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America had its first glimpse of Norway's Stein Eriksen at the FIS World Alpine Ski Championships in Aspen in 1950, but the glimpse was fleeting. He won a bronze in the slalom, caused some hearts to fibrillate and went home to Oslo. Not until the following winter, when W. Averell Harriman, president of the Union Pacific Railroad, which owned Sun Valley, invited Eriksen to spend the ski season in Idaho, did we get a good look.
Eriksen was blond, blue-eyed and improbably handsome. He was also, by then, the winner of a gold medal in the giant slalom and a silver in the slalom at the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo. He was a national hero in Norway, being the first Scandinavian to win an Olympic Alpine event, and his racing technique, which required the grace of a figure skater and the balance of a gymnast, was a source of hot debate among Europe's theorists.
Alpine skiing had gained a toehold on the American psyche at the 1936 Winter Olympics, in Garmisch, Germany, where Alpine races were added for the first time to the traditional Nordic events, and Dartmouth College sophomore Dick Durrance finished a respectable eighth in the slalom and 11th in the downhill. In the prosperity of the post-World War II period, the new sport grew from being a European novelty practiced by a few Eastern college boys into a popular winter pastime of the American middle class. By the time Eriksen arrived in Idaho, the latest European teaching techniques were hot topics from Lake Placid to Lake Tahoe. Skiers would prop their hickory skis in a snowbank, set their leather boots by the fire to dry, hitch their pleated gabardine ski pants and, with the deadly earnestness of religious converts, debate the relative merits of the parallel versus the stem-christiania turns. A ski instructor ranked somewhere between high priest and matinee idol, only because rock stars hadn't been invented yet.
Eriksen's assignment as guest instructor was to ski with Sun Valley's VIPs. In those days that meant Hollywood heavyweights such as Gary Cooper, Van Johnson and Norma Shearer and their entourages. It's hard to say who was more dazzled.
"It was a hell of a year," Eriksen says, remembering the winter of 1952-53, and then he adds, "God, it was incredible."
"All Stein needed to do was enter a room," an Aspen innkeeper said years later. "Eyes glazed. Tongues tied. And when he swooped down the ski hills, the 'aaahs' rose like dawn over Mandalay."
They still do. At Deer Valley in Utah, on a sunny morning last winter, a camera crew was setting up halfway down a lightly trafficked run called Peeler to shoot Eriksen's descent for an in-house promotion. A middle-aged man stopped on his way down the run to ask what was happening, and when he was told, he flagged his two companions, and they also stopped.
"It's Stein," the man said. No other explanation was necessary. All three stood in a row, eyes trained on the crest of the hill above them, waiting for a glimpse of the 63-year-old man who still skis like an angel.
In spite of the sweeping changes in technique and equipment that have long since made Eriksen's brand of skiing obsolete for racing purposes, an unwritten aesthetic standard still exists for judging a skier, a standard that is based on a collective memory of the elegant look of Eriksen's skiing in the mid-and late-1950s—knees and ankles so close they seemed to work as one, skis precisely parallel and rarely more than an inch or two apart, arms and poles held wide like outriggers, turns that floated, body positions that defied gravity, a style that looked so effortless it seemed to require only beautiful thoughts.
"It's not the racing technique of today," says Shawn Stinson, a 26-year-old former Park City instructor. "But it is the most fluid, beautiful motion you've ever seen. People try to imitate it and they butcher it. Instructors just shake their heads. They don't know how he gets away with it."