Steamboat Springs: The land of 100 Olympians
Steamboat Pilot & Today
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When four athletes with Steamboat Springs ties made their Olympic debut at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, history was made.
Those four athletes brought the total number of winter Olympians with ties to the Colorado town to 100.
Steamboat has had representation at all but one Winter Games since 1932. Over 90 years, athletes from eight disciplines have seen their dreams come true by competing in the world’s biggest athletic arena.
The Steamboat Olympic tradition began in 1932, when John Steele was named to the Olympic ski jumping team. He is considered the first Olympian from Steamboat.
Steele moved to Steamboat and put on his first pair of skis in 1918, according to the Tread of the Pioneers Museum. He moved to the valley just a few years after Carl Howelsen came to town and built a ski jump on the hill that now bears his name in downtown Steamboat.
Flash back to the present, and ski jumper Decker Dean became the 100th Olympian out of Steamboat in 2022.
“Steamboat has such a rich history in ski jumping and Nordic combined and skiing in general,” three-time Olympic medalist Johnny Spillane said. “It really started off with Carl Howelsen. Everything has evolved from there, so it seems fitting to me.”
Dean almost didn’t go to Beijing this year. He didn’t make the ski jumping team. Days later, while Dean still mourned the debut that wouldn’t happen, a reallocated quota allowed him a spot.
“Growing up in Steamboat, it’s such an honor,” Dean said. “The rich history we have in Steamboat is huge. Being the 100th Olympian, that’s just cool. That’s going to be a cool thing I’ll be able to hold onto for the rest of my life.”
While no one with ties to Steamboat attended the 1936 Olympics, there has been one in every Games since. In 1948, Gordon Wren qualified for four events: Nordic skiing, Nordic combined, ski jumping and Alpine skiing. He prioritized his Nordic events, though, skipping out on Alpine and taking fifth in ski jumping.
The first women from Steamboat to compete were also the first non-Nordic competitors. In 1952, Katy Rudolph-Wyatt and Skeeter Werner competed in Alpine skiing. Of the 100 Olympians hailing from Steamboat, 28 are female.
One of the Alpine skiers almost everyone knows of is Jim “Moose” Barrows.
The Barrows family moved to Steamboat in 1950, according to the Tread of the Pioneers Museum, and Wren gave young Jim a pair of skis. Before graduating college, Barrows attended the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France. His run for a medal in the downhill event was abruptly halted by a violent crash, which was forever linked to the words “agony of defeat” as part of the intro for ABC’s popular “Wide World of Sports” program
The first medals
Over the decades, Steamboat had sent dozens of people to the Olympics, earning a reputation for the city, but never a medal.
Then in 1992, moguls skier Nelson Carmichael earned the first medal by a Steamboat athlete when he finished third.
Two years later, there was another Winter Olympics. Moguls skier Ann Battelle was at the 1992 and 1994 Games. She also made the 1998 and 2002 Games, becoming the first four-time Olympian from Steamboat.
She competed in France, Norway, Japan and the U.S., collecting a wild array of experiences from her travels.
“That’s what the Olympics is about, the crazy experiences you have that you would never imagine you could have,” Battelle said.
Three people with ties to Steamboat, including Battelle, have been to exactly four Winter Olympics. Beijing marks Nordic combined athlete Taylor Fletcher’s fourth and likely final Games. The other to compete in four Olympics is Johnny Spillane.
Spillane was part of the historic 2010 men’s Nordic combined team that included Todd Lodwick, who has been to six Olympics.
At the Vancouver Games, Spillane won silver in the normal hill event, becoming the first American to earn a medal in Nordic combined.
That feat was followed by a gold medal performance from Billy Demong in the large hill, while Spillane earned his third silver. With three, Spillane has the most medals of any Steamboat Olympian.
First female medalist
The 1998 Games were the first Olympics with snowboarding events, and Steamboat’s Shannon Dunn-Downing was competing in the halfpipe.
Dunn-Downing got on a snowboard the first winter Steamboat Resort allowed snowboarding in 1987. She found her love of the sport by going off any side trail feature she could find.
Ten years later, she went to her first Olympics and won bronze in women’s halfpipe, becoming the first woman from Steamboat to win a medal.
The Nagano Games in 1998 was a weird place and time to be a snowboarder. Dunn-Downing said riders weren’t sure they wanted to be taken over by the International Ski Federation or go to the Olympics. Snowboarders were a grungy, rebellious bunch. They feared the Olympics could make the sport too mainstream.
She said it’s wild to think about the growth of snowboarding since then. Halfpipe is now one of the most-watched sports at the Games.
Steamboat athletes have earned 16 medals over the years, including five gold, eight silver and three bronze.
Vic Wild, who trained in Steamboat but now competes for Russia, earned gold in Alpine snowboarding parallel giant slalom in 2014 and 2018.
At the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, Ester Ledecka won gold in Alpine snowboarding parallel giant slalom and Alpine skiing super-G. Coached by former Steamboat athlete and Olympian Justin Reiter, she became the first woman to win two individual golds in Alpine skiing and Alpine snowboarding events.
This story is from SteamboatPilot.com.
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