ASPEN, Colo. — With the possible exception of Jean Claude-Killy, no other name looms as large in the sport of skiing as that of Stein Eriksen. A generation of skiers who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s emulated his light-as-air technique, born of his training as a gymnast and skier in Norway.
He grew up near Oslo, skiing cross-country before he could read. His parents encouraged his athleticism. His mother had started the first women's alpine club in the 1930s, and his father, a member of the Norwegian Gymnastic Team, had competed in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. He had also a hand in inventing the first alpine ski boot.
"It was always sporty people that came through my house," Eriksen told The Aspen Times. "I knew then, that's the kind of life that I want to live. That's the way I was brought up from birth on. I only had a sporty attitude. And only sporty friends."
Eriksen was in Aspen to celebrate his 84th birthday. The Aspen Daily News reports that Eriksen met with more than 200 friends and admirers in a packed ballroom at the Hotel Jerome. They heard him reminisce about being the first skier from outside the Alps to win a gold medal in alpine skiing, which he did in 1952, taking the giant slalom and earning a silver in the slalom.
They also heard his memories about growing up in Norway when it was occupied by Germany. "We trained in the summertime, up on the glaciers, while the Germans were occupying Norway. As the years went by, more people did it. In the wintertime, the Germans wanted us to participate with them, but we didn't want to. So we did our own little training, illegally, where they couldn't disturb it."
The war had split friends. Before the war, German skier Willy Bogner had stayed with the Eriksens off and on for 10 years. Stein Eriksen credits Bogner with his success as an alpine skier.
"We couldn't meet during the war," he told Hilary Stunda of The Aspen Times. "He fought for his country; we protected our country. After the war, we could meet him again. There was no animosity there. He was a German. He had to fight for his country."
After the war and his skiing success, Eriksen first accepted a job in skiing at Boyne Mountain, in Michigan, for $10,000 a year, later moving on to Sugarbush in Vermont, Heavenly in California, and then Aspen and Snowmass. He remained in Aspen until 1981, when he moved to Park City to establish a five-star hotel at Deer Valley. He also spends time in Montana.
The Times notes that Eriksen, with his somersaults, was something of a forerunner of the freestyle movement. It came from his background in gymnastics. Skiers from the Alps, in contrast, had a foundation in mountain climbing.
For all his success in America, Eriksen has never attempted to secure U.S. citizenship. "After all, my races for Norway and the acceptances I had by the Norwegian public, I can never say Norway is not my country anymore. I kept my citizenship, and I will do that until I die," he told The Times.
He also said he has no regrets; only wishes that he could do it all again. "When I came to America, there were maybe one and a half million alpine skiers in this country. Today, there are about 18 to 20 million. If I can take a little credit for what has inspired people by my background and my presence ...what can you say?"