Q&A with Peak Performers Nordic skiing runner-up Gene Dayton
Patriarch of Summit's first family of Nordic skiing chats family's past, present, future
DILLON — Gene Dayton, 77, is the patriarch of what many Summit County locals would describe as the first family of Summit Nordic skiing.
After transitioning from a swimming career at Florida State University, Dayton was the founding father of modern Nordic skiing in Summit County, instrumental in what the Breckenridge and Frisco Nordic centers have become while also helping to found the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center. Dayton is a successful master’s champion skier — along with his wife, Therese — who raised accomplished cross-country skiing children, including 2002 U.S. Olympian Matt Dayton.
What is your ski origin story?
I’ve been fascinated with Colorado my entire life. My father, Chuck, was born on the plains of Colorado in 1909 in a homestead, moved back to Iowa when he was quite young. His stories of Colorado enchanted me. I’d see the pictures, with a swimming pool in the foreground and white peaks in the back. … To take you way back, growing up in Illinois, I remember seeing a man ski in a snowstorm under lights on the street at night, and he was flying. I talked to him, he showed me his skis, and I was fascinated with it. And I actually tried to make skis as a kid. We built ski jumps in my backyard when I was a kid in Illinois.
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What was your first experience skiing in Summit County?
It was 1961 at Arapahoe Basin, and it was terror. I put on a pair of rented skis, the first ones Head came out with. They were the cat’s meow. We went up on the beginning hill, I had no realization when you left the lift you had no choice but to ski down. But I was fascinated with it, and I made up my mind Colorado was my home.
Your success founding and growing Nordic centers is a part of your legacy, but so is the success of your sons. How should they be remembered as contributors and competitors?
Therese, she is responsible for Matt becoming an Olympian. She helped get him out of a slump after losing my first wife and his mother, Nancy. Therese would say to him, “Get your homework done, and then we can go skiing, and I’ll help ya.”
You know, the year before the Olympics, we went to see him compete in the Nordic combined World Cup event, at the Olympic venue over in Park City. We skied up to him, and we could tell he was frustrated. He just kind of fell into Therese’s arms and said, “I can’t figure out this jumping. It’s driving me crazy.” Long story short, she said, “Tomorrow’s my birthday.” He just kind of chuckled, “Yeah, right.” Well, the next day, he jumped in the top third of the pack. He jumped to 33rd, which meant there were 32 skiers starting ahead of him in the pursuit race. He passed 32 guys and won his first World Cup. It was one of the things that put him in contention for an Olympic berth. It really opened people’s eyes.
To start jumping at 19, he had a lot of courage. To take jumping on and go from never having jumped to jumping the largest Olympic jump in 10 weeks. Nobody believed he could do it.
Josh won the Frisco Gold Rush at 15. He obviously had the talent. He was an All-American several times in high school. But he has tremendous love for the sport. He actually majored in physiology. He thought he’d pursue a career in medicine. … But one day, he said, “You know, Dad, I could pursue a career in medicine, but I’ve become less interested after seeing firsthand experiences, and I’ve decided that (the Breckenridge Nordic Center) is my passion.” He’s doing a great job as the acting operations manager now at the Nordic Center. He takes us into the next century.
What do you say to the people who regard your family as the first family of Summit Nordic skiing?
When I lost my first wife, Nancy, my pastor, he said, “Look, you can’t do this on your own. You have to have a partner, and you don’t just need any woman, you need a special person. … Four months and 10 days (after Nancy died), Therese walked through the door of the Holiday Inn in Frisco, pushing a man in a wheelchair. … In a couple minutes, a mutual friend introduced us. I was kind of like, “Oh my gosh, It’s her.” And she has been a tremendous mother and grandmother now. And she’s been the person who has taken care of the business aspect of the business. She has taken the hard part of the business, in my opinion. Not only that, she’s been an encouragement to the kids, now taking care of grandkids, as well. … My grandson Lucas, Matt’s oldest son, I see him carrying the torch forward. He now gets up at zero dark 30 and loves ski mountaineering. I see him taking it to the limit.
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