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Summit County pioneers: Olav Pedersen

Longtime Breckenridge resident most proud of founding Ski for Light

By Alison (Grabau) Pomerantz
Special to the Summit Daily News
Olav Pedersen in 1999.
Courtesy Bob Winsett

BRECKENRIDGE — Olav Pedersen has helped blind men see. While miracle worker isn’t on the list of his many talents, he has shed light on skiing — a sport long thought to be off limits to the blind and physically disabled. His vision has enabled many people from all walks of life to see beyond their bodies’ limitations and share his enthusiasm, passion and joy of skiing.

Born in 1917 in Voss, Norway, Olav was introduced to a world at war with food rationing and other wartime hardships, and he entered manhood at the start of World War II. He served in the resistance movement during the German occupation from 1940-45, then resumed a career with the Norwegian State Railroad.

In 1955, after a lifetime of skiing and ski racing, Olav was given the distinguished honor of serving as the organizing chairman of the 1955 Norwegian Skiing Championships held in his hometown of Voss. Voss also was the birthplace of the famed Norwegian-American and University of Notre Dame football coach Knut Rockne, to whom Olav initiated the erection of a monument paying tribute to this great sports hero.

While Olav had quite an impressive list of challenges and experiences, he claimed that his greatest life accomplishment was Ski for Light, a program he created in the United States in 1975. The program was designed for visually impaired or physically disabled people to enjoy cross-country skiing or ski touring. 

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The idea materialized early one morning in 1952 as Olav was walking to the train station and ran into a group of blind musicians who had just arrived on the night train from Oslo to Bergen, Norway. He introduced himself and offered them a ride to their hotel, which they graciously accepted. They then asked him to emcee their performance that evening. As complete strangers to one another, the idea seemed crazy, but nevertheless, Olav agreed to do it.

“I’ve never had more fun in my entire life,” Olav recalled. “The audience was fantastic.”

He was so energized by the experience, that he rushed home and wrote an article about the group’s leader, Erling Stordahl, who was Norway’s most popular musician, and he sent it to a couple of newspapers and magazines. Olav then asked the star performer to be the main entertainment at the 1955 Norwegian Skiing Championships.

At that time, the musician confided in Olav that he had this vision of teaching the blind to ski. He said he had tried skiing blindfolded, and he was able to maneuver around the mountain by snapping his fingers and listening for the echoes. That moment never escaped Olav’s heart. He thought that if such a program could work in Norway, then it would surely be a success in the U.S., as well. Over 40 years later, it continues to shine.

Olav Pedersen skiing at the NASTAR finals at Snowmass.
Courtesy Olav Pedersen

A lifetime on skis

Olav learned to ski when he was about 3 years old. He wore a pair of skis that didn’t have bindings other than a small strap to hold them on. He practiced on a little hill on his father’s land until he was 9 or 10 years old, when he began competing in jumping events. Cross-country skiing was never his love until he was much older and he started witnessing long-distance runners racing on skis. 

“We didn’t talk about ‘Alpine’ and ‘cross-country’ skiing then,” Olav said. “We had skis, and we used those skis for going up the mountain and for jumping. That was skiing.” 

For over a decade, Olav competed in the senior games in Breckenridge and took home many medals. In 1988, he won the National Championship for cross-country skiing in Steamboat Springs. Already in the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame, Olav also was nominated for the National Ski Hall of Fame.

In 1964, Olav brought his skiing experience to Breckenridge and began a second career as an Alpine ski instructor, which he continued for 16 years. When he first arrived in Summit County, there were only six or seven other ski school instructors. He lived in an old mining cabin, which he recalled was pretty drafty and cold.

As an instructor, Olav was always in high demand for private lessons. He usually had more requests to teach than he was able to accommodate. 

His secret, he said, was simple: “You just have to get out there and do a good job. That means that you do it for them. Don’t discourage new skiers by showing off, because that has nothing to do with teaching.” 

Olav Pedersen holding the St. Olav’s Medal presented to him by the king of Norway for his efforts in bringing Ski for Light to the United States.
Courtesy Bob Winsett

Giving back

In 1980, the same year he stopped giving lessons as a ski school instructor, Olav coached the U.S. Nordic Team, participating in the Olympic Winter Games for Disabled in Geilo, Norway. He also helped prepare the representatives for the U.S. Ski for Light to participate in the Norwegian Ridderrennet competition in 1983. The Ridderrennet is the world’s largest annual winter sports week for people with visual impairment.

Yet it was Ski for Light, which happened to share his birthday, Feb. 17, that was Olav’s true pride and joy. Celebrating 45 years, Ski for Light was modeled after the Knight’s Race (Ridderrennet) in Norway with international participation. Held annually, Ski for Light matches one sighted guide/instructor for every participant on a one-on-one basis to help teach skiing to as many people with disabilities as possible, with the idea that they can continue to enjoy the sport after returning to their home communities. 

Olav boasted that some of his guides were with the program for more than 20 years. Ski for Light works because it provides balance — nourishment for physical, social and emotional needs. Most importantly, it begins with the “If I can do this …” insight into one’s own greater potential that is experienced by both skier and guide and is the start of significant lifestyle changes. It has been a highly successful way to bring together people from throughout the United States, Canada, Norway and other countries. Even though the first event held in Breckenridge had only 60 participants, the program was off to an enthusiastic beginning. 

“The support we had was just incredible,” Olav recalled. “The whole community wanted to get involved. Even Fort Carson got involved.” 

He remembers that former Gov. Dick Lamb embraced Ski for Light and volunteered to be one of the guides. 

Olav Pedersen out for a morning ski at the Breckenridge Nordic Center in 1999.
Courtesy Bob Winsett

The event has since been held in other venues such as Minneapolis and Woodstock, Vermont. The goal was to move it around in order to create more awareness for the program. In 1976, Olav was honored by Norway’s King Olav with St. Olav’s Medal as a symbol of good relations between Norway and the United States. He also received an invitation to the White House, met former President Gerald Ford and was given a 1 million kroner gift from the government of Norway for establishing a health sport center much like the one Erling Stordahl had opened in Norway.

The town has without question felt the impact of Olav’s contributions since he established a home and many dear friends in Breckenridge in 1964. He met his second wife, Suzanne, while caroling during Christmas that year. Their zest for life was an inspiration to anyone who was near.

“I don’t think it was ever my idea to live here the rest of my life, but that’s what it will probably be,” Olav said. “One thing about being in the mountains, you always feel like you’re surrounded by friends.” 

Editor’s note: Olav Pedersen died in June 2004 at age 87.

This story previously published in the book “Summit Pioneers,” which was printed in 1999. The book was written by Alison (Grabau) Pomerantz with photos by Bob Winsett in partnership with Wilson-Lass Creative Communications. It was published to raise money for The Summit Foundation. Read more about the history of Summit County at SummitDaily.com/news/history.

Olav Pedersen at the Breckenridge Nordic Center in 1999.
Courtesy Bob Winsett

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