NEW YORK -- When Billy Kidd made his first U.S. world championship ski team in 1962, money was tight. As he remembers it, there was barely enough to get the team to the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Chamonix, France.
“They gathered us together in New York and said, ‘This is not an Olympic year, we’re having trouble raising money,’” Kidd said. “We can give you one-way tickets to the world championships, and if you get good results, we can bring you home.’”
Up against the European powerhouses of the day, the U.S. team won two medals. Kidd, then just 18, placed eighth in the slalom and 15th in giant slalom. Everyone made it home, and the seeds of the New York Gold Medal Gala were planted.
“Two years later, we had a fundraiser in New York City, and that was the predecessor to the Gala,” said Kidd, winner of a slalom silver medal at the Innsbruck 1964 Olympic Winter Games. “I’ve been to a lot of Galas since then, and if you’re a skier or snowboarder it’s one of the best events of the year.”
The first New York Gold Medal Gala, held in 1967 at the Central Park landmark Tavern on the Green, raised an impressive $75,000. On Thursday, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Foundation held its 50th annual Gala at Cipriani Wall Street’s ballroom.
“This is the single most important event we do,” Tom Kelly, U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association vice president for communications, said. “Back in 1967, a group of New York businesspeople got together and said, ‘We need to do something to support the U.S. ski team.’ This year we will raise a net of over a million dollars, thanks to all of these passionate fans we have in New York. That support is pivotal to our athletes.”
To help celebrate the 50th anniversary, USSA invited all 31 past Olympic skiing and snowboard champions, or their family members, to the event; 22 were able to attend.
“We’re really a close-knit family,” Kelly said. “Bringing people together for an event like this is not just a fundraiser, it’s also a way for us to celebrate the passion we have for the sports of skiing and snowboarding.”
The evening cast a magical spell over Joss Christensen, slopestyle skiing gold medalist at the Sochi 2014 Winter Games.
“It’s like going to Hogwarts,” he said. “I was just talking to Billy Kidd. It was awesome to have him share his (Olympic) experiences and be able to compare that to when I went to the Olympics. Times have really changed. Slopestyle and halfpipe are growing, and it’s cool we can all work together to help support our sports and the snow industry.”
When Kidd competed at the 1964 and ’68 Winter Games, skiing was limited to alpine, cross-country and Nordic. By the Sochi Games, the program also featured five freestyle skiing events, five snowboarding events and the debut of women’s ski jumping.
“Lots of things change, but what’s the same at the highest level — the Olympics or the world championships — is the focus, the intensity,” Kidd said. “There are very few things on this planet better than being a downhill ski racer, or being a slopestyle skier, able to do flips. It’s a great camaraderie here.”
Sochi halfpipe skiing gold medalist David Wise renewed his friendship with 2002 Olympic halfpipe snowboarding champion Ross Powers.
“I came to my first (Gala) before I won anything,” Wise said. “Ross and his wife gave me some advice and encouragement. Ross handed me his gold medal and said, ‘You’re going to have one some day.’ That was a really cool moment. I saw him tonight and reminded him of that.”
“There’s something about the champion’s mindset, you just gravitate towards it,” he continued. “To have all of these champions in one room, it doesn’t feel like anyone is here trying to prove anything. Everyone is down to earth and humble.”
Two-time Olympic medalist (2010 gold, 2014 bronze) Hannah Kearney retired from competition in 2015 after winning her sixth overall world cup moguls title. Now a full-time student at Salt Lake City’s Westminster College, Kearney called the evening “bittersweet.”
“I feel at this gala I’m sort of passing the torch to future generations,” Kearney said. “I benefitted when I needed the help; I would not have won an Olympic medal without the support. Now, it’s the current athletes’ turn, and that’s cool. It’s the circle of life and it’s relatable to everyone.”
Bittersweet likely didn’t begin to describe the experience for D.B. Johnson, mother of Bill Johnson, winner of downhill gold at the Sarajevo 1984 Winter Games. Johnson died in January of the effects of brain damage sustained in a 2001 skiing accident.
“I was thrilled to be invited,” Johnson, who cared for Bill for many years, said. “On the lighter side, I asked them why they didn’t get a life-size (model) of Bill to take on the stage.”
The first U.S. Olympic skiing gold medalist, 1948 slalom champion Gretchen Fraser, was represented by her granddaughter, Heather Fraser.
“(Gretchen) wasn’t one to talk about her accomplishments much, except maybe when people outside the family visited,” Heather Fraser said. “Those were cool times as a kid, sitting in the living room listening to her stories, but she didn’t live off memories. She taught skiing to amputees; she was an ambassador for Sun Valley. And she still skied. She was cross-country skiing a few days before she passed (in 1994).
“It’s a great gift to be here and see people celebrate her accomplishments.”