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Road to Sochi: Aspen's Olympic History Stretches Back Decades

Over the last several weeks, we’ve heard from nearly a dozen athletes working toward competing in the 2014 Winter Olympics. That’s a big number and it isn’t uncommon. For decades, Aspen’s been either a hometown or training grounds for Olympic athletes. Since the 1930s, nearly thirty athletes with ties to Aspen have competed in the Olympic Games. Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen reports.

Long before half-pipes and terrain parks, silver miners in Aspen skied. In the 1880’s, they used homemade skis and a pole, mainly for getting around town. Then, in 1936, a group of men started talking about building a ski resort. One of them was an Olympic bobsledder.

"Ted Ryan, Billy Fiske and Tom Flynn were really looking for an area that reminded them a lot of European areas," says Anna Scott.

Scott's an archivist at the Aspen Historical Society. In the 1930’s, the men brought in one of Switzerland’s top authorities on skiing: Andre Roch. Later, he started Aspen’s first ski club, which cut the first run on Aspen mountain.

"They basically created this snowball effect of creating an area that was amazing for bringing in skiing," she says.

The 10th Mountain Division also helped usher in skiing. After the war, members of the specialized army unit helped expand skiing in Aspen.

It’s this rich history that attracted the likes of Dick Durrance, a ski racer who competed in the 1936 Olympics and went on to run the Aspen Skiing Company. He helped bring to Aspen the 1950 skiing world championships.

"And, that really put us on the map for a ski area and we were the first ski area in the United States to hold that championship. So, that’s, I think, what really started it," Scott says.

Former Olympian John Callahan raced in the 30 kilometer cross-country skiing event. 

"The ‘92 Olympic were in Albertville, France but the nordic venue was in a little village outside of town. It was really exciting, walking into the opening ceremonies is still one of the greatest ceremonies of my life," he says.

Now, he coaches young athletes like Noah Hoffman who are trying to make it to the 2014 Games.

Craig Ward is another former Olympian who calls Aspen home. He competed in cross-country skiing in the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, New York.

"I graduated from college and went right on the U.S. Ski Team, it was a really good transition for me."

Others notables include the late Max Marolt and his brother Bill, Casey Puckett, Steve Knowlton and ski racer Andy Mill.

Archivist Anna Scott cranks open several shelves tucked in the basement of the Aspen Historical Society. Artifacts from several eras are kept here, along with some Olympic paraphernalia.

"This is actually Andy Mill’s racing suit from the 1980 ski team," she says.

Mills’ tight-fitting race uniform is aged and white with the words USA stitched in red near the shoulder. The uniform is stuffed between floor-length fur coats and onesie ski suits from the 80’s. Across the aisle, hang long floral dresses from the 1800’s. Scott reaches for another piece from ski racer Andy Mills.

"Oh wait, here it is, Winter Olympic Games, 1976, it even has his name inside of it. So, this was part of his uniform: a nice wool, red jacket."

She says Aspen’s culture continues to attract elite athletes. Because Aspen has held so many ski races over the years, starting in 1950, it’s become known for its skiing.

"Whether or not people were racing here as AVSC members originally, or they came here after they retired from World Cups, we have a lot of ex-racers here because of the difficult terrain, the six-inch powder rule, the 'walk to the bus stop and be on the mountain in 15 minutes' kind of mentality that’s here."

The six-inch powder rule, by the way, is when you can play hookie from work when there’s at least that much fresh snow on the ground.

As the upcoming Olympics in Sochi nears, a new crop of athletes is preparing. Not surprisingly, many of them call Aspen home.

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