Remembering the 1964 Olympics

1963 st marys

Barbara Lawlor, Nederland

Fifty years ago, in 1964, the Winter Olympics were held in Innsbruck, Austria, from January 29 to February 9. The Games included 1091 athletes from 36 nations. During training, Australian alpine skier Ross Milne and British luge slider Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypeski died during training, casting a shadow over the event.

An opening concert was performed by the Vienna Philharmonic, playing Beethoven’s 7th Symphony and Mozart’s 40th Symphony. There was a lack of snow that year and the Austrian army had to carve 20,000 ice bricks from a mountain top and transport them to the bobsled and luge runs; 40,000 cubic meters of snow was carried to the Alpine skiing courses, where the snow was packed down by foot.

French sisters Christine and Marielle Goitschel finished first and second in both the slalom and the giant slalom. The luge competition made its debut; East and West Germany entered a combined team and the USSR won the most medals, 25, 11 of them gold. The United States won six, including one gold.

As the opening ceremony and the athlete’s parade was televised all over the world, one 19-year-old alpine skier from Houghton, Michigan, looked around her in awe, breathing in the scents, the sights and the soaring emotions of the international event. It was hard to believe she was there, but she knew how hard she had worked to get there; a small-town, midwest girl who had always strived to be the best.

Barbara Henderson was part of an elite US Olympics team, a group of skiers that would eventually become icons in the Colorado ski world. She too would end up in Colorado. Last Thursday morning, she showed up at the Nederland Elementary School to talk to Sue Hubert’s second grade class about what it was like to be an Olympian 50 years ago. With the winter Olympics beginning this week, the children were eager to hear firsthand about her life and about what the Olympics were like 50 years ago. What they heard amazed them.

Barbara’s ski career began when she was three years old and her parents gave her skis and let her learn how to walk in them, learn how to balance. She lived in Houghton, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula, and skied at Mont Ripley, a small area with a rope tow and a steeper hill than most skiers learned on.
When she was nine years old, Barbara began racing with a local club. When she was 12 years old she won the Central Division Ski Championship. She not only was a quick learner, she was also passionate about the sport.

“I loved to ski,” Barbara told the students. “I walked to the ski slope after school and skied until dark, then walked home. My family supported me and encouraged me to be the best. I wanted to be the best.” Her older brother Chuck, also a ski racer, was her biggest cheerleader.

The local college supported the ski area and Barbara practiced with the college racers, learning to run gates. She told the second graders that she probably went about 60 mph, but that downhill racers now zoom about 100 mph down the course. When she said this, the children’s eyes grew large and they sucked in their breath, trying to imagine how fast that is.

At 15 years old, Barbara had won many races and accumulated many medals. She says that the more races she won, the more she was spurred on to ski faster and faster and train harder. She wanted to beat everyone she skied against. After winning the US Junior National Championship in both downhill and combined in 1960 on Aspen Mountain, she decided to stay and attend Aspen High School. In 1961, Barbara won the Roch Cup as well as the Harriman Cup in Sun Valley. She had definitely entered the elite world of ski racing.

In 1962, when she was 17 years old, she was named to the US National FIS Team, one of four women. In a time when it was rare for a female to downhill race, Barbara became one of America’s fastest speed skiers. Other team members that year included skiers who would go on to become American ski legends: Bob Beattie, Buddy Werner, her brother Chuck Ferries, Fred Neuberger, Gordie Eaton, Billy Kidd, Jimmy Heuga, Joan Hannah, Jean Saubert and Linda Meyers.

When Barbara was a junior at Aspen High School, she trained and lived in the burgeoning ski town, the hot spot for ski racers. After making the Junior Olympic team she traveled to Europe, to Grindelwald, Switzerland. At that time Spyder began making racing suits of high tech fiber and Head was making metal skis.
In 1962, she attended the World Championships in Chamonix, France, where she fell during the slalom race, dashing her hopes of a medal. But her racing record was spectacular enough to name her to the US Olympic team in 1963. She stayed in Europe for three months. She said she had enough money to get there but had to scrape up the funds to return.

During the next year, Barbara moved to Boulder, living with the six other female members of the Olympic team. They trained at the CU stadium and were often photographed as the Olympics drew near. She told the students that athletes now are stronger than the athletes then. She showed them a picture of herself skiing on St. Mary’s Glacier, not wearing her leather helmet as it was not required in slalom racing in those days.

In 1964, her dream was realized. She traveled to Innsbruck, one of the best of the best, ready to race for her country. As the Austrian Army trucked in snow, she prepared for the event of a lifetime. She told the students that even now, in Sochi, snow had to be transported to the Olympic playground—history repeating itself after 50 years.

Pulling out her opening parade outfit, she showed the second graders what an Olympic skier looked like in the grand entry march. The American skiers all wore black headbands which were popular then. Barbara also showed them the Head skis she raced on. They were tall, 220 cm, and they reached far above the skis she uses now, which are much wider and 163 cm.

The metal skis were far more sophisticated than the wooden ones she learned on, but the leather thong bindings hadn’t improved much. They didn’t come off during a fall and the boots made of leather and lace snapped sideways, always dangerous when skiing at 60 mph. Modern ski equipment is much better designed for speed and for safety.

When the Olympics ended, Barbara had fallen in the slalom and come in 14th in the giant slalom. It was the first and last Olympic event she attended. At the age of 19 she decided she wanted to settle down and start a family. For the next 18 years, she didn’t ski. She raised children and worked for a ski equipment company. But her passion for the sport lurked in her heart, ready to be let out again.
When she remarried, to a former Olympian and ski coach, he opened the door, teaching her how to ski the new way… and she has been skiing ever since, on shorter skis, in taller boots and always wearing a helmet.

Barbara ended her presentation by answering questions from the kids, who were totally engaged during her story. She told the students that it was important to try to be the best at what you do, to make friends, to respect each other and to study as hard as they could.

When asked if she ever fell, she said she fell thousands and thousands of times. “To get better you have to fall and then go even faster.”

She said the lesson to be learned from her story is that even if you come from a small town, it’s possible for anyone who works hard to make it to the top. Barbara attributes her early advantage to learning to ski on a small but really steep slope. That, she said, trained her to compete in adverse conditions.

In 1978, she was inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame, where her skis and helmet and Olympic uniform are on display. The museum sent her Olympic equipment to her for her presentation to the second graders.

They may not ever make it to the Olympics but they had the amazing opportunity of meeting a real Olympian who lives in their hometown. And she gave them the news that anything was possible if you work hard and do your very best.

ski magazine

Barbara Lawlor

Barbara is a reporter for The Mountain-Ear.