By Karen D. Lorentz posted May 23, 2013
Leslie Leete Smith: Killington’s first daughter and olympian
Some expectant parents play music to their unborn child; Leslie Leete Smith’s parents planned a ski area. Born just three months before Killington debuted in December 1958, Leslie literally grew up at the mountain.
She recalls the story of her mother (the late Sue Smith) going off to sell lift tickets and leaving her in a bassinet in the cafeteria under the watchful eyes of Norma and Jo Biathrow.
So it’s little wonder that she was on skis at 18 months. Coming down Cascade, a black diamond, she literally disappeared among the moguls at age three-and-a-half.
Killington Founder Pres Smith explained that he “started her out on tiny skis at age one-and-a-half . . . I’d say let’s go for a walk, telling her that with snow on ground we have to use skis and would take her down to walk around the meadow for awhile and talk about animal tracks in the snow. I kept her occupied by talking about things we would see out there,” he noted of her introduction to skis.
In 1961, the Snowshed chair and trail were built so Smith took her to the new area and again they walked around. “I got her to climb up shallow slopes and then we would glide down – we took it very slowly and she became proficient at climbing up and coasting down again,” he explained of his non-pressured introduction to skiing.
Her first runs – on what was a narrow Snowshed trail then – consisted of easy traverses and walks into the woods on either side of the trail. “We’d go on into the woods and go around a beech tree and I would tell her, ‘Oh look at that; see the claw marks on the tree – those are bear claw marks,'” Pres recalled.
After those easy traverses, she learned to “point her skis down the slope and do some turns and in no time she was skiing like a pro – flying down Snowshed,” he added.
Next came trails on Snowdon and Killington Peak. And Cascade!
“I think it was April (1962) and the snow was soft enough so if you knew how to turn, you wouldn’t get into trouble,” Smith said of taking her down Cascade for the first time. The trail begins easy but then becomes very challenging with a steep section. “Huge moguls had built up so I had to stay above her to be her protector because she would disappear in the big moguls and others wouldn’t have known she was there. She went down like a champ,” Smith added.
Fast forward. Leslie is now on the US Ski Team and they are training at Killington. “They wanted us to ice Cascade up – we put 5,000 gallons of water on it, and she handled that, too. I could handle most anything but to hang on to that icy slope, I was frightened myself,” Smith said with awe and appreciation of just how far she had come.
He also recalled that while training downhill with the Ski Team in fresh snow and poor visibility, she was clocked at 70 mph, fell, and broke her arm at the shoulder joint.
“Talk about perseverance,” Smith exclaimed, noting her arm was put in a sling with a weight hung on it to keep it in place. “For 30 days, she couldn’t lie down at all… it was quite an ordeal,” he noted, adding that most team members face injuries but that it is their determination and tenacity that gets them back out, just as Leslie did.
Leslie’s memories include the “story of me skiing with my mother, heading straight down Cascade but going nowhere against the fierce wind blowing up the mountain.”
She recalls skiing with her father at age five and attending first through sixth grade at the Sherburne Elementary School (located at today’s Killington Town Office). “I was the only girl in first grade with four boys. It was a two-room schoolhouse and we played outside for gym class and got to ski on Thursdays in the Junior Recreational Program that was started at Killington.
“On some days my friends and I would ride our ‘chariot’ to Killington Peak. We snuck as many blankets as possible under our arms and loaded the chair and built our chariot of blankets to shield us from the wind and snow and the long ride on that double chair.
“Those were memorable days, when my mother dropped me off at the Killington Lodge first thing in the morning and said, ‘I’ll see you at four.’ I had just enough money for a hamburger, yogurt, and a candy bar. The rest of the day was left to skiing – racing the Great Eastern, running slalom on Great Bear, and riding the first Poma only to be lifted off the ground and spun in multiple 360s.
“From the first snow to the May Day slalom there were races, Easter egg hunts, and plenty of friends to share in the fun,” she recalled of the days when “growing up on Killington Mountain was a way of life.”
The making of an Olympian
When a grade school teacher asked what she wanted to do in life, Leslie had exclaimed, “Ski in the Olympics!”
“I remember skiing in any and all conditions. My parents instilled a great sense of optimism and enthusiasm… They taught me to believe in myself and that ‘you can do it’ – my strength and determination came from them.
“They also taught me that you are your own best coach and that you learn from everyone you meet. You filter this and you determine what will work,” she noted.
“I learned from each and every one of my coaches,” she said of starting to race at age nine and competing in Mid-Vermont races.
“I remember my first coach Hans Forstner who made us run gates and more gates. Udo Dornfer made us hike UP the downhill course to memorize it, but led us straight down Chute in a full tuck.
“Then there was our Austrian Olympic Bronze medalist coach Olga Pall. She took the Killington ski team to Sugarloaf, Maine for a downhill. It was one very cold day, and she brought out her thermos of tea, spiked with a smidge of Rum, and said, ‘Have a sip of this, it will give you courage!’
With her Killington skiing experience, coaching, and her own enthusiasm and optimism, Leslie headed off to Europe to compete. She was just 14.
“My mother took me to Europe, along with another local racer Wendy Jones, to compete on the Europa Cup Tour (a level just below the World Cup),” she recalled.
Killington’s first ‘homegrown’ Olympian
Winning a Europa Cup Giant Slalom race in St. Gervais, France, catapulted the young teenager onto the world stage and the US Ski Team. As a three-event skier – downhill, GS and Slalom – she was an accomplished speed and technical skier and “very competitive.” It didn’t phase her to be the youngest person on the Ski Team at age 15. “I enjoyed skiing and was passionate about it – driven and focused on a goal, ” she recalled.
Still at Woodstock Union High School, Leslie traveled to races and took her books with her, returning in spring to do school work and graduated with her classmates in 1976.
That was the year she also competed in the Giant Slalom and the Downhill at the Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria. “I was just 17-years-old. It was both an honor and a thrill to represent the United States in international competitions,” she said of achieving her childhood dream.
Deferring her Middlebury College entrance, she continued to compete and became an overall Can-Am Champion in 1978.
During her five years on the US Ski Team, she skied 11 months a year and, during the competition season, travelled with 9 pair of skis.
“As a downhill skier, I skied faster than it is legal to drive on the Interstate highway! Downhill is the premier speed event in skiing. It is demanding both mentally and physically,” she noted.
“Ski racers are real sports heroes in Europe – they are like baseball or football stars here. Many of the races I competed in had as many as 40,000 spectators! My teammates and I often signed autographs,” she noted of a journey that took her around the world … “from the European Alps to the South American Andes, I had unbelievable experiences,” she added.
College and more challenges
When Middlebury College finally inquired “are you coming or not,” Leslie left the Ski Team to pursue her education. Ever the competitor, she became the school’s first four-year All American Athlete. “The college circuit was extremely competitive due to the changes on the Ski Team that had resulted in many members leaving and going to college at the same time,” she explained.
During her last year, she was one of five skiers to represent the United States at the 1983 World University Games in Bulgaria.
After she graduated in 1983, Leslie went to work in Boston for International Sports Management, working in marketing and running instructional programs in skiing and windsurfing.
Then in 1984, she came down with Transverse Myelitis, a spinal cord inflammatory disease that caused her to become paralyzed from the waist down. She had to learn to walk again, and it took her four years to fully recover. “Skiing was easier than walking,” she said of a time when she mustered the same determination that had served her well in competition.
Recreation informs a life
Leslie proceeded to earn an MBA from Boston College, married, moved to Cape Cod, had two girls, and is now a medical practice manager for health groups. Daughter Kimberly Leete Sykes recently graduated from Boston College and Stephanie Leete Sykes completed her freshman year at UNH. “They are very good recreational skiers,” Leslie noted.
Recreation continues to play an important role in Leslie’s own life. “When I grew up, my parents took us boating, sailing, and water skiing,” she noted of learning to love water skiing. Along with her father and brother Scott, she also learned to scuba dive. Today, she continues to visit Vermont year-round to boat and bike as well as ski (on snow and water.)
“She thinks nothing of taking 50-mile bike rides with her friend Rick Hackett,” Pres notes.
Leslie adds that this year she has “been to Killington virtually every weekend and skied 45 days this year! I still have the same passion for skiing and look forward to moving back to Vermont,” she said of another goal she will undoubtedly achieve.
Imbued with abundant athleticism, a love of the outdoors, and the spirit of a true Olympian, Leslie enjoys sharing her story with groups and youngsters and is fond of encouraging them with the Olympic motto Cituis, Altius, Fortius – Swifter, Higher, Stronger – words that meshed with her own upbringing to inspire her to believe in dreams and pursue goals and challenges with determination, perseverance and optimism.