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Dean of Skiing Isn't Ready to Pass the Olympic Torch

Sport: Popular former gold medalist, 74, will be an unofficial roving ambassador when the Games come to his turf.

January 23, 2002|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARK CITY, Utah — Cameras click when Stein Eriksen enters the room. Groupies surround him. Children beg for autographs. People--very, very wealthy people--plead for the privilege of paying quite dearly to spend an hour on the snow with him.

"Ya," he says, sounding like he maybe left Oslo the day before yesterday, "this is very exciting."

What the 74-year-old dean of American freestyle skiing is referring to is both the XIX Winter Olympics and the 50th anniversary of his own Olympic medals. The former puts his adopted home of Utah on the international forefront of skiing. The latter gives Eriksen an occasion to celebrate his status as the embodiment of style and elegance on American slopes.

As director of skiing at the Deer Valley resort here, Eriksen also is an unofficial roving ambassador as the region welcomes athletes and spectators from around the world. On Feb. 7, he will carry the Olympic torch.

Hatless even on the coldest winter days, his silver hair flowing behind him as he flies down the trails, Eriksen is so familiar that he is known to all by his first name alone.

"Hi, Stein!" a woman in a mink coat calls out. She is blond and glamorous, dripping in diamonds. Just an average guest here at Stein Eriksen Lodge. The most exclusive, most expensive auberge at Utah's most exclusive, most expensive ski area named for the resident superstar.

The woman sees that Stein is busy talking. She blows him an air-kiss. "I'll give you a real kiss later," she promises.

Sitting in front of a massive case filled with medals and statues and commemorative plaques, Eriksen describes a childhood stolen from a Scandinavian ski fable.

In the country where skiing was invented more than 1,000 years ago, Bitten Eriksen, his mother, was president of the local ladies' ski club. His dad, Marius, was the first manufacturer of Alpine skis in Norway. Stein cannot remember a winter when he did not step into heavy, lace-up boots and strap on long wooden skis.

In the Oslo Olympics in 1952 and the 1954 World Championships in Aare, Sweden, Eriksen raced on skis made by his father. In Oslo, he won a gold medal in the giant slalom and a silver in the slalom. In Aare, he captured three gold medals: slalom, giant slalom and the combined--making him the first Alpine skier to win triple gold at a world championship.

"I am so proud, being able to achieve what I did, and to do it on father's skis," Eriksen said.

Skis, by the way, that according to the technique of that time were 220 centimeters long. As new, parabolic technology revolutionized ski equipment and shortened skis a decade or so ago, Eriksen transferred his signature style--skis impossibly close together--to the new gear.

"I said, 'I will never ski on under 200,' " Eriksen said. "And of course now I am on 190, and they want me to go to 185. I have learned never to say never."

Another admirer approaches him: "It is an honor to meet you, Mr. Eriksen," says Dr. Aaron Strefling, a physician from Los Altos, Calif.

Strefling gives the ski icon a long look.

"If I were 74 years old, I would change bodies with him," confesses Strefling, who is in his 40s. "Right now I would like to swap his shoulders and his thighs."

Eriksen glides back to his discussion of skiing. His trademark position leaves snow tracks that on any degree of steepness almost look like a single ski. He developed the technique to maximize control and accuracy. When he turned pro in 1954, he set out to teach others.

In addition to a technically correct form of skiing, Eriksen had another aim: "If I could make it look graceful and easy and aesthetically nice, people would say: 'Gosh, I'd like to ski like that.' "

But almost no one can.

"Well I hope not," says Eriksen.

From Boyne Mountain, Mich., to Sugarbush, Vt., to Heavenly Valley, Calif., Eriksen set up ski schools and shops. He taught at Snowmass, Colo., and at Sun Valley, Idaho. When Deer Valley opened 21 years ago, Eriksen was part of the celebrity package, lending his name to a four-star hotel where room rates range from $500 to $5,000 a night.

Every day at Deer Valley, Stein's wife, Francoise, displays his "suit du jour" on a mannequin at her Bjorn Stova boutique. What started as a joke now helps Eriksen's fans locate him on the slopes.

"It never ceases to amaze me," says Marion Wheaton, a Deer Valley ski guide, stopping to introduce a client to Eriksen. "No one can ski like Stein."

In his native country, says Halvor Kleppen, Eriksen's best friend from Norway, skiing is a way of life. Long ago, when communications were poor, Norwegians simply skied from town to town when they wanted to see each other. Now, the sport is a national passion for tiny children and grandparents alike.

Eriksen, says his pal, "is an Olympic hero. And in Norway, winter heroes are heroes for this life, the next life and for thousands of years to come."

While that praise may be a bit over the top, Eriksen will take it.

"In the last 10 years," he reveals, "I've had more requests for autographs than ever before."

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