A Billy Kidd Retrospective11/24/2020 12:22PM ● By Eugene Buchanan
Billy Kidd skis the trees at the Steamboat Ski Area, circa 1980.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS- It was a cold day in October 1971 when Steamboat’s director of skiing, Billy Kidd, pulled into town with his Porsche 911 Speedster, Triumph 500 motorcycle and “townie” Volvo station wagon, took off his cowboy hat, unhitched his horse and stayed.
“I had just graduated from CU in Boulder and was thinking of going to business school, but then decided I’d give it one more shot trying to win that elusive gold medal,” says Kidd, who has held perhaps the best job in skiing now for 50 years straight.
That he did. Kidd was the first U.S. male to win an Olympic skiing medal, taking the 1964 slalom silver in Innsbruck, Austria, skiing on his trusty 207 cm wooden Kastles and clad in an Easy Rider-style stars and stripes helmet. He went on to win the gold in combined at the 1970 World Championships and again at the inaugural U.S. Pro Tour the following year. The first contract his coach, Bob Beattie, landed him was in Steamboat Springs.
“Back then as an athlete, if you had medals in your pocket, you could make money for a couple of years before the next racer came along, and then you’d better focus on a career,” says Kidd, originally from Stowe, Vermont. “For me it’s only lasted 50 years – now I might have to go out and get a real job.”
The milestone is novel in an industry that often sees quick corporate turnover. “Billy Kidd is an icon for many reasons, including his longevity at Steamboat,” says Kelly Pawlak, president of the National Ski Areas Association. “Billy and the Steamboat brand are interwoven – it’s hard to imagine one without the other. And he spun his Olympic and World Champion dreams into a successful 50-year career.”
For Kidd, it was a match made in heaven. “I’d heard about Steamboat from Buddy Werner (after whom Mount Werner is named) and Moose Barrows, who were on the U.S. Ski Team with me,” he says. “I got hooked on powder and sunshine, and with the town’s ranching background and a name like Billy Kidd, it was a perfect fit. I never thought too far ahead back then, so when the opportunity arose, I stayed.”
Throughout its different ownership groups, ski area leaders have been glad he has continued to hang his trademark cowboy hat here. “Billy and his legendary Stetson have been synonymous with Steamboat for as long as most people can remember,” says resort president Rob Perlman. “His dedication, passion and love for the community, the resort and skiing are contagious and have been integral to our success throughout the years.”
On any given day, you’ll find him schussing through his favorite powder stash in Shadows (“The trees are just like slalom gates,” he says) or carving turns down Buddy’s Run, which reminds him of skiing in the Olympics with Buddy Werner. You’ll also find him leading guests down Heavenly Daze, after meeting them at 1 p.m. at his “Billy Kidd is Skiing Today” sign atop the gondola.
At 77, he’s showing no signs of slowing down – except, perhaps, to take in the views. “I don’t count my days anymore, but I ski like a 76-year-old,” he says. “I don’t see any reason to quit – Jackrabbit Johannsen skied until he was 104.”
Throughout all these turns and ski tips, not much has changed – except perhaps the equipment, lift capacity and fact that he now sports a helmet skiing instead of his Stetson. “The sport is a lot easier on modern equipment but its essence is still the same,” he says, adding that in the early days he used leather boots, bear-trap bindings and “longthongs,” six-foot-long leather straps that wrapped around the ankles. (“The release factor was when the screws pulled out of the ski.”) “You slide down the hill with a big grin on your face and can’t wait to go up and do it again.”
It’s this infectious enthusiasm that has ingratiated him to the resort, its guests and everyone who’s ever met him.
“There’s a generation of skiers who grew up with Billy as their idol,” Perlman adds. “For them to be able to meet and ski with him is an incredible experience. And I love seeing the next generation of skiers get excited about meeting him. On any given day, a swarm of 6-year-olds will ask him to sign their helmets. He is a true icon – we’re lucky to have him as part of our story.”
For Kidd, spreading the sport’s stoke comes as naturally as slaloming around gates. And he loves helping people ski, no matter their ability. One of his best memories is helping bring the Special Olympics to Steamboat in 1977 with Michael Barry and Sven Wiik. He also loves Steamboat’s heritage.
“The Western image here is real, not manufactured by Madison Avenue,” he says, living up to it by fixing gates and irrigation ditches on his ranch this past summer. “It’s one of the best places on the planet to live. In the ‘60s, I visited Bora Bora after racing and thought it was ideal, but it still came in second to Steamboat.”
That’s why he doesn’t plan on hanging his hat elsewhere anytime soon. “It seems like just a few short decades ago that I moved here,” he says, adding he still has his same motorcycle, but sold the station wagon to Nancy Barrows Gray.