A lifetime of skiing honored
December 5, 2002
The walls of her Tahoe Donner home are decorated with medals, trophies, pictures and plaques of ski victories.
The entire living room is maxed-out, the hallway leading to the bedrooms are filling up, her bedroom doesn’t have anymore space, the kitchen has a few plaques and even the “ski shop” in the basement is lined with plaques and medals.
But with 57 years of ski competition and more than 800 ski races in the downhill and the Super G, Georgene Bihlman couldn’t achieve any less.
And that’s why she was inducted into the US National Ski Hall of Fame and Museum in Ishpeming, Mich., on Sept. 28.
“It was exciting,” she said of her experience in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Bihlman was inducted along with Hans Gmoser, John P. Litchfield, Dr. Robert Oden, Carroll P. Reed and Nikki Stone.
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The induction commemorates all her experience, instruction and mastery on the slopes. Her beginning wasn’t free skiing, but a successful crash-course on racing, minus the crash. She was 20 and had signed up for a B-level ski race. It was her first race ever and she won by 17 seconds, but she thought she was disqualified.
“Going back on the bus, I was crushed,” Bihlman said. “I kept telling myself ‘you missed a gate. You missed a gate. You put all this effort and everything and you missed a gate,’ And I was feeling so bad about it. And come to find out it was a red flag out there keeping you from doing something – going off a cliff, I guess- and I was trying to get there to get around this gate and come to find out, it was a safety gate.”
After that, she was put into the A category and has been ever since. Bihlman became serious with her skiing and started skiing harder and harder in California resorts, namely Greenhorn, 60 miles outside of Bakersfield, and Mammoth Mountain.
She won 19 national titles and 15 international and 85 percent of those races ended up as first place finishes.
She kept up skiing and racking up more and more wins as an American downhill skier getting ready for the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley. She worked as a physical education instructor at Bakersfield College, a community college, teaching volleyball, tennis, swimming and dry-land skiing on a plastic hill. But the winter of 1959, her Olympic hopes were dashed in a car wreck near Mammoth Mountain on Highway 395.
Her friend was driving his new 1959 Thunderbird and hit a cow. A part that held up the soft-top bent down and punched a hole in her right calf.
She still had time to heal for the Olympics, but it wasn’t enough. She came back in the fall and started practice again.
“I had the fastest time halfway of everybody. But I couldn’t hold it,” Bihlman said. “The leg just wasn’t good enough. So I went the rest of the way on my head or some other place. So, that’s the way that went.”
She couldn’t ski well enough to make the Olympic team and didn’t want to be in California when the Olympics were in Lake Tahoe. The Olympics that would have been hers.
“After I healed, I didn’t feel up to par,” she said.
She did the next best thing: Ski Europe.
While there, she skied 100 days “Without a day off.” Three weeks of that time were spent in Davos, Switzerland, where everyday was sunny and every night delivered 16 inches of powder.
“Sunshine everyday for three weeks (in Davos),” she said. “I guess I skied everywhere except Russia.”
While she was there, she bought a Mercedes SL-190 to drive. When she came back, she brought it back with her on a ferry and still has it in her Live Oak home (Where she lives half the year).
She came back to California and started racing again, but she felt her star had passed and she didn’t make a run for the 1964 Olympics.
“Some of them had tried twice, but they never do that well,” she said. “It’s a one shot thing, when you’re going down and you’re giving your all, you’re resisting all temptation to slow down or to curtail your speed and you win. That’s the only time you’ll win. Because there are other girls that have been coming in, that have been training and working real hard at going fast.
“You only peak once.”
Bihlman grew up on a farm in Live Oak, 40 miles north of Sacramento. She still lives there during the summer months in her family’s homestead. Once the temperature drops and the lure of ski racing kicks back in, she moves back up the hill to Truckee. If it wasn’t for the Live Oak homestead, she’d be in Truckee full-time.
“It’s beautiful up here in the summertime,” she said.
She’s spent every winter here since 1989, plus innumerable weekends in a camper trailer for races around Tahoe. She’s watched the evolution of the downhill and the Super G and even has a pet peeve about snowboarding.
“I don’t care for it myself. I don’t think I would want to learn it,” she said.
But it’s not as much of a matter of the sport as it is hill etiquette.
“The younger crowd needs to grow up a bit,” she said. “They don’t want to understand it.”
She’ll race some more and add more trophies to her house, maybe enough to require an addition of a trophy room. If not, she still has some room in her garage, above all of her ski race posters.