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THE OLD MAN AND THE SKI
William Oscar Johnson
December 10, 1979
Herman (Jackrabbit) Smith-Johannsen began skiing 102 years ago—and he's still going strong.
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December 10, 1979

The Old Man And The Ski

Herman (Jackrabbit) Smith-Johannsen began skiing 102 years ago—and he's still going strong.

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Here he is, sitting by his blazing fireplace, the man many credit with bringing skiing as a sport to the North American continent. He looks the part of skiing's great grandfather, all right, spare and hardy, his blue eyes bright as a clear winter sky, his thin hair snowy, his seamed cheeks ruddy in the firelight. He lights his pipe and gestures briskly. "I can't take credit for being the first man to bring skis to America. I'm not even the first Norwegian! Good God, man, Snowshoe Thompson came here from Norway on a sailing ship in 1837! He was using skis to bring the mail across the Rockies in 1856! I never even got here until 1899! I was one of the fellows who introduced skiing for fun, no doubt. But I can't take credit for the whole business."

He pauses, puffs out pipe smoke, squints at the fire, then says sharply, "I don't know as I'd want to take credit for all of what's happened anyway! Skiing's gotten to be a money-making racket. Nothing but high-priced equipment, pretty clothes, lazy people. No one ever climbs a hill on skis anymore. They ride up. Same with cross-country skiing. These little bitty narrow skis, why you can't ski anywhere unless someone's already made a trail for you! Nobody knows how to bushwhack anymore! "

He is nicknamed "Jackrabbit," and his moves and gestures have a kind of stringy-tough, rabbity energy. Yet this old man is older than many of the world's monuments—older than the Lincoln Memorial, the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower. He is older than the telephone, the phonograph, the linotype. He is two or three times older than many of the trees he skis through in the woods behind his house. He is older than the steam turbine, the modern bicycle and Edison's electric light. Herman (Jackrabbit) Smith-Johannsen, born in Norway, a naturalized Canadian citizen and now resident of the Laurentian mountain hamlet of Piedmont in Quebec, turned 104 last June 15. Whatever his claim to skiing fame, this in itself makes him a phenomenon.

According to Statistics Canada, the current life expectancy for Canadian males is 70.19 years and the probability of someone living to 104 is .00013%. If you consider that Canadians live longer than the vast majority of the world's population, it becomes obvious that Smith-Johannsen has survived to an age that very few mortals will achieve. And, given his vigor at 104, he is realistically within reach of the all-time authenticated record—113 years, 214 days—set by Delina Ecker Filkins of Herkimer County, N.Y., who died in 1928. Whether he breaks this record or not, he must surely be the world's oldest athlete. For he does still practice his sport.

At his small house in the Quebec woods, a pair of ski poles sits outside the front door—another pair waits out back, as if ready to go when Smith-Johannsen feels the urge. He admits that he feels it less often now, but when he does, the old man puts down his pipe, rises with no trouble from his chair and moves with a kind of slow-motion lope from the fireplace. He dons a parka, grabs his skis and steps out into the snow. Bending with a certain stiffness, he clamps on his ski bindings, wraps the pole straps around his bony wrists, then glides toward the woods with a long and pretty skiing stride that reveals only a touch of rust in its fluidity.

Jackrabbit might ski a mile but probably not that far, for his stability is failing just a bit. He speaks in a strong, high voice that still rings with some of the bombast and confidence of the traveling salesman he once was. "Skiing is safer than walking for me," he says. "But I am scared sometimes, I have to admit that. I fall more than I used to, and now, when I fall, I almost always break something."

As Jackrabbit recalls it, he began skiing 102 years ago this winter. "I was two and I remember it well. I had skis strapped on my feet, but they weren't real skis, they were barrel staves. And I tried to walk on them but of course I fell in the snow. Then, I got up by myself and tried again. Getting up by myself was the big lesson that day."

This first glimmer of a memory comes from the woods of Norway north of Oslo where he was born in 1875, the son of a kommand�r-kaptein in the Norwegian navy named Fritz Anton Moritz Smith-Johannsen. The little boy, Herman, was the first of nine Smith-Johannsen children. Two others are still alive, one 89, the other 92. The good kommand�r-kaptein died of an accident in his seventies; his wife lived till 85. Plainly, there are genes at work here that make Jackrabbit's presence among the living something more than a miracle. Yet he himself likes to credit a lion's share of his longevity to the rugged games of barrel-stave skiing and bushwhacking that the Smith-Johannsens enjoyed in rural Norway.

He stabs an elbow in his visitor's side and chuckles. "My opinion is that people don't get enough of the wilderness when they are young. I had a great advantage living in the Norwegian bush. I don't mean to minimize the value of modern sports—football and baseball and hockey. They are fine to keep young fellows in shape who can't get into the bush. But when these fellows get to be 30 or 40 years old, they can't attend to those sports. So they quit and grow big pot bellies and move to Florida where it is warm and where they become no good to the rest of the world at all. If they had had a childhood in the snowy woods, if they had had the good fortune to grow up as I did, they would also know a way that might let them carry on until they are 100."

When Smith-Johannsen unreels this type of preachment/opinion, he manages to speak with humor and enthusiasm, emphasizing points with knobby-fisted punches against his listener's shoulder. He laughs easily and smiles often, showing teeth that are his own. Thus, though he is plainly an evangelist when it comes to the life of the outdoors, he does not come on with the air of sanctimonious self-congratulation that many clean-living advocates display.

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