Forerunners of freestyle fun

Photos  courtesy of Killington Resort

Ski ballet was a popular discipline in the 1970s competitions. Short flexible skis allowed for impressive moves.

By Karen D. Lorentz

Most skiers are familiar with Woodstock, Vt., as being the location of America’s first rope tow. But what many don’t know is that it was also the scene of some early stunts on skis.

In fact, shortly before World War I, two Woodstock brothers, Leo and Allen Bourdon, became interested in ski-jumping and that led to the precursor, high-flying fun of today’s freestyle.

The Bourdons were influenced by what was happening just 18 miles away in Hanover, N.H. There, the Dartmouth Outing Club had been officially organized in January 1910 by college student Fred Harris. A Vermonter from Brattleboro, Harris popularized ski-jumping and winter sports by organizing the collegiate winter carnival. (He was influenced by Vermont Academy teacher James Taylor, who had started a winter carnival at the Academy in 1909.)

Thanks to Harris’ interest and energy, all kinds of competitions from snowshoe racing to ski racing became popular activities as well as competitions at collegiate winter carnivals.

Meanwhile, Woodstock had become the “cradle of winter sports” in the early 1900s with snowshoeing, ice skating, sledding, tobogganing, sleigh rides, and skiing on local pastures and hills, promoted by Woodstock Inn Manager Arthur Wilder.

As the Woodstock Manufacturing Company, the Bourdons manufactured sleds and skis and even patented their ski-bob in 1913 for some crazy high-flying derring-do runs. (The ski-bob had two eight-foot runners under a sled-like frame that had two handrails for control. Another description of the device noted it was essentially a “ordinary skeleton luge placed on a pair of skis,” with the handle bars allowing control by edging a ski.)

With these influences and their own interest, the Bourdons built a crude takeoff on a bluff at the Woodstock Country Club. Ski-jumpers took to it. The brothers also staged Sunday exhibitions on their “ski-bobs,” flying 50 to 60 feet through the air off the jump. In conjunction with Wilder, the Bourdon brothers later built a 40-meter ski jump at the Mt. Peg section of the country club, which was in use by 1930.

The jump proved very popular with skiers, including Hanover skiers John Carleton and Charles Proctor, who got into some thrilling competitions with Dick Bowler, Harris and the Bourdons. Carleton awed spectators with a somersault and executed double and triple jumps hand-in-hand with Harris and Bowler.

Killington’s forerunners of freestyle

Somewhat better known and recognized as forerunners to freestyle were the antics during the 1960s’ at Killington.

Hermann Goellner, a former Austrian ski racer, joined Killington as a ski instructor and began practicing backward somersaults in 1964-65. He perfected the forward somersault in 1966, making him the only person in the world at that time to perform both forward and backward flips.

American Tom Leroy, inspired by acrobatic skier Art Furrer, who was doing all kinds of neat tricks on skis like crossovers and outriggers, started doing somersaults in 1965-66 when he joined Killington’s Ski School and witnessed Goellner in action.

Leroy became the first person to do a double forward somersault, and Goellner was the first to execute a triple flip. While filming for the Hart Ski Company in 1967, the pair perfected a triple jump, which they added to their shows at Killington.

The excitement of their flips provided a highlight to many a Killington skier’s day back in the mid-1960s. One of the more lighthearted moments for ski-week participants occurred during the Monday morning lineup of new classes. As skiers were assured that they would make lots of progress, an instructor would announce: “By the end of the week, you’ll be skiing like this,” as Goellner and Leroy would fly through the air in a graceful flip.

Birth of a movement

Goellner and Leroy have since been credited with the birth of the modern American 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, Vermont native Suzy Chaffee, and a host of daredevil crazies helped popularize freestyle as competitions wowed the crowds and took skiing in a whole new direction.

Fast forward to the 1990s and early 2000s, when snowboarding caught on and riders started doing tricks in the halfpipe and on rails, boxes and other features. It wasn’t long before we saw freestyle Olympic events or witnessed skiers popping out of halfpipes, thanks to the development of twin tips.

While that feat was a huge surprise to many of us at first—I recall first sighting a skier in a halfpipe in 2004—it wasn’t long before even we recreational skiers were being introduced to pipes and terrain park features.

Quarter pipes and smaller features allow the rest of us to experience the novel fun of freestyle, even if not on twin tips, while the bigger parks have led to the competitive freestyle scene of today.

It all started with the pre-lift-era antics of the Bourdons having fun and took off with Goellner and Leroy at Killington, as befits a pioneering ski area.

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