Behind the Gold: The ever-graceful Stein Eriksen
December 15, 2017
Åreskutan is a magical mountain. At the top, a thick layer of rime ice coats the trees. From the peak at over 1,400 meters you see nothing but wilderness in every direction, with the land of Norway in the distance to the west. The low angle of the winter sun refracts off ice crystals in the air creating a unique aura across the landscape.
It was February, 1954 in Åre, Sweden — site of the International Ski Federation's World Ski Championships. Now 26, Norway's Stein Eriksen, two years earlier, had been the star of the Olympics in his hometown of Oslo, winning giant slalom gold and slalom silver – the first Scandinavian to crack the stranglehold of the Alpine nations of central Europe at the Olympics.
In the two years since he found initial fame, he pondered his options. Stein spent the winter of 1953 in Sun Valley, Idaho, experiencing big mountain skiing and deep powder for the first time while relaxing his mind. That season, America saw the elegance of Stein Eriksen for the first time.
His first crack at the relentless steeps of Baldy at Sun Valley were rugged. But soon he was the leader, and the world saw Stein outside of racing gates. They were awestruck by his graceful turns, stately image and engaging charisma. That season was the dawn of a new era of skiing as a rat pack of racers from Norway, Austria and America found a home in Sun Valley sharing a camaraderie amongst friends in the pristine powder. This was what skiing was all about.
But Stein still had a point to prove on the race hill. A January, 1954 crash on the fabled Lauberhorn downhill at Wengen, Switzerland took its toll – just a month before the World Championships. He went home to Norway to rest, later traveling to Åre with cautious optimism.
Race day came and Stein slid his Eriksen wooden skis – crafted by the company his father Marius had created — into the starting gate on the flanks of Åreskutan. He pushed out onto the snow, winning the slalom and giant slalom, and picking up enough downhill points to take the combined gold.
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This week would have been Stein's 90th birthday. On Monday, Dec. 11, hotel guests and employees gathered around the pewter- and silver-filled trophy case at Stein Eriksen Lodge to share stories, sing Helan Går and raise a toast of aquavit to the legend.
The trophy case at Stein Eriksen Lodge is filled with memorabilia — dozens of pewter and silver mugs, a U.S. Ski Hall of Fame honored member medallion, his Olympic gold and silver medals and a rare collection of his three FIS World Championship medals from Åre.
Few alpine ski racers have such a collection of gold. Stein was the first to win triple gold. Then came Austria's great Toni Sailer with four titles in 1956 and three more in 1958. The incomparable Jean-Claude Killy did it in 1968. And then there was Park City's own Ted Ligety — sweeping to three gold medals at the 2013 World Championships in Schadming, Austria.
While they had only met casually, Stein had his eye on Ted as the young Park City boy made his own way to the top. Stein looked at Ted as a 'gentle winner.'
To Stein, character emanated from childhood and came from inside. Competition was more than winning — it was about friendship. "Keep this in your mind," Stein said to the hundreds of kids gathered in Park City to welcome Ligety home that spring. "I want you to be just like Ted."
Amidst the gathering of friends at Stein Eriksen Lodge were many who never knew Stein, but were touched by his legacy. They heard speakers talk about his elegance and value of excellence. Stein was a great ski racer. But he was an even more remarkable person.
"If you can take a loss the same way as you take a victory," Stein used to say, "then you're a champion."
Happy Birthday, Stein!