. Their coach carried the broadest smile – a bit of relief but more a deeper understanding and intense pride in what that moment would represent in the history of the U.S. Ski Team.
They simply called him Coach or Beats. An icon of the sport of alpine ski racing and one of its most passionate pioneers, Bob Beattie passed away last week at the age of 85. That moment on February 8, 1964 when Vermonter Billy Kidd won silver and teammate Jimmie Heuga took bronze was a seminal moment in a topsy turvy Olympics where Beattie’s Vince Lombardi-like leadership style came full circle to meet up with success.
“I had a hell of a team in Innsbruck,” said Beattie. “Of the four guys in slalom, any of them could have won! They were that good – Kidd, Heuga, Werner, Ferries.”
The symbolic nature of that day 54 years ago still resonates in the sport decades later. It was literally the birth of the U.S. Ski Team we know today, founded by a brash young coach from New Hampshire who just happened to stumble into ski racing. But like everything in his life, he took it on with fervor.
Life was a battle for Bob Beattie. While he had his detractors, he blazed new territory every day of his life – pioneering a way for futures stars like Phil Mahre, Picabo Street, Julia Mancuso, Bode Miller, Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin.
He generated excitement at every turn and brought the sport of alpine ski racing to television. His voiceover with Frank Gifford of Franz Klammer’s legendary 1967 downhill gold at Innsbruck was a singular moment that every skier of that generation will never forget.
Beattie often credited NFL football coach Vince Lombardi as one of his most notable role models. “It was his strong will that made him successful – ‘This is the way it is and the way it is going to be,'” said Beattie last summer while reminiscing about his own career. “He was sensational. He’s what made it work. I still feel strongly about that. I don’t know if I accomplished that, but I tried.”
Such was Beattie’s style. Whether it was battling Austrian ski officials over race seeding in that historic 1964 season or taking on a community to find a better way for 1,800 young Aspen kids to get involved in the sport, Beattie did it with fervor and passion. He remained true to his principles and never stopped pounding the table to make things better for little kids who found joy in the sport or veteran athletes who needed support to achieve their goals. Fear was not in his vocabulary. He would take on any one or any organization to give his athletes a fair shake.
He wasn’t daunted by roadblocks to new ideas. His vision of a global series of ski races resulted in the birth of the World Cup in 1967. Today, nearly every sport has a global tour. Ski racing was one of the first. Today we watch ski racing on our phones. Bob Beattie got it on television. Every winter in Aspen, thousands of new kids get on skis. Bob Beattie started that. Each season at resorts across America, tens of thousands run racing gates in NASTAR. Bob Beattie popularized that.
And it all stemmed from that day in Innsbruck in 1964. A year of medal promises had come to a close with the first U.S. men’s ski racing medals in Olympic history.
“Billy Kidd and Jimmy Heuga did not fall down the mountain. On the second run over a more open course, they skied better than any Americans had before,” wrote the legendary Dan Jenkins in Sports Illustrated in his cover story In and Out of a Jam. When the disbelieving throngs stared up at the IBM scoreboard, they saw that Kidd, a whirling figure in cap and goggles, and the bare-headed Heuga had clocked the second and third fastest times overall—and the U.S. had its first men’s medals ever … and celebrate the Americans did when Bob Beattie skied down from the top of the run, shouting, waving his poles, literally aflame with pride and joy—was the fact that Kidd finished third in the unofficial alpine combined standings. No American had ever done that, either.”
When Beattie reflected on what success meant, he always came back to focusing on the concept of team. “Winning was about discipline and physical conditioning,” said Beattie. “It was about team, team, team – you have to have a team.”
If there was one favorite within that team for Beattie it was Buddy Werner from the Colorado cowboy town of Steamboat Springs. Buddy became the first American to win the fabled Hahnenkamm downhill in Kitzbuehel, Austria in 1959. He would die in an avalanche on the slopes of Tre Fleur at St. Moritz, Switzerland just two months later.
Last summer Beattie spent a day thinking back on stories of his career. It seemed like every other one was about Buddy. Despite his acclaim and Hahnenkamm glory, Buddy never won an Olympic medal. It was his last race that day in Axamer Lizum. He finished eighth – his best career Olympic finish.
As Beattie talked about the celebration that day, including his own harried descent to the finish to greet his team, he kept coming back to Buddy. He was the guy everyone expected to be on the medals stand. But this was about a team. And Buddy was the first to greet his teammates and to celebrate their success – the team’s success.
“We made the expectations, recalled Beattie. “Along the way we were our best friend and worst enemy. But we believed in it. And we achieved it. It was not a matter of individual success, but that of our team.”