Weather Window | 1969 Squaw World Cup and shooting stars
Special to the Bonanza
TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series. Find the first installment here.
On March 19-23, 2014, Squaw Valley hosted the U.S. Alpine Championships that combined top-flight racing with a celebration for world-class Olympians returning home to Tahoe from the recent Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Cheering spectators basked in warm temperatures under bluebird skies as they watched their favorite racers going for the National title.
Forty-five years ago, on Feb. 28 and March 1, 1969, Squaw Valley hosted the International Ski Federation’s World Cup races for alpine skiing, but unlike this year, the slopes were overwhelmed with snow.
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In 1969 Squaw Valley was celebrating the christening of the Cable Car, the world’s largest aerial tramway that could send 120 skiers to the top of the mountain in less than 10 minutes. The World Cup is the top international circuit of alpine ski competitions. Snowfall was so heavy and incessant at Squaw in 1969, organizers were forced to cancel the Men’s Downhill event, the last scheduled World Cup downhill that season. That decision brought its own storm of criticism from angry European coaches.
The American contingent at Squaw Valley included Tahoe racers like Cheryl Bechdolt, Caryn West, and Lance and Eric Poulsen. There were also some local junior racers there: Guy Tomlinson, Debbie Dutton, Eric Klaussen and Pete Johnson. The television media was mostly focused on the celebrity duo Billy Kidd and Vladimir “Spider” Sabich. In part one of this World Cup series, I erroneously stated Billy Kidd “didn’t win at Squaw Valley in 1969.” In fact, after a poor first run in the slalom because of a previously injured ankle, Kidd took advantage of the soft snow in his second attempt. His time in the second was good enough he won the slalom combined competition by four tenths of a second. Nineteen-year-old Marilyn Cochran became the only other American skier at Squaw Valley to podium after she took first place in the giant slalom. Kidd would go on to become one of America’s best alpine skiers, but his buddy Spider Sabich wouldn’t be so fortunate.
HIGHWAY 50 BOYS
Vladimir Sabich, Jr. was a Tahoe skier, raised at Kyburz, a small hamlet west of Echo Pass on Highway 50. His father, a California Highway Patrol officer, nicknamed him Spider when he was born prematurely. Vladimir Sr. said, “He was a long baby, but he had no flesh on him. He was all skin and bones. I said, ‘Geez, he looks like a spider!’”
Sabich Sr. raised his three children to be ski racers.
The kids attended school in the summer so they could hit the slopes every day in winter. Sabich Sr. would usually take them to the mountain each morning in his patrol car. They learned to ski at the newly opened Edelweiss on Highway 50. Their coach at Edelweiss, Lutz Aynedter, was a German downhill champion from the 1940s who immigrated to America after World War II.
Aynedter taught the Sabich boys European-style ski racing. Soon Spider and his younger brother Steve were dominating better equipped racers from flashy Tahoe resorts like Squaw Valley. Spider and Steve were superstars among Aynedter’s talented team of fearless young skiers. The Sabich brothers and their fellow speedsters earned them the sobriquet, the “Highway 50 Boys.”
Spider grew up ski racing at Mammoth Mountain and at Lake Tahoe and later became a two-time world professional champion and Olympic skier. It was amazing that Sabich raced at all at Squaw Valley in 1969, considering that the 23-year-old speedster had already sustained seven broken legs and nine operations during the short span he was a U.S. Ski Team member. He went on to win World Cup races and a national title in downhill. After turning professional in 1971, the next year he won the World Pro Ski title. Tragically, it wouldn’t be leg fractures that ended the charismatic racer’s impressive skiing career.
Spider Sabich’s racing credentials and movie star looks earned him lucrative product endorsements. Soon he was earning more than $100,000 a year. He built a ski chalet at Aspen and purchased an airplane that he flew to skiing events in North America. In 1972, Sabich met French actress and singer Claudine Longet at a pro-celebrity event at Bear Valley, Calif.
At the time, Longet was separated from her husband, famed crooner Andy Williams. Sabich and Longet lived in Aspen together until March 21, 1976, when she shot him to death after Sabich returned from a day of skiing.
Longet claimed the gun accidently discharged as Sabich was showing her how it worked. Prosecutors pointed out that the autopsy report indicated that Sabich was bent over and facing away at a 6-foot distance when he was shot, not likely if he was indeed showing her the gun.
Police made several procedural errors, however, and a jury convicted her of only criminally negligent homicide. Claudine Longet was sentenced to 30 days in jail and remanded to pay a small fine. Skiing sensation Spider Sabich was dead at age 31.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at http://www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at email@example.com. Check out his blog: http://www.tahoenuggets.com.
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