At Altitude

U.S. Ski Team Icon Spider Sabich's Legacy Revived

A new documentary celebrates one of the country’s best skiers—and a onetime Aspenite—after a long-overdue selection to the sport’s hall of fame.

By Todd Hartley December 21, 2021 Published in the Winter/Spring 2021-22 issue of Aspen Sojourner

 Spider Sabich’s signature style on conspicuous display at a 1974 ski race

Ia town that reveres its ski heroes the way Aspen does, it’s a sad epilogue to his tragic end that Vladimir “Spider” Sabich, who lived here in the early 1970s, isn’t better remembered. Despite being a U.S. Olympian and a pro skiing champ, Sabich is known primarily for the web of intrigue around his 1976 death at age 31 (his girlfriend, singer Claudine Longet, shot him, and it was ruled an accident) and as the eponym for Snowmass ski area’s race arena.

The Aspen-based Bob Beattie Ski Foundation aims to change that perception with a new documentary that reexamines the exceptionally charismatic ski racer’s life and legacy. Titled Spider Sabich, the Untold Story of a Skiing Super Hero, the film premieres April 8 at the Snowmass Conference Center, in conjunction with a special ceremony inducting its subject into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.

It’s an honor that’s long overdue, according to Olympic giant slalom silver medalist Christin Cooper, a Hall-of-Famer herself since 1984. “When the foundation realized that Spider wasn’t in the Hall of Fame, everybody was like, ‘What?’” says Cooper, who also serves on the foundation’s board. “He’s a World Cup winner with 17 top 10s in three different divisions. He was a two-time World Pro Ski Tour champion, and he finished fifth in the slalom at the 1968 Olympics. He’s a pretty big star for America.”

In 1970, Beattie—founding coach of the U.S. Ski Team, Alpine World Cup pioneer, and well-known sports commentator—launched the World Pro Ski Tour, which featured athletes racing head to head. Sabich won his titles in 1971 and 1972.

Sabich and Bob Beattie at the bottom of Highlands during a pro race, circa 1976

Looking to rectify the Hall of Fame oversight, Bob Beattie Ski Foundation Chairman Mike Hundert launched a campaign to nominate and induct Sabich; he found the effort surprisingly easy. “It was a no-brainer as soon as people realized one of the most important characters in the history of American ski racing was not in the sport’s Hall of Fame,” says Hundert, the director and voice of the World Pro Ski Tour from 1977 to 1981. “Of course he was voted in.”

The foundation started working with Vail’s EEF 4K Productions on a video to accompany the induction. However, when the pandemic canceled the 2020 ceremony and the tributes to Sabich from his peers and the people he inspired kept rolling in, the foundation knew it had something more on its hands.

“It was phenomenal,” says Cooper. “We just looked at each other and were like, ‘This needs to be more than a Hall of Fame video. It’s worthy of a documentary.’”

The production team edited down more than 60 hours of interviews to create a portrait of not just an influential skier but an ambassador for the sport who appealed to a wider public—Sabich had appeared on the cover of GQ and is said to have inspired Robert Redford’s character in the 1969 film Downhill Racer.

“When I was in my teens, the ski club would train after school at Tiehack, and Spider would also train there, and he’d ask us to race to sharpen up for the next event,” says Mark Tache, a former U.S. Ski Team member who grew up in Aspen. “He’d whoop us, but he allowed us into his circle. We learned so much about being a pro from watching him and how he carried himself both on and off the hill. He was such a role model.”

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