Durrance won 17 national titles

Updated: June 14, 2004, 5:24 PM ET
Associated Press

ASPEN, Colo. -- Dick Durrance, one of the first great American skiers with so many national titles that the medal was later recast in his image, died Sunday. He was 89.

Durrance died of natural causes in Carbondale, north of Aspen, family members said.

Durrance, the first general manager of the Aspen Skiing Co. and a key developer of the resort at Alta, Utah, won 17 national championships and three Harriman Cups, North America's largest ski race in the late 1930s.

He placed eighth in the slalom and 11th in the downhill at the 1936 Winter Olympics -- not bad for a native of Tarpon Springs, Fla.

"His real significance to American skiing was that he bridged the gap between (the U.S.) and Europe, where the technique was far more advanced," said John Fry, a former editor of Ski Magazine and the former media president of the International Skiing History Association. "What Dick brought was a racing turn that was ahead of his time."

Durrance grew up in Florida but his family moved to Garmisch, Germany, when he was 13. Five years later, in 1932, he won the German Junior Alpine Championship.

The family returned to Florida, but Durrance entered Dartmouth College in 1934 and kept on skiing. In 1936, Durrance won at Sestrier, Italy, becoming the first American to dominate a major European ski race.

"Watching him race was like watching a Ping-Pong ball change directions," Steve Bradley, a fellow Dartmouth ski team member, recalled in 1995. "You could set up a metronome and see the rhythm this guy had. It was flawless."

Durrance later worked with Averill Harriman to expand Sun Valley, Idaho, and moved on to do the same thing at Alta, where ski-borne troops of the 10th Mountain Division were first trained by Durrance and others.

His first films, "Sun Valley Ski Chase" and "Sun Valley Holiday," were released in 1940.

"He was a little guy, and he was a giant," legendary ski filmmaker Warren Miller said Sunday. "He was really at the forefront of film making -- he changed a lot of lives without much recognition."

In 1945, he and his wife, Miggs, and their two sons moved to Denver to manufacture skis. He was offered a job two years later managing the Aspen Ski Corp., the home of Ajax -- a mountain with only three runs and an unfinished T-bar lift.

Durrance figured the quickest way for Aspen to achieve credibility would be to host the 1950 FIS World Championships. He contracted for new lifts, cut new trails and designed a race course. The championships put Aspen on the map.

"At that time, there was almost nothing in Aspen," said Morten Lund, founding editor of Skiing Heritage Journal. "I don't think he could have done anything more for skiing than he did."

Dave Durrance said his father made an effort to turn Aspen into a ski town for everyone.

"He was a real advocate of getting the town involved with skiing, he created affordable season passes for people who lived and worked in Aspen -- he wanted to make sure everyone had the opportunity to learn how to ski," the younger Durrance said.

Durrance, whose biography is titled "The Man on the Medal," was preceded in death by his wife. He is survived by sons Dave and Dick Jr.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press