Remembering the Architect of Modern US Ski Racing
In 2010, Nathaniel Vinton, author of “The Fall Line,” interviewed novelist James Salter about his screenplay for “Downhill Racer,” the 1969 Robert Redford film. Salter said the head coach character, played by Gene Hackman, was based on Bob Beattie, who had helped Salter and Redford travel the alpine World Cup circuit in Europe for their research. One of Hackman’s lines – “Tell him to uncork one” – was a verbatim replay of words he’d overheard Beattie radio up to the start gate at a World Cup.
Bob Beattie’s celebrity in the ski world equals Redford’s in the mainstream media. His impact is unmatched. When he died on April 1, the ski community lost an innovator, icon and coach who dedicated his life to growing the sport and changing the U.S. approach to ski racing.
“Everything that is now considered a matter of fact in ski racing–NASTAR, the World Cup, U.S. Ski Team–it’s because of Bob,” said NBC commentator Steve Porino. “He set the table and we’ve been eating at it for the last 50 years.”
Beattie first found his calling in coaching, starting at Middlebury College and then moving to the University of Colorado. He led the Buffs to back-to-back national championship titles in 1959 and 1960. By age 28, Beattie became the first U.S. national team coach and he exposed them to European racing, including the legendary Hahnenkamm.
“In 1962, I came to Kitzbuehel for the first time with [Billy] Kidd, [Jimmie] Heuga, and Billy Marolt,” Beattie told Ski Racing Media in 2010 . “They were all 18 when we first came to Europe and we had a great time. I’m ten years older then they are, so I’ll always remember their ages. I’ve been here almost every year since then, it’s over 40-years now, almost 50 staying in the same hotel and almost the same hotel room, as a matter of fact. It has become quite a tradition to come here every year.”
In the years that followed, Team USA won its first men’s alpine medals in Olympic Winter Games history with Kidd taking silver in slalom and the late Heuga bronze at the 1964 Games–all under Beattie’s guidance. He changed the approach to ski racing, transitioning the mindset from a hobby to something an athlete had to train for. Beattie’s athletes were going to work for their wins.
“Bob thought the more ski runs you did the better you got,” said Kidd, many years ago during an interview with People Magazine. “His ideas didn’t always coincide with mine.”
In the same interview, Kidd also admitted that Beattie’s toughness provided a key element to the team.
“Bob could really get you charged up,” he said.
In true Beattie style, that was not the only thing he changed in U.S. ski racing. Heading into the Innsbruck Olympics, Beattie rallied support for the ski team at unprecedented levels. He pioneered a new era of promotion and fundraising, and partnered with the American ski industry to raise funds and engaged with corporate world in the European-centric sport.
The fact that ski racing was not the sport-of-choice on his own continent perhaps makes his role in international skiing all the more interesting. In 1966, he partnered with journalist Serge Lang and French coach Honorė Bonnet to found what became the World Cup tour. Just four years later, Beattie pioneered another tour known as World Pro Skiing–featuring the exciting dual format and pro-jumps.
Ultimately, Beattie left the U.S. Ski Team when he felt he could no longer lead it the way he needed to. It was around that time that he got involved in television.
“Bob Beattie single-handedly sold ski racing to Madison Avenue,” said former Beattie PR and marketing guru Jim Lillstrom during a 2012 event. “I watched him prowling the street, selling his new professional sport — all he needed was a tiny sliver of their daily schedule and he could win them over.”
He called his first race in 1969 with ABC and continued to commentate races across various networks through the turn of the century. In all those decades working in television, perhaps his most famous moment was during the 1976 Games when Franz Klammer won the downhill.
“I really like to watch this run,” said Klammer at a 2012 event honoring Beattie.“I always questioned myself if my run made Bob more famous or his commentary made me famous. Bob had the vision. He came to Europe for ABC and saw a young racer from Austria and featured this guy for two years and couldn’t get a single word of English out of me.”
It wasn’t just about covering the World Cup. Beattie pursued stories in the community to spread the word. While at ESPN, Beattie traveled to Buck Hill, Minn., to do a profile on Alan Kildow, Lindsey Vonn’s father and a coach. This was before Vonn was one of the greats. In fact, she wasn’t even on skis. At age three, she was safely in a backpack on her dad’s back. Of course, their paths crossed more than a few times in the years that followed, and it wouldn’t be possible for Vonn to have the most World Cup wins amongst women without Beattie to help create the circuit.
“Bob was always supportive of me and my career,” Vonn shared. “I always loved spending time with him, and he had such a huge impact on ski racing.”
As Beattie increased the profile of the sport on TV, he also trained the next generation of ski racing journalists including Porino, whose voice still rings out during the World Cup season on NBC. Beattie was the first person that he ever worked with in TV.
“He was the first guy, and he was the only guy,” said Porino. “He was the original broadcaster…There were some others that did Olympics, but he was the guy that was ever present for ABC and ESPN when World Cup skiing was covered.”
Beattie was not just your average commentator. He brought an unrelenting and contagious love of the sport to homes around the country.
“If there’s one thing that he communicated as well as anyone, it’s passion,” recalled Porino.
One of his most passionate moments came just before Beattie’s retirement. In 2001, the World Championships were hosted in St. Anton, Austria. U.S. victories were few and far between at the time while the Austrians “were a dynasty unlike any other time in their history,” according to Porino. Hermann Maier was the favorite to win the men’s super-G. If not him, then Stephan Eberharter would win. It definitely wasn’t going to be an American.
“Daron Rahlves comes down and he wins,” Porino shared. “50,000 people there to watch and you can hear a pin drop. That’s one of those moments that Beattie lost it. Like he often did when things got emotional, he came outside the truck because we didn’t call them live and he just started crying. That’s who he was. He wanted so much for the U.S. Ski Team.”
Beattie was known for his unwavering support of U.S. ski racing, though it did not stop him of being critical. In 2017, he told The Aspen Times that while he held his tongue during Marolt’s reign at U.S. Ski & Snowboard, he was not ready to be silent.
“It’s fun to be a pain in the ass,” Beattie told the paper. “It really is.”
At the top of his list of concerns was accessibility to the sport at all levels. He was particularly harsh when it came to the funding model of the national team.
“We’re only getting kids with money,” Beattie said to The Aspen Times. “Kids like Kidd, Heuga, Marolt and Spider (Sabich) would never be ski racers now. They could never afford it. Their parents didn’t have that kind of money.”
Beattie’s actions spoke as loudly as his words long before that 2017 interview. He fought fiercely in his adopted hometown of Aspen, Colo. to get more kids on snow and in ski racing back in 1986. Beattie negotiated with the Aspen Skiing Co. to provide affordable skiing for kids in the Roaring Fork Valley. Those talks resulted in the creation of the Aspen Supports Kids program, now called Base Camp. Today, the program serves 1,800 kids with affordable entry into the sport.
NASTAR also played a role in his mission to give everyone a chance to hop in the gates. Beattie ran the program for 30 years with a small yet dedicated staff who promoted friendly competition on skis.
“Yes, I was a pioneer, but really it was all about how we could get people up in the mountains to get a little racing experience,” Beattie said in a 2017 NASTAR article. “We really weren’t trying to create champions, we just wanted to have fun.”
Whether Beattie was at the top of the Streif or at a NASTAR competition, his mission was always to share his passion for the sport and get people involved. He will always be remembered that way.
Details on a celebration of Bob Beattie’s life are pending, but will likely be this fall in Aspen.