Undaunted by age or injury, Eriksen skis on in style
Deer Valley Icon » Norwegian still an ambassador for sport
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A helmet now covers his legendary locks.

Stein Eriksen skis a little slower, too, testimony to the wisdom gained from being almost 82 and surviving a frightful collision two years ago that beat him up worse than any Olympic race course.

But the impeccable style, the panache, they're still there, unfazed. Stein will always be Stein , the man on skis, a master of elegance.

"People kind of step aside when they see him coming. They don't do that with other people," said longtime friend Jim Gaddis, not a bad skier himself as a national champion racer for the University of Utah. "They'll say, 'There goes Stein.' People want to watch him. It's just amazing."

They've been watching him in Utah for 38 years now, charming customers at Park City and Deer Valley ski areas with his good looks, unflappable personality and perfectly balanced, seemingly effortless linking of turns, always in control no matter the conditions.

And for that attention, Eriksen is grateful.

"To be an Olympic and world champion has been a trademark for me," he said. "But the appreciation that the American people have for champions has enhanced that value in a way that made it possible for me to enjoy life without too much effort."

Not everyone could do it. There are plenty of great skiers. But few have had the personality to transform a racing career into a life of skiing.

"Stein did because of his ability and because, basically, he was such a nice guy," said Phil Jones, who was director of Park City's ski school when Eriksen arrived from Aspen in 1971 with the resort's new owner, Edgar Stern.

"He has that certain aura about him because of his championship ability, but he also doesn't look down his nose at people," Jones added. "Ordinary people can rub shoulders with him."

Eriksen had that aura from an early age.

Salt Lake native Suzy Harris Rytting remembers seeing Eriksen at a 1950 race, when she was a youngster on the United States team competing on the International Ski Federation circuit.

"He was handsome," she said. "He made everyone sit up and take notice, the great hope of Norway."

Two years later, he was a gold and silver medalist at the Oslo Olympics, following up with three victories at the 1954 World Championships, accomplishments that landed his picture on the cover of every ski magazine of the day.

"He was my hero when I was a kid," said Clark Parkinson, one of Jones's instructors at Park City when Eriksen moved to town.

"Stein was an icon before he got here, so it raised perceptions of Park City by leaps and bounds," Parkinson said. "He's done so much for Utah skiing I don't think you can put a value on it. And he's still doing it. This winter he'll put his helmet on and do his thing with Deer Valley customers."

His helmet. That thing again.

Photographs of Eriksen always show him hatless, his finely groomed head of thick hair as unruffled as his ski suits, produced by the company of his childhood idol and family friend, German skier Willy Bogner.

But that changed a few days after his 80th birthday, celebrated in style at the Deer Valley hotel that bears his name and features a life-sized statue of him outside its front door.

"That accident was such a freak thing I don't remember it," he said. "This kid appeared in a split second from the trees. There was no way for me to avoid him. At least I avoided killing the kid."

In doing so, he fractured his wrist severely and broke his collar bone and shoulder blade. Never before had he been hurt so badly.

But like all dedicated racers, Eriksen hurled himself into rehab after his wounds healed, developing his upper body on weight machines in the gym, riding bicycles and hiking in the mountains.

And he bought a helmet, at the urging of his wife, Francoise.

"I don't really like it, but they say you get used to it. I feel a little confined, a little trapped in there," he said. "When I went to a meeting at Snow Park Lodge last winter, I left my skis and poles outside and hung my helmet on the skis. I went inside hoping someone would steal it."

No one did. Then again, wearing a helmet is not his first concession to modern skiing technology.

Eriksen scoffed initially at the shorter, hour-glass shaped parabolic skis. The first time he was offered some, he politely declined. "I have my own skis. I never ski on anything under 200 centimeters."

But gradually he came around -- today the "boys in the shop" at Deer Valley fit him with 175 to 180s. And with orthotics in his boots, he has complete confidence that "when I move my knee, the ski will react in the right way.

"The only dangerous thing for me is the older I go the faster I get," he joked.

Like Deer Valley, Eriksen draws the line at snowboarding. He'll have none of that. "I really haven't considered it," he said, mischievously adding "Next time around."

Eriksen is a skier through and through, always was, always will be. He grew up the son of a ski-maker, tinkering with edges and bindings, jumping and racing on local hills in Oslo. He fondly recalls returning home late at night from practices, "skiing through trees for maybe 15 minutes, right down to my back yard where I knocked on the outside of the living room wall to let my family know I was home. It was beautiful."

Such idyllic memories have figured significantly into Eriksen's approach to skiing and to encouraging people -- no matter how bad they may be on a pair of boards -- to find the fun in it.

"In the United States, there are so many spectator sports, but only a certain amount of people get involved," he said. "But skiing is a family sport with mama and papa and the kids. Everyone can get involved and discover the beauty of nature around them at the same time they do something that is invigorating."

When Eriksen came to the United States, fewer than 1.5 million Americans skied. Now, resorts nationally draw almost 15 million visitors a year. Park City was still a dying mining town, with only fledgling dreams of a revival based on snow. Now it has staged Olympic events, is home to the U.S. Ski Team and is a premier destination community.

"That is a wonderful thing to have been a witness to," said Eriksen, whose ambassadorial skills undoubtedly deserve much credit for accelerating that evolution. "Just to be a little part of that interest in the beautiful sport of skiing, I am happy with my life."

mikeg@sltrib.com

Stein Eriksen's thoughts

» On Deer Valley founder Edgar Stern: "To be with him for all of these years was a highlight of my life, an incredible privilege. I have great admiration for a man who follows through with his dream."

» His favorite ski racers? Austrian Toni Sailor, Swede Ingemar Stenmark, Frenchman Jean-Claude Killy and Americans Phil and Steve Mahre and Billy Kidd.

» On Salt Lake City's Olympics: "When Mitt Romney took over, I knew we were on the right track."

» On dry Novembers: "I always worry about snow. ... You just have to pray."