Twenty years ago, on a snow-covered mountain outside of Innsbruck, Austria, Billy Kidd began America's Olympic ski rush by winning a silver medal in the slalom at the 1964 Winter Games. Until Kidd and Jimmie Heuga, another 20-year-old who finished third in the slalom, no American male had won an Olympic medal in alpine skiing. Since then, no American team has been expected to do anything less.
"I guess because it was a first and because that was the first Olympics ABC (television) covered, it turned a lot of Americans on to skiing," said Kidd, who has lost some hair and gained a few pounds, but otherwise looks very much like the "whiz kid" in the old photographs. Especially when he smiles.
Kidd is here this weekend for the Washington Ski and Travel Show at the Sheraton Washington Hotel. He is showing a film about racing techniques, advertising the Steamboat Springs, Colo., ski resort where he is director, and signing autographs. Some of the autograph seekers were not yet born when Kidd won his Olympic medal.
"My name seems easy to remember," said Kidd, who is as modest and self-effacing as Bill Johnson, America's most recent king of the mountain is not. "They say, 'Oh, you're Billy Kidd.' I know you're either a cowboy or a skier."
A ski show is a great, contrasting stage to hear Kidd tell old tales of glory. Here is a man who beat most of the world's best wearing leather boots and wooden skis, surrounded by manufacturers' agents advertising skis made of space-age polymers and boots with "integral hinge with progressive forward-lean dampening."
"After 1964, everyone went to fiberglass," said Kidd, sitting in a corner of the hotel basement, beside something called a "ski deck," a wide carpet that rotates under a skier to simulate a moving slope. "When I show my winning run now, it looks like I'm going in slow motion."
Innsbruck marked the end of an era. From that time on, competitive skiing became a year-round pursuit that was as much business as sport. No longer could Olympians like Kidd and Heuga afford to attend college and train at the same time.
In 1964, the U.S. team won four medals, two by the men and two by Jean Saubert, who won a silver and bronze in the slalom and giant slalom. Saubert's medals were a surprise but not a shock to the international ski world. U.S. women, beginning with gold medalist Gretchen Fraser in 1948 and Andrea Mead Lawrence in 1952, had proven themselves to be contenders. But the U.S. men were still considered second rate.
"I remember Christmas of 1963, just before the Olympics, I was in St. Anton, Austria, and the guy who ran the ski school there asked me what I hoped to accomplish at Innsbruck. I told him, 'I want to win a medal.' And he said, 'Come on. Don't be ridiculous. You're an American,' " said Kidd, his eyes crinkling behind gold-rimmed glasses. "It was very satisfying to win the medal that year."
It was not the last medal Kidd would win. Six years later, he became the first U.S. male to win a world championship when he placed first in the alpine combined in the International Ski Federation championships.
"At Innsbruck, I missed the gold by .14 seconds. It took me six years to make up that .14 seconds. I think I appreciated it more when I got there," said Kidd, who turned pro after winning the world championship. Two weeks later, he won the professional championship. It was a heady time for the Stowe, Vt., native, who predicted that professional skiing would be the fastest-growing sport in the United States in the 1970s. It never happened.
But Kidd was not left out in the cold by the failure of the pro circuit. With his name and his intelligence, he had a choice of offers from the commercial side of skiing that had boomed during his career.
"I was too early for the big bucks," said Kidd, who lives in Colorado with his wife and three children and does television commentary for CBS Sports. "And women aren't ripping the clothes off me . . . but then money and attention were never the reasons I raced, anyway."
The ski show will conclude after today's session, 1-7 p.m. Kidd will present a film and talk at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.