Igor the American
“I was born under mountains and introduced to sport of skiing by my father,” Igor Vanovac told me some years ago, skipping certain articles and pronouns in his accented English, as if a man in a hurry, which he often has been.
“I have been in love with skiing since I was boy and have traveled from winter to winter all around world because I love sport.”
After more than a decade in Vermont most anyone in New England ski racing knows — or knows of — Igor. He’s the boss at the races at the storied Mt. Mansfield Ski Club in Stowe, where he serves as director. He’s the brash and insistent man who assisted with course prep at the women’s World Cups at Killington.
And, he is true to his name: the unmistakable Slavic accent, a mixture of tough and tender, his sheer dimensions. Imagine Gru from Despicable Me, but on skis.
Less well known is his remarkable story to match his name.
Nearly thirty years ago, Igor’s career as a budding Yugoslav national team ski racer was cut short by the collapse of that cobbled-together nation. A bloody, brutal, neighbor-against-neighbor war had erupted. Within months he himself was injured, hit by shrapnel.
Igor’s a guy who’s looking ahead; he doesn’t dwell on the bad stuff. Questions about the injury and that dark time are deflected with self-effacing gruffness. “Friends were killed…I survived…I was lucky…” Details have emerged in bits and pieces of conversation over the years.
Igor was born auspiciously on the first day of 1971 and grew up comfortable, the son of college professors, in a leafy neighborhood in Sarajevo, then a thriving multi-cultural city in a storied land with an ancient history. As a kid he dreamed of snow-covered peaks; when he was just four he strapped on skis and sped down his hometown Bijelasnic and Jahhorina mountains. A few years later as an aspiring teenage ski racer Igor watched, transfixed, as the skiing greats of that era — the Mahre brothers, Franz Klammer, Pirmin Zurbriggen, Bill Johnson — competed on his home slopes in the 1984 Olympics. The Yugoslavians in the races wowed the home crowd, with two top-ten finishers in the GS and three in the top-15 in slalom. Igor vowed to make ski racing his life, too.
Like all Yugoslavs at the time, upon turning 18 Igor was drafted into compulsory military service. This was before the war, and everyone served, but even then in the late 1980s ethnic and religious tension had begun to simmer among the ranks. After completing his service he returned to the slopes with the Yugoslav national ski team to compete on the international circuit in the Alps. It was short-lived.
Within two years, beginning in 1991, one by one the Yugoslav republics seceded, sparking violence, then all-out war. Every able soldier was joining or being strong-armed into the fight for one side or another. Millions would eventually be displaced and some 140,000 are estimated to have died in almost a decade of bloody killing as religious and nationalist factions sought supremacy, territory, power.
“I love Yugoslavia,” he would tell me years later, but he wanted no part of the fight. His hometown of Sarajevo became the bloody frontline. He won’t talk about it but he witnessed the worst of humanity, neighbors turning against neighbors, the killing of comrades and friends.
Then, as a bystander to a firefight in Sarajevo, an explosion sent shrapnel into his side, delivering a searing message: Go! At the age of 21 in the spring of 1992, and encouraged by his parents, he fled. It would be eight years before he would see any of his family again.
“My father gave me the family car, and I remember driving away with him on old bicycle behind us, waving, ‘Go! Go!’”
A friend, a pregnant woman, traveled with him. They sped across the Sarajevo airport runway, the frontline at the time, bullets whistling overhead and striking the pavement. They headed north. They passed bombed out towns and buildings, charred vehicles. He moved bodies from the roadway to press onward. He left the car in Belgrade and carried on by bus, train, and on foot. For months he hitch-hiked through Europe — Austria, Switzerland, Italy — stealing food as he went, working odd jobs, checking his pride in the face of virulent prejudice against Serbs like him, finding floor space from friends of friends or sleeping in the open.
Igor must have had an angel riding shotgun: at every turn he made improbably generous and powerful friends, and new hopeful signs pushed him onward.
And Skiing was always the pass-key. Thanks to his standing on the Yugoslav national team he’d obtained a passport and permission to travel from the former Yugoslavia. Ever after, skiing found him jobs, housing, recognition, friends, credibility, love.
By late 1992 Igor worked his way across Europe to the glitzy principality of Monte Carlo with nothing but the clothes on his back. “I had my Levi’s 501s and a white shirt, which I washed every day, no matter what. That’s all I had. And, my army boots.”
Like so much of Igor’s story, the Monaco chapter began with an astonishing chance meeting. For a time he was sleeping — hiding at night would be more accurate — under Monte Carlo’s sea-front boardwalk, tucked up just out of sight from the most exclusive real estate in the world. Climbing onto the boardwalk to chart his next move one morning, gaunt and unshaven, hungry and penniless, something about him caught the eye of a woman passing by. Life turns on such moments. He struck up a conversation, telling his story quickly: ski racer, refugee from the hell of war. The woman was sympathetic. She knew someone who knew someone in the Monaco ski world who might be able to help.
That woman opened doors. One conversation, then another, and he eventually landed a job coaching the principality’s ski club, then its national team. He learned French — badly, but well enough. Even more improbably, he met and befriended Prince Albert of Monaco, who it turned out was quite a skier himself. With Monaco friends, Igor established a successful summer ski camp in the Alps.
After a few years full time in Monaco and France, Igor found work coaching in the summer in the Southern Hemisphere in Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand. Australia suited him so well he stayed and became a citizen. There was also a girl, of course. “I love Australia,” he says about that time. He was by then in his mid 20s. The war back home was raging still and he hadn’t seen his mother or father in years.
Through American friends made on the slopes Igor was recruited in 1999 to come to America, to western Massachusetts, to coach at Berkshire East Ski Resort. He got one look at the place and remembers thinking, “Where are mountains?” One midwinter day, a friend recalled, Igor returned from a ski run and announced: “I have just seen camel!” Turns out, he’d spotted a moose.
From Berkshire East, Igor coached at Mount Snow in Vermont, then shaped and led a championship UMass Ski Team. That was followed by a stint coaching at Diamond Peak in California.
We met in 2004, when he took the reins at the Mount Mansfield Ski Club. I had been on the hiring committee, and I remember being immediately charmed, but I had reservations: there was a loose-cannon feel about him; he’d need harnessing. The time at Diamond Peak had had its bumps.
Igor immediately had huge ideas for our Stowe program, and when he arrived he let loose with criticisms and frustrations — and then went to work. Anyone who knows Igor will tell you he can have the delicate touch of a dictator. He stepped on toes — crushing them in some cases — to accomplish objectives. But he transformed the Stowe club. He befriended key benefactors, and with their help built a vast new clubhouse. He built a state-of-the-art, quarter-of-a-million-dollar club tuning shop, which draws steady business from around the region. Both bullying and sweet talking resort officials, he succeeded in building a premier, summit-to-base training and race trail suitable for Super-G and tech disciplines at every level.
By all accounts Igor was a good hire. Club membership has swelled. New sources of revenue are flowing. The organization’s finances, always a source of worry, stabilized. More, ever-bigger races keep coming. “Without question he has transformed the club, and it’s probably in the best financial shape it has ever been,” MMSC board member and former club president Denise Gutstein told me recently.
In 2017 at an event attended by hundreds of friends and colleagues Igor was honored by the Vermont Alpine Racing Association as alpine official of the year for his contributions to the sport.
It was at the Mt. Mansfield Ski Club soon after his arrival that Igor met Micheline Lemay, an MMSC coach with snowy mountains in her own DNA. She grew up on skis in New Hampshire. They were wed a decade ago — fittingly, on the winter solstice — at a chapel accessible only on skis half way up Mount Mansfield. It was a joyful convergence of friends and family from far and near, including Igor’s mother, Lula, in from Serbia.
In the falling snow that day, Igor spoke with optimism like only a man who has been freed from hell can. He read a letter to the crowd about his journey and his search, and how he’d arrived here and met Micheline and found happiness. Then everyone skied down in the powder to a local tavern and rejoiced in the magic of it all.
Igor called me recently to be sure I understood something important for this story. “Without Micheline none of this would have happened. No way. We did it together.” Micheline Vanovac has shaped and runs the hugely successful programs for the youngest MMSC skiers. But that wasn’t exactly what he meant, or what I took away from the call. The surprisingly tender gesture reminded me what I had found so beguiling the first time we met.
Last year, Igor became an American citizen at a ceremony in Burlington, with Micheline and his children Sofia and Hugo at his side. Forty-eight nations were represented at the event, including others who’d fled the Balkan wars as refugees.
The federal officials conducting the ceremony “called me Yugoslavian,” Igor said, laughing. “I liked that. It no longer exists, but that’s where I was born, Yugoslavia.”
He tells me he misses Yugoslavia, he cherishes it, the memory of it in his youth. “It is beautiful.”
And America? “I am married to an American girl, I have kids born here, I live here, I pay taxes here, I want to be here, and I want to have my own home and land.”
He pauses, and adds, “America, it is the only way to go. Right?”