The Mountain Times

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Once upon a time in history: Suzy Chaffee, Pico prodigy and ski icon

Photo submitted.
Suzy Chaffee was inducted into the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 2009.

Mention the name Suzy Chaffee and some think ski ballet, others Suzy Chapstick, and still others, the U.S. downhill darling of the 1968 Olympics - when the statuesque tall blond captured the attention of the press, if not a medal.

But there's more. Chaffee, a talented racer who came up through skiing at Pico Mountain and later Killington, was a true promoter of the sport, advocating first for freedom of expression through freestyle in all its many permutations-from crazy hot-dogging to graceful ballet-then for women and minorities in skiing and fitness in general.

Befitting her dynamic advocacy of skiing, Chaffee was inducted into the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum Hall of Fame in 2009, where she was honored for her many accomplishments and contributions to the sport.

Born in Rutland in 1946, Chaffee's mother Stevia taught her to ski at the age of three on the slopes of Pico. Rutlander Joe Jones became her first coach when she was five. Chaffee grew up racing at Pico with her brothers Kim and Rick (also Olympians.) They also raced at Killington, but it didn't open until she was twelve.

When she was a college freshman, Chaffee tried out for the U.S. Ski Team and finished fifth in downhill at the 1966 World Championships and was ranked tenth in the world in Women's downhill in 1967.

As the top-ranked U.S. skier, she captained the 1968 U.S. Women's Alpine Team at the 1968 Grenoble Olympics. A miscalculation in ski wax kept her off the podium (she finished 19th), but her silver racing suit got the attention of the press and helped her launch a career of many ventures. She retired from ski racing after the Olympics but not from ski competition.

As a youngster, Chaffee had taken ballet lessons, which led to fantasies of "dancing down mountains." Combining two passions, she developed ski ballet, which wed her interest in artistic expression with an innate joy of sliding on snow.

Soon she was competing in freestyle events, which had taken a leap forward in the 1960s when Killington instructors Hermann Goellner and Tom Leroy had executed double and triple flips, thus helping to introduce the freestyle movement.

Freestyle took off in the 1970s, both at Killington and nationally. It evolved into the 1970s' spectacular "hot doggin'" with bumps, ballet, and aerials appealing to a new breed of free skiers who preferred "self-expression" to skiing's early "forms." Films featuring early freestylers Wayne Wong, John Clendenin, and Chaffee and a host of daredevil crazies helped popularize freestyle as competitions wowed the crowds and took skiing in a whole new direction. 

When freestyle became a professional sport in 1971, there was no women's division, but Chaffee joined the Pro Tour anyway and won three championships from 1971 through 1973 (yes, competing against men).

Always the promoter, Chaffee introduced freestyle to America on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and raised $1 million to help start the National Women's division, which debuted when the International Freestyle Ski Association was formed in 1973.

Her freestyle career helped Chaffee launch an eclectic and adventurous life that included everything from modeling to acting in movies and creative productions like a workout program and a ski-wear line!

The dynamic, friendly and statuesque 5-foot 9-inch blond toured the country as a promoter for Hart skis. She also hosted Challenge of the Sexes for CBS, created the Suzy Chaffee Ski Workout, lectured, studied ice dancing, and even gave a flute performance at the Metropolitan Opera Club in New York!

Chaffee then produced and directed the ski ballet film "Butch Chapstick and the Snowdance Kid." In 1986, she starred in Willy Bogner's hit ski film "Fire & Ice." Chaffee designed fur-lined skiwear in the 1990s, tying with Bogner to win the "World Ski Couture Award."

Guess who was in the first women sports commercials? Yes, Chaffee. What's more, her Ultrabrite commercial was deemed "Best Commercial of the Decade." While her ads for Dannon and others like Revlon's Charlie might make it seem like she was simply a model, that was far from the case.

Chaffee was, and is, an astute business woman. Ski magazine once wrote, "Underneath her rhinestone headband is a mind of a Lee Iacocca."

The first woman named to the U. S. Olympic Committee's Board of Directors in 1976, Chaffee advocated for freestyle skiing being accepted as an Olympic sport. In 1984, she co-produced a World Cup event that qualified freestyle to become a demonstration sport in 1988 and an Olympic sport in 1992.

Most significantly, she wrote the rule that allowed Madison Avenue to freely sponsor Olympic teams and individual. This leveled the international playing fields and made it possible to welcome all economic classes into Olympic competitions, something she is understandably proud of.

A true believer in fitness and participation in sports as leading to good health, Chaffee worked for Title IX legislation (passed in 1972), which helped create equal opportunities for females in school sports. She joined the President's Council on Fitness in 1974, serving through four administrations and assisted in the passage of the Amateur Sport Act of 1978.

It was while skiing and working on an Olympics bill with President Ford that his ad man Jim Jordan dreamed up the "Suzy Chapstick" lip balm commercial.

Based in NYC and LA for many years, Chaffee moved to Colorado in 1995.

Chaffee was named to the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame in 1988 for her many accomplishments in Alpine, freestyle, and sport builder (sports/fitness promotion) categories.

Hailed as America's "first lady of skiing," she continues to ski and share her infectious enthusiasm for snow.
Chaffee and Andrea Mead Lawrence (last week's feature in The Mountian Times) are two of the most famous people to get their starts at Pico and did the mountain proud.