Jill Kinmont Boothe, ski champion paralyzed in accident, dies at 75


Jill Kinmont Boothe, the skiing champion who became a painter and a teacher after being paralyzed during a race in 1955, has died. She was 75. (Ricardo DeAratanha/AP)
February 11, 2012

Jill Kinmont Boothe, a national champion skier who became a painter and a teacher after she was paralyzed during a race at age 18, died Feb. 9 at a hospital in Carson City, Nev., according to the Carson City coroner’s office. She was 75. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Her accident occurred the same week she appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine in 1955.

Ms. Kinmont Boothe — then known as Jill Kinmont — was the reigning national champion in the slalom, and Sports Illustrated put her on the cover of the issue dated Jan. 31, 1955.

The cover photograph by Hy Peskin showed Ms. Kinmont Boothe wearing a gold sweater, with ringlets of blond hair falling across her forehead. Her snow-caked skis rested on her right shoulder, and her gloved left hand held her ski poles.

An accompanying photo essay, shot at the California ski resort of Sun Valley, said “everyone was watching Jill Kinmont,” who was a favorite to win a spot on the 1956 U.S. Olympic team. Described as “easily the prettiest girl in the place,” Ms. Kinmont Boothe was shown in training, as she skied down a mountain bareheaded.

Her face was still on newsstands throughout the country when she competed in a giant slalom race in Alta, Utah, on Jan. 30, 1955. Midway through the race, she skidded off the course, somersaulted through the air and crashed into a tree. She broke several vertebrae in her neck and was left a quadriplegic.

“I remember the place I was hurt,” she recalled to the Los Angeles Times last year. “I was worried about it before the race. I felt like I would come into it too fast — and I did. And I remember not understanding why my body felt the way it did — with no feeling, no sensation.”

She spent months in hospitals, and a national fund drive was established, called “Help Jill Up the Hill.” Determined to ski again, she said from a hospital two months after her accident, “You can bet I’ll be on the team in 1960.”

Ms. Kinmont Boothe attended the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, and the 1960 games in Squaw Valley, Calif., in a wheelchair. But in spite of her strength of will, she remained paralyzed for the rest of her life.

She regained partial use of her hands and was able to drive, write, type and paint with the help of a brace. She graduated from UCLA with a dual degree in German and English but was denied admission to the university’s school of education on the grounds that she was “unemployable.”

She received a teaching certificate at the University of Washington and taught in Washington state and Beverly Hills for several years before returning to her home town of Bishop, Calif., in the 1970s. She taught students who were handicapped or who had learning disabilities until her retirement in 1996.

Her life story became the subject of a 1966 book, “A Long Way Up” by E.G. Valens, and two movies, “The Other Side of the Mountain” (1975) and “The Other Side of the Mountain: Part 2” (1978), both with Marilyn Hassett in the starring role.

Jill Kinmont was born Feb. 16, 1936, in Los Angeles and moved as a child to Bishop, a town in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, where her father ran a dude ranch.

She began skiing at 12 and within six years won six medals in the national junior championships. In 1954, she became the first person to win the national junior and senior slalom titles in the same year.

She was inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame in 1967.

A onetime boyfriend, skier Dick Buek, who asked Ms. Kinmont Boothe to marry him after she was paralyzed, was killed in a plane crash in 1957. Another former boyfriend, Bud Werner, who was a member of three U.S. Olympic teams, died in an avalanche in 1964.

In 1976, she married John G. Boothe, who is her only survivor.

Ms. Kinmont Boothe established a scholarship fund for Native American students and was a prolific watercolor painter.

“I never thought of myself as a different person because of the accident,” she told Newsweek in 1985. “Though maybe that’s the key to my success.”

For the rest of her life, she received copies of the Jan. 31, 1955, Sports Illustrated in the mail, asking for her autograph. She always returned them with her signature.

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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