Dick Dorworth is 65 years old, an elegant and proud man who long ago learned to
strip the artifice from his daily life. Hes a practicing Zen Buddhist, a
former world record holder becoming in 1963 the fastest man to ever strap
on a pair of skis who speaks in a warm, transparent way.
His words come out in a kind of neat, thoughtful cursive surprising,
perhaps, as we live in an age of exclamation points, where athletes who push
barriers such as speed seem so adrenaline-adled that they have difficulty explaining
what they do and why they do it.
It is altogether fitting, then, that a look at Renos place in the world
of speed skiing should begin with the careful words of the groups pioneer
On Sept. 29, 1963, in Portillo, Chile, Dorworth, a Reno native, set the world
speed skiing record a run of 106 mph that he can still recall with utter
It was the last day of the (spring) season and the conditions were absolutely
Dorworth, a writer who lives in Ketchum, Idaho. We went up the track
probably about 100 meters higher than we had ever before (to gain extra speed).
The track was rock hard
it was ice. We knew that this was the right day,
and that we could do it. When I came out of the (speed) trap (at the bottom
of the run) I knew we had a record, right away.
We had been making quite a few rides at 100, 101, 102 mph, and I was
familiar with the difference between 95 and 100 mph. I knew that ride was way,
way faster. It was remarkable.
World-class skiing icons have long-time connections to Reno.
Beginning with Dorworths historic run, speed skiing essentially would
belong to athletes from the Reno-Tahoe area. A Dorworth protégé,
Steve McKinney, set the world record again in 1974, 1977, 1978, and 1982, topping
out at 124.762 mph. Franz Weber, who has lived in Reno since 1984, set four
world records and captured five consecutive world championships, from 1980-84.
In 1992, Truckee resident Jeff Hamilton captured the bronze medal at the 1992
Winter Olympic Games in Albertville, France, and became the first man to ever
top 150 mph with his world record of 150.40 mph in 1995 in Vars, France.
The 47-year-old Weber generally considered the sports most dominant
performer says that Dorworth and McKinney, in particular, are two of
speed skiings seminal figures.
Dick was the first American to really make a name in speed skiing,
Weber says. His world record was a remarkable achievement. He was a strong
influence on Steve McKinney, who was my hero, in many ways my mentor, when I
got into the sport. He had a very healthy attitude about the sport, and encouraged
so many others to join him.
Dorworth benefited from a youth spent at Lake Tahoe. In 1949, at age 11, he
built slalom runs and ski jump hills in his own back yard.
I grew up in a time when all of these adults were coming out of World
War II and as I look back on it now, some of them were pretty messed up, quite
nuts, from the war, he says. Skiing was clean and quite sane and
it was mine. Skiing saved me. Its still the cleanest, most beautiful,
and fun thing that I know.
Dorworth, who skied for the University of Nevada, Reno, in the late 1950s and
was a prime contender for the U.S. Olympic Ski Team in 1960, turned to speed
skiing in the early 1960s for similarly personal reasons. The fact that it
was a solitary endeavor appealed to him there was no team involved,
and, in fact, the athletes were charged with actually grooming the run themselves
before plummeting down the one-mile-long hill.
I was never a great daredevil, though I have that reputation, he
says. As ski racers go, Im fairly calculating and conservative.
Speed skiing then and now was a little off the charts, though, and that appealed
When you make a perfect run, its very beautiful, very smooth and
transcendent, says Dorworth, who writes for Idaho Mountain Express newspaper
in the winters and spends time in the Teton mountains in the summer as a climbing
guide. In 2001, he earned the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International
Skiing History Association for his years of writing about the sport. But
you dont have perfect runs very often. Usually its an amazing
struggle. When I raced, we laced up leather boots and used metal skis that did
not absorb the vibration the way modern skis do. Every run was a struggle to
maintain your balance against the constant vibration of your skis.
McKinney, from Reno, was the Steve McQueen of speed skiing. With his blond,
flowing, lions mane of hair, and sharp, fine-boned features, McKinney
cut a dashing figure on skis. His younger sister, Tamara, was a three-time U.S.
Olympian and 1983 World Cup champion. He was dubbed the High Priest of
Speed Skiing, and for good reason, as he introduced rubberized suits and
aerodynamic helmets to the sport.
While most men carry about them a feeble incandescence, McKinney radiated sheer
magnetism. He skied around the length of Lake Tahoe before there was a Tahoe
Rim Trail. He hang-glided off Mount Everest.
Steve was probably the most important speed skier who ever lived,
Dorworth says. He marked it more than anyone. He was special.
Dorworths voice grew quiet. In 1990, while sleeping in his car on the
side of Interstate 5 in Northern California, a drunk driver slammed into the
back of McKinneys car and killed him. He was 36 years old.
He was a beautiful man, Dorworth says. He had that ability
to dig deeper than other people, not only in terms of athletics, but in his
relationships in trying to see what was true and what was not. He was a real
Weber was the perfect amalgam of physical ability and fearlessness.
I remember the first time I saw Franz, Dorworth says. We
were in Argentina. And I remember thinking, Thats a powerful-looking
dude. Ill tell you, he was off the charts. Just a phenomenally gifted
athlete who was totally aggressive and competitive.
Weber, whose Reno-based Franz Weber Sports Management & Consulting company
specializes in consulting and capital ventures, describes the secret to his
success as he sits in his comfortable home in west Reno. He was physically gifted,
though in an unorthodox way. He hops onto a table in his living room
Physically, for someone who is 6-foot-one-and-a-half, my legs are shorter
and my upper body is longer, he says. He hunched into an impossibly tight
tuck, his femur seemingly swallowed whole by his armpits, showing that he is
as aerodynamic as a rocket. He flashed a smile from atop the table. Clearly
in his element, tucked tight as buckshot. I also worked extremely hard.
a racehorses commitment to being the best.
Surprisingly, in a career that saw Weber top out at more than 140 mph, he
says he was never afraid.
If you ski down a hill in a straight line and there are no obstacles
in your way, youre going to be fine, says Weber, who also is director
of skiing at Squaw Creek. Downhill, to me, is much more dangerous. There
are no direction changes in speed skiing. Everything is in a straight line.
The centrifugal force is so strong, you just skid along, like a rock skipping
across the top of the water.
For more than 40 years, their place has been secure in the pantheon of the
sport. Dorworth was the pioneer. McKinney was the soul. Weber was the undisputed
champion. Hamilton is a great, level-headed, talented guy, Weber
says. Hamilton, who recently returned to the Sierra from Colorado and now is
a real estate broker in Squaw Valley, was the Olympic medalist and the first
man to eclipse 150 mph on skis.
Says Dorworth: Ive heard people compare us to test pilots, to astronauts,
and that analogy bothers me a little bit because there is such organization
and structure, an order of command, in what the test pilots and astronauts did.
Those guys, to do the amazing things that they did, could not do things on their
own. When our asses were on the line, there was no one else making the decisions
for us. Nobody could mess with you. It was always your decision to go.
What is speed skiing?
Speed skiing is considered to be the worlds fastest non-motorized sport,
with world records exceeding 150 mph. Speed skiing is practiced on specially
designed steep courses that run 1 kilometer long. There are only about 30 such
courses in the world, the majority of them located at extremely high altitude
to minimize wind resistance. The first 300 or 400 meters of the course are used
to gain speed, with the top speed of the racer recorded between that point and
the final run-out. Speed skiers wear dense foam on their lower legs and aerodynamic
helmets to increase streamlining. Their ski suits are made from airtight latex
or have a polyurethane coating to cut wind resistance, with knee and elbow pads
to give some protection in the event of a crash. Their special skis must be
between 2.2 and 2.4 meters long (about 94.5 inches) and extra wide, with the
ski boots attached with special bindings that can be tightened to a typical
setting of DIN 21 (a typical recreational setting is from 6 to 10). The ski
poles are bent to shape around the body, and must be a minimum of 1 meter long.
Speed skiing was a demonstration sport at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville,
Source: International Ski Federation