5/03/2010

A Day With A Legend

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Before I start my story, let me say that a chairlift is the #1 place in the world to meet people. You're stuck next to 1-5 other people on a bench seat for a 5-15 minute period 30 feet off the ground. If you can't meet someone in that situation you might be a lost cause. I have always been one to listen to music while I ride, but I always take my headphones off on the chairlift. I'm not discriminatory towards race, age, or sex, because I feel like everyone I've met has had a story, and this time was definitely no different.

I drove to A-Basin this morning and planned on skiing alone. A lot of my friends have gone home for the summer or are just ready for summer (I can't say I blame them). As I was getting on the chairlift an energetic man, who had to be in his 70's, skied up next to me. He was a tall thin man wearing an older one piece suit, but his skis looked brand new. We started casual conversation and I could tell he knew a lot about skiing. "This is someone who's been skiing for decades," I thought to myself. I really like listening to the "old" guys in the industry talk (I put "old" in quotations because besides their age, nothing about these guys is "old"). The stories they have about places they've gone and how skiing use to be back in the day is so fascinating, and this man wasn't by any means short on stories. As I got off the chairlift I went straight to the next lift and he turned right and went down the run, but I really didn't think much of it. I went up the next lift, went all the way back down, came up the first lift again, and as I was skiing to the second lift I saw him.

I purposely tried to slow down hoping he'd catch up so I'd have a chairlift buddy. Not only did he catch up, but he flew past me. I caught up with him in the lift line and he nudged me with his elbow. "We meet again young lady!" He said with a big smile. We started going up the chairlift again and I asked him a question:
"So, I have a question. You seem like you've been skiing a long time and well this is my first season. Could you give me some pointers on how to keep the tips of my skis more parallel on my turns?"
 "What?!" He responded, "You mean to tell me you just started skiing? Well I'll be darned! I saw you ski, why don't you come take some turns with me and I'll show you."

He continued to tell me some of his crazy stories up the chairlift, about mountaineering (the sport of hiking up a mountain and skiing back down) and white water rafting and being an engineer on the side.
"This pair of skis I use to ride, well before they put them up on display somewhere anyway," was something he said that really caught my attention. I began to grow more and more curious about who he was, who he had been, and something in me told me he wasn't just anyone. We got off the chairlift and skied over to a fairly steep and narrow run.
 "Now you follow me first kid, try to keep up and follow my tracks."
 I laughed in my head, I could keep up with a 70-year-old just fine... so I thought. We started off and I was only a ski length behind him, after his second turn I was 5 ski lengths back, and then 10, 15, and 20. He was waiting for me at the end of the run. I was out of breath and exhausted, and I hadn't made half the turns he had.
Then he laughed, "Looks like those powder skis are a little hard to turn on these groomed runs!"
"Yeah," I responded adamantly, needing some sort of excuse for myself and him as to why someone 50+ years older than me just schooled me. I was sure he was someone, he had to be, he was probably a racer in his younger years.
"I have another pair of park skis in my car, I'll grab them later and work on what you've taught me."
"Well why don't you just go get them now," he said, "I've got all day."
 I'm always one to take advice from others on skiing. It's a very humbling sport, not like other team sports. The difference in talent from one skier to another can be the difference between a blade of grass and the empire state building. It's a sport I'm very passionate about, and I'm so inclined to learn.

I went to my car and got my other pair of skis and we met back at the bottom chairlift.
"Ahhh, you have twin tips," he laughed, "looks like I really won't be riding behind you now!"
(For those of you who aren't skiers, twin tips are skis that are curled up on the front and back, a modern ski made for skiers who like to do tricks. The purpose is so you can ride backwards without digging your tips into the snow causing you to fall. The curl on the back of the ski causes a lot of snow spray, though.) He had a very savvy personality which impressed me. We took quite a few more runs together and I was starting to keep up with him better, his pointers were really helping. 

"You know, a few of those last turns were almost perfect. You're catching on mighty quick, let me tell you. Faster than I've ever seen." 
"So did you use to be a ski instructor?" I asked.
"No, no, no... I just use to ski for a living, er, I mean a hobby. But it still is I suppose..."
"I knew it!" I thought to myself, he slipped. I looked down at his skis as he kept talking and I saw the name "Tom" written on the tips of his skis, often done as to not get one's own skis mixed up with someone else. 
"Tom, Tom, Tom..." I repeated to myself in my head, trying to come up with a retired pro skier named Tom, but I had nothing. 
"You know, I really like you Ali," he said, "you've really got something here with skiing. You've got heart. Now you just have to really put that heart into the way you ride, and not just skiing, you see?"
"Yeah, I see." I said.
"You just ride those skis like it's more natural to you then walking, but you don't give any effort. Lets go inside after this run, I've got some things I'd like to show you."

At the end of the run we walked into the lodge where his wife was sitting reading a magazine. 
"Look here what I've found," he said to his wife, "A 19-year-old super star skier!"
"Haha," I laughed, "He was just helping me with my carving."
"Oh is that so?" His wife said, "That old man slowed down enough for you to keep him in sight did he? You must be something." Even she seemed to know how fast he was.
He sat down next to me at the table and pulled a stack of full paper-sized pictures out of his book bag, along with a Ski Magazine.
"Now lets see here, where is it", he said as he was paging through the magazine. "I don't usually just carry these things with me so it must be fate!"
He turned the magazine towards me to a 7 or so page ski article about a very dangerous, epic, first-accent mountaineering excursion. I'm not sure if most of you are familiar with Skiing magazines, but it takes a darn important story to make a 7 page article, much less a 4 page one.
"There, read that first sentence there," he said as he pointed to the first sentence of the entire article. They say that people lose their memory when something shocks them, so honestly I don't remember exactly what it said, but it was something like, "You never get anything less than an adventure when you spend a day with Tom Spencer."
He started paging through the article before I could process his name, pointing out pictures of this insane mountain he climbed."
"It's 13,000 feet, but it ain't like these mountains here in Colorado where you can start the climb at 9,000 feet, we started at 3,000. I'll be climbing it again next year, that'll make me 76-years-old when I do." 
He pulled the magazine away and dropped a pile of 50 pictures or more in front of me and began narrating as he went through them. Picture after picture was a different magazine cover he was on.
"November 1971, see this is the first issue ever that Ski magazine published with a skier (yours truly) doing a freestyle trick on it, it was an 'aerial airplane turn'. Oh and see this here cover, I don't even know who took this picture, I sure didn't okay it to be published, but someone sent it in and then there it was. Oh and here's a picture of me and my good friend Jim McConkey."
(Jim McConkey was the father of Shane McConkey, a modern skiing legend who was sadly and tragically killed last year when a ski base jump went bad.)

It all started hitting me then, I knew who he was. Tom Spencer is one of the godfather's of skiing, one of the guys who was one of the first to do a lot of things on skis. He's one of the reasons the sport is where it is today. I know some people might wonder why I was so starstruck, since I can say I'm friends with some of the current best freeskiers in the world, but this is different. It's probably really cool to meet an engineer who builds and designs airplanes, but what if you could have met the Wright brother's who invented the airplane? I had just spent the day riding with a legend, and I was honored beyond words.

"See Ali, you didn't get to be friends with your friends so quick for no reason. I think they saw the same thing in you that I see. I'm going to get you on a real pair of world class carving skis, and I want you to keep them, for now. I can't even imagine where you're going to go on them. But let's find out, say Thursday? I'm going to bring two friends, they just might show. Two X US Ski Team racers, they have more advice when it comes to teaching."


We exchanged emails and I tried to thank him as much as I could for showing me all he had and sharing his stories. I'm not sure if I'll be able to make it out on Thursday because I'm leaving for Wisconsin for a week on Friday, but I am sure that I have made a new friend. A new friend that is a legend, who has wisdom far beyond my years, who can hopefully help me achieve my dream of skiing for a living. It goes to show that you'll never know who you'll meet, and all it starts with is "hello".



3 comments to “A Day With A Legend”

  • May 4, 2010 at 3:18 PM
    Anonymous says:

    Very nice story- thanks for sharing! I skied A-Basin today and a friend shared a similar story about Tom Spencer, so I googled him and found your story. CJMueller

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  • November 19, 2011 at 6:10 PM
    VtYakr says:

    I just had a very similiar experience with Tom yesterday at Loveland! He is amazing!

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  • November 19, 2011 at 6:12 PM
    VtYakr says:

    I just had a similiar experience with Tom at Loveland yesterday! He's amazing! 77 yrs young!

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