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Gordi and Karen Eaton

 

SKIING HISTORY

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Gordi and Karen Eaton

By Edith Thys Morgan

US Ski Team training at Aspen, 1967. Karen Budge is front center, Gordi Eaton far right.

Team Players: Gordi and Karen Eaton made skiing a living and a life. 

As senior supervisors of “Team Chaos,” Gordi and Karen Eaton juggle many roles. Helping shuttle and care for three active grandchildren, ages eight to eleven, all learning remotely while pursuing the available sports and activities in Hood River, Oregon, including ski racing, is logistically daunting.

Dealing with team dynamics, however, is familiar territory for the couple, both two-time Olympians and Hall of Famers. Now retired from careers that ranged from athletics to coaching to sales reps to restaurants, it’s best to catch them when the grandkids are on vacation and the powder isn’t too deep.


Noting “there’s lots of wasted time talking,”
Gordi Eaton encouraged his racers to
freeski and learn to have fun going fast. 

In The Beginning

Gordi Eaton calls himself “a beneficiary of rope tows in small towns.” His tow was Eustis Ski Hill in Littleton, New Hampshire, where he and his friends walked to the hill in their Levis and spent 25 cents for a hot chocolate and a day ticket. Inspired by skiers like Brooks Dodge, Bill Beck and Tom Corcoran, Eaton took his ambitions to bigger mountains, like Cannon where his father worked, and then to Middlebury College in 1958, skiing for Bobo Sheehan. Over the next seven years Eaton would juggle racing for Middlebury on the NCAA circuit and for the United States in Europe, before there was a U.S. Ski Team or a World Cup.

To prepare for the 1960 Olympics, Eaton took a year off school and went to CU Boulder to train with Bob Beattie. “I loved the guy,” says Eaton of Beattie. “He was so passionate about skiing. Everything was focused on ski racing, on us—raising money, training, films. This football kind of approach was new to us, and we all bought in because we were so eager for that kind of feedback.”

The following year, Eaton won the 1961 NCAA DH title racing against Olympic teammates Chuck Ferries (DU) and Buddy Werner (CU). “It was delightful,” Eaton, 81, recalls of skiing both circuits, and learning to manage the pressures of team and individual skiing. “As soon as the race was over, we had a great time together.” They’d come together again as teammates for FIS Worlds and Olympics “We gathered in New York, got a uniform and went to Europe. We competed and then came back and went to school the next year.”

Building Team USA

Eaton competed in the 1962 World Championships, made the 1964 Olympic Team (but did not compete due to injury) then graduated from Middlebury in 1965. Beattie immediately recruited him to coach the U.S. Ski Team on the newly formed World Cup circuit. Because the national team had little money, Beattie made Eaton a coach at CU. With athletes like Billy Kidd, Jimmie Heuga, Spider Sabich, Moose Barrows and Jere Elliot, CU was the national team. “Typical Bob,” says Eaton. “He got CU to pay my national team salary under the auspices of coaching the NCAA team.”

The team trained at CU in the fall, competed in Europe in the winter, then gathered for summer camps at Mt. Bachelor, where Beattie had started bringing the top young athletes from across the country. He hired his older athletes as player/coaches, thus creating the first ecosystem for U.S. Ski Team development.


Just 13 years old at her first Ski Team
development camp, Karen won several
Junior National titles by age 16—on the
way to 30 top 10 results in the World Cup
and two US Olympic Teams.

Karen Budge was 13 years old at her first U.S. Ski Team development camp, in 1963, when Gordi was still competing. “We got to be intimidated by everyone!” she remembers. “I probably met her at that camp,” says Gordi “…but he didn’t remember me,” Karen, now 75, finishes the thought. Eaton shifted seamlessly from athlete to coach, leading his former teammates at the 1966 World Championships in Portillo and the 1968 Grenoble Olympics. Robert Redford shadowed this team to research “Downhill Racer.”

Budge, then 18, was also on the ’68 Olympic Team. She grew up in Jackson Hole, where “there was nothing to do but ski,” she says. By age 16 she was racking up Junior National titles and traveling with the U.S. Ski Team. Budge would go on to score two podiums and 30 top 10 results on the World Cup. Though she was on two Olympic teams (’68, ’72), a freak race-day on-hill accident prevented her from competing in 1968.

With Beattie setting the team’s tone, Chuck Ferries coached the women’s team, and Eaton the men’s team. US slalom racer and two time Olympian Rick Chaffee (’68,’72) enjoyed one of his best seasons with Eaton. “We worked hard but he made it fun,” recalls Chaffee. He also bolstered the shy Chaffee’s confidence: “He’d say ‘Stand up straight and carry yourself as the athlete you are.’ He was a gift to me.”

Off the hill, Beattie nicknamed Eaton “the Phantom” for his tendency to slip away unnoticed. ”When it was time to go, I just left,” says Eaton, whose coaching had a similar straightforward simplicity, heavy on action and light on talk. “There is lots of wasted time talking. We spend way too much time on technique.” He recalls watching the Americans and Austrians skiing an icy mogul field at a training camp. The Austrians danced down it while the Americans made perfect, controlled technical turns. Head Austrian coach Franz Hoppichler told him: “You have better technicians but I have better snow athletes than you.” Eaton encouraged his athletes to freeski, and to find fun while going fast.

In 1969, Beattie and Eaton were ousted from the national team in a regime change. Beattie would go on to organize and run the World Pro Tour. Eaton transitioned into working for K2, both in R&D testing and developing skis, and in building their race program.

In addition to assembling talent for the Pro Tour’s Team K2, led by Spider Sabich, he prepared skis for downhiller Mike Lafferty on the World Cup Tour. He also brought on new young skiers, including Phil and Steve Mahre. K2, which had started out building fiberglass cages for animals, was now hiring engineers and production staff and converting their Quonset hut on Vashon Island into a full-blown factory to keep up with growing market demand.

At the 1972 Olympics, Beattie was commentating for ABC, Eaton was preparing skis for Lafferty and Budge was competing in her second and final Olympics. Budge retired from ski racing after Sapporo. The couple married in October of that year, in Jackson Hole, and Team Eaton was launched.

The Work Of Making It Work

When it was time to start a family, the Eatons moved to Middlebury and together with Charlie Brush coached the Middlebury ski team from 1975-1978. The couple soon realized it was time to start figuring out how to make money at the sport, and it wasn’t through coaching.

In addition to ongoing ski testing and product development with K2, Gordi and Karen started repping Serac skiwear. “I knew a lot of people in the rep business,” explains Gordi. “The people were a lot like ski racers—they liked risks and fun times.”

In the mid-Eighties they took on Spyder as reps, just as the Boulder, Colorado, based company was expanding from mail order and needed to break into the New England market. “They were the perfect pair to get it done,” says Jeff Temple who ran Spyder with founder Dave Jacobs. Karen’s expertise in both racing and soft goods also helped Spyder develop its women’s lines. “They were a 1-2 punch. I saw several times where Gordi and Karen would actually write the order for the dealer. That is trust!”

In the midst of this run, in 1986, they also started a restaurant. “When you’re in the ski business you have to be doing a lot of things to make money,” Gordi explains. Partnering with Gordi’s childhood friend Bob Copenhaver and his wife Muffy, they opened Gordi’s Fish and Steak House in Lincoln, New Hampshire. The 5,000 square foot restaurant at the base of the scenic Kancamangus Highway is in the heart of the White Mountains summer and winter recreation region. The family spent each summer working long hours at the restaurant, then driving 40 miles home to their camp on Parker Lake. When Spyder sold, in 2004, Gordi and Karen thought they had retired from sales, but then took on Sun Ice for another few years.

The K2 Family

Throughout, K2 was a constant in their lives. Gordi’s ski testing required travel throughout the year, from late March in Europe, to Mt. Hood through the summer, to the southern hemisphere and back to the glaciers in the fall. “I skied 12 months a year for six or eight years in a row,” says Gordi, who admits this dream gig required ample support. “I had a very talented wife who kept everything together at home.”

Time spent as a sales rep brought the Eatons income and also keen industry insight. Jim Vandergrift, who had idolized Gordi as a competitor, went on to ski for Middlebury, then became K2’s lead engineer. He explains that Gordi’s perspective of the industry was invaluable. “Gordi’s biggest contribution was in the development side, feeding us info on what skis should do and what was happening in the retail environment so we could combine those variables,” Vandergrift says.

Vandergrift, who spent more than 40 years working with Eaton on product design, explains, “He’s got continuity of being involved from the very beginning to 2017.” Among the tight group of engineers and regular testers, including Tim Petrick, George Tormey and Hannes Rupft, “The Phantom” continued his reputation by always managing to make a few laps before the rest of the crew arrived. He had an uncommon ability to articulate how a ski performed and an unwavering allegiance to the consumer. This provided a critical, sober balance to the rock-star allure of building bigger, wider skis for big mountain skiers. “Every time I went for a ski test I’d always think, ‘Who are these for?’” says Eaton. “In my mind, I would be that person. I’m not making a ski for me.”

Occasionally, a ski would work for everybody. The K2 Four, the first of the factory’s deep-sidecut designs, was that ski. Eaton recalls first testing the Four: “It was the first I ever had been able to put a ski on edge at the top of the turn, continue to feel the edge through the middle of the turn, on to the completion of the turn.” It did this all without sliding, turn after turn, and at high speeds. “I was in my mid 50’s and I had spent the previous 45 years trying to make that kind of turn.” Based on tester feedback, K2 hastily put the Four in its upcoming line and Tormey, who Eaton calls “the best ski technician of his time,” convinced young unconventional K2 athlete Bode Miller to try the ski. Miller rode the Four to Junior National victory, then to the national team and forever changed race—and therefore consumer—ski design.

Staying In The Game

While business kept the Eatons in touch with consumers, Gordi stayed on the cutting edge of competition as well. “His knowledge of the ski world is encyclopedic,” says former U.S. Ski Team racer Mark Smith, who went on to coach Middlebury and the U.S. Ski Team. Smith has the highest regard for the couple. In long chats on skiing, and racing, “Gordi gave me great historical perspective,” says Smith. “He’s a real players’ coach, able to understand it from the athlete’s perspective. In a sport with gigantic egos he’s the polar opposite.”

Gordi’s talent for quietly cajoling people toward improvement is extraordinarily effective on the hill coaching, in debrief sessions, managing employees and accounts, and also in effecting meaningful change. “He’s a really humble guy but he’s not a pacifist,” Charlie Brush says. “Criticism is hard to give. He always found the way to give it in an encouraging way.”

Brush recalls how Gordi used this influence to help upgrade safety standards at race venues across the country to better accommodate the speeds and forces generated by modern equipment. When Brush’s daughter, Middlebury skier Kelly Brush, had a tragic ski accident in 2006 that left her paralyzed after hitting an unprotected lift tower, Gordi’s efforts gained urgency. He leveraged his relationships throughout the ski world to encourage compliance with new national standards. The Kelly Brush Foundation now provides grants to help purchase safety equipment and make venue improvements at clubs across the country.

When son Chris and his family left Middlebury and moved to Hood River, Gordi and Karen followed. Grandparent duty is especially busy now, but Gordi typically still manages to head to the slopes several times a week, on sunny days.

When asked what he skis on, Gordi answers in true ski tester language, with no mention of brand or model. “It’s 84 underfoot, and I also have something 70-73 underfoot. It took me 60 years to carve a turn, and I like to move my skis.” 

Gordi Eaton is a member of the Vermont Alpine Racing Association and Middlebury Athletics Halls of Fame. Karen is a member of Intermountain Skiing and Jackson Hole Ski Club Halls of Fame.

 

 

 

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