Howard Peterson, an influential leader of the U.S. Ski Association and later the Soldier Hollow Legacy Foundation, passed away Monday (May 11) in Heber City, Utah. As secretary general of USSA in the late 1980s, Peterson pushed the U.S. Olympic Committee to select a candidate city based on its willingness to develop legacy facilities for athletes. His efforts resulted in Salt Lake City winning over Anchorage in 1989 by two votes and venues that continue to serve athletes and the public today.
A Maine native, Peterson was one of the founders of the National Ski Touring Association (now Cross Country Ski Areas Association) before moving to a role with the U.S. Ski Association (USSA) that would change the face of the sport globally. In 1988, Peterson engineered a deal to bring together the U.S. Ski Team and U.S. Ski Association into one entity, basing the new organization in Park City.
At his core was an intense passion for supporting athletes. Every action he took as a leader was for their betterment.
“As an athlete on the U.S. Ski Team, I remember Howard toting around his huge leather handbag full of papers,” said U.S. Ski & Snowboard President and CEO Tiger Shaw, who got to know Peterson in the late ‘80s. “He was always there for us. He cared deeply for the teams and was especially passionate about our sports – always quiet and thoughtful, but never without an opinion!”
Always an advocate for athletes, Peterson pushed an agenda that U.S. Olympic bid cities should develop venues to provide a living legacy after the Games. While his initiatives were not well received at the start, his relentless push led to the selection of Salt Lake City and the development of venues that remain in active use today.
In his longtime engagement with the International Ski Federation (FIS), he advocated for the integration of adaptive skiing, freestyle skiing, and snowboarding into the Olympic and Paralympic programs.
But one of his greatest accomplishments was seizing the opportunity to bring cash prizes and sponsorship money for athletes into the sport. After the International Olympic Committee relaxed its rules in the 1980s, Peterson saw an opportunity. He hit the road to lobby national ski associations across Europe, bringing a proposal to the 1990 FIS Congress in Montreux, Switzerland to offer cash prizes. Negotiating behind the scenes with FIS President Marc Hodler, Peterson struck a deal making FIS the first international federation to begin compensating athletes through prizing.
Peterson also grabbed a seat on the FIS Advertising Matters Committee, seeing yet another way to help athletes. His work on the seemingly uninteresting task of commercial marking regulations resulted in more opportunities for athletes and teams to create advertising on uniforms.
He was also a watchdog of ethics in sport, boldly tackling the issue with both the U.S. Olympic Committee and FIS. In 1991, his efforts resulted in leadership changes at the U.S. Olympic Committee. In 1992, his efforts to call out bribery within FIS also resulted in subsequent reform.
During his tenure, he grew the value of major events and broadcast television for the U.S. Ski Team. He partnered with ESPN to create blocks of coverage of USSA owned events. In 1992, he seized an opportunity to gain new global broadcast revenue, as well.
Events like America’s Opening World Cups at Park City and the 1989 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships at Vail and the new resort of Beaver Creek showcased alpine ski racing like never before.
“One of my best memories with Howard was in Lillehammer celebrating Tommy Moe’s gold (in 1994),” recalled former Vail Valley Foundation President John Garnsey. “A downhill gold medal – and hanging out in the finish with Howard, Tommy, and First Lady Hillary Clinton!”
In particular, the partnership with Vail has stood the test of time, with three World Championships over a 26 year period.
While his role with FIS was focused in great part on his leadership of the Advertising Matters Committee, his voice and influence were always in the background.
Garnsey’s successor, Ceil Folz, worked with him in later years as a FIS delegate. “Howard was calm in every storm,” she said. “His voice, his demeanor, his style just always helped me take a pause in any conversation, reflect on what was going on in the moment, and then move forward with intention … and patience.”
Peterson’s trademark style was always in the background, never out front. He led in ways few saw overtly. But it was the nuances that allowed him to make progress for athletes. He was the picture of calm. He crafted meeting agendas that helped him get what he was seeking. He never gaveled decisions himself, but very craftily looked to support from his committee and then fine tuned it for the desired outcome.
After bringing stability to the organization, Peterson opted to retire in 1994 – going out in style with six Olympic medals in Lillehammer. A year later, though, he headed back to Europe on his own nickel just to be there when Picabo Street won the World Cup downhill title. It had been a decade since an American alpine skier had won crystal. He just wanted to be standing in the town square in Bormio when the American flag was raised.
He retired from his FIS role in 2012 and was named an honorary member of the Advertising Matters Committee.
His real pride and joy, though, took him back to his roots as a cross country skier. Five years later, he led an initiative to form the Soldier Hollow Legacy Foundation. The cross country and biathlon venue proved to be one of the most engaging of all the 2002 Olympic sites. It’s legacy resulted in training facilities for athletes used yet today, as well as a regional outdoor recreation center that continues to thrive. He retired from that role in 2014.
“We will miss Howard as a friend, a colleague and a leader,” said Luke Bodensteiner, Chief of Sport Development for the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation and General Manager of Soldier Hollow Nordic Center. “He was steadfast in his vision that the Olympics in Utah would leave a legacy for winter sport for generations to come. And we continue to enjoy the impact of his tireless efforts today, particularly at Soldier Hollow, which became so near and dear to him, and into which he invested so much of himself.”
One of those who truly understand Peterson’s value to ski sport was the late Ski Racing publisher Gary Black. When his colleague retired from Soldier Hollow in 2014, Black penned an editorial, Why the Sport Owes Howard Peterson a Mountain of Gratitude. Always a student of the sport and its sometimes bureaucratic governance, Black understood the nuances and, most of all, the impact Peterson had had on athletes over nearly 40 years working in the sport.
Peterson, who was 69, died after a long illness. His wife, Susan, passed in 2016. The two met ice climbing on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in 1976. They were married in 1989, enjoying a life of travel and adventure – visiting 80 countries together. Peterson was also a noted climber, pioneering many first ascents in New Hampshire and Alaska.
Family and friends will plan an appropriate tribute when conditions are appropriate in the future.