By tradition, great ski racers sprout like edelweiss from the sides of 10,000-foot Alpine peaks and learn to ski by racing downhill to school each morning. As a group they run curiously to a definite type: stocky and thick-legged, with the glow of rugged good health about them and names such as Christian and Karl and Francois. They are artists, in a way, as jealous of their supremacy as concert violinists, and one does not join the troupe simply by knocking on the door and asking to be let in.
In the midst of this tight little European fraternity there appeared last winter a tall, asthmatic 22-year-old American named Chuck Ferries (see cover) who had sprouted from the side of a 400-foot hill in Houghton, Mich. Although not a complete stranger to the territory, he looked less like a ski racer than some university student who had missed connections to Vienna. If so, this was about all that Chuck Ferries missed. He won two of five major slalom races in Europe, including Austria's own backyard World Series, the Hahnenkamm at Kitzb�hel, and at season's end was ranked among the half dozen best slalom men in the world. Never before had an American skier made a score like this in one winter. Now, with the 1964 Olympics less than a year away, Ferries must be given as good a chance at a gold medal as anyone else.
This is a most unusual development in the world of Alpine ski racing, where only Buddy Werner, among all the American men who have tried, ever arrived at a position of such eminence before. But Werner did it in the downhill, and he was a special case, almost a freak, whose skills and ability developed long before and far beyond those around him. Ferries, on the other hand, seems to have arrived at the peak only a step or two ahead of an American horde, and this, in some ways, is the most unusual development of all. Close behind Chuck—and sometimes all around him and occasionally on top of him—swarms a double handful of Americans in the same class, so many good ones, in fact, that Ferries is never quite sure from week to week whether he really is the best.
"People ask me why I didn't go back to Europe this year," he says. "Heck, I've got all the competition I can handle right here."
There is Werner, of course, more determined than ever at 27 to prove himself again, to capture some of the almost certain glory that disappeared in a shower of snow on the day that he broke his leg in the training camp before Squaw Valley. But there are also young Billy Kidd of Stowe, Vt., who on occasion has soundly trounced both Ferries and Werner this year, and two other 19-year-olds of talent, Jimmy Heuga and Billy Marolt. Gordy Eaton, 23, has long been considered an outstanding downhill prospect, while Ni Orsi, only 18 and a superb all-round athlete, may turn out to be the best downhiller of all. Dave Gorsuch, a member of both the 1958 FIS and 1960 Olympic teams, has been racing hard again—he has beaten Ferries, too—and there are others. Together they offer promise of fulfillment of a dream that has tantalized U.S. ski officials for years: that a day would come when American men could challenge Europeans in a major meet with not one but half a dozen racers capable of finishing first.
"I think we're about there." says Bob Beattie, the young Olympic coach whose organizational ability and enthusiasm (SI, Jan. 14) have produced these results far sooner than anyone dared hope. "We're not trying to build a team around Ferries and Werner. We want 10, maybe 20 boys, any one capable of beating the others. But to be realistic, you'd have to say that Chuck got there first. By winning those two big races in Europe last year he proved that he was the best U.S. slalom racer and one of the best in the world. He also proved what we have been telling the lads: an American can finish first. Now it should be easier for others to follow."
It will be easier for others to follow Ferries than it would have been for Ferries to follow anyone else. Stubbornly independent, he is the product of his own fierce determination and little else.
Had America's early pioneers been just a shade less adventurous, for example, Houghton, Mich., would not have been discovered yet. It lies on the Keweenaw Peninsula, jutting into Lake Superior north of Ishpeming and Watersmeet and Iron Mountain, far north of Madison and Milwaukee, north of almost anyplace. "It takes two days to get there from Chicago," Chuck says. "You can't believe where Houghton is unless you look it up on a map."
Above Houghton, where his father was a dentist, Chuck began to ski at the age of 5 on Big Quincy Hill. Near by was Mont Ripley, a ski slope operated by Michigan Tech; at Mont Ripley, as college coach and head of the ski school, was Fred Lonsdorf. "I began to notice this little kid hanging around the edge of ski classes," Lonsdorf says. "He was sneaking lessons—and he never missed a day." When Chuck was 7, Lonsdorf shrugged and invited the boy to join in. Lonsdorf soon discovered that he had also inherited Mary Ann Ferries, who was to become a good racer, and Barbara Ferries, who sometimes looks like a great racer, and eventually Jimmy Ferries, now 14 and a member of the Houghton High School team. "Chuck won his first slalom when he was 10," Lonsdorf says, "and by the time he was 13 he was beating my college men." When he was 16 Chuck ran away from home to find a bigger mountain.
"All those years I had been practicing slalom three hours a day," Chuck says. "Then I would go off to a junior race in Wyoming or Montana and get beaten in the downhill. I decided that I'd never learn to race on a 400-foot hill."