Native American Olympic Team Foundation
in the Press!
Chaffee Recalls Skiing with President Ford
By Gordon Dritschilo Herald Staff
December 28, 2006
Thirty years before he died, President Gerald Ford skied down a slope in Vail listening to David Bowie.
It was at the end of his presidency, Dec. 27, 1976, when the vacationing Ford joined Olympic skier and Rutland native Suzy Chaffee at the Colorado resort for a few runs.
Telling the story after Ford's death Tuesday in a telephone interview from Arizona, Chaffee said she almost didn't get there.
Suzy Chaffee talks to President Gerald Ford
on the slopes of Vail in Colorado in 1976
"My car broke down on the way to meet him," she said. "I was trying to hitchhike. People would slow down, I'd say I was supposed to ski with the president and they'd speed away. I guess they thought I was crazy."
Chaffee said she finally connected with him at the lift line at the base of Vail where the president greeted her with a hug and a kiss.
"That was the last time you could kiss a president," she said with a laugh. "David Kennerly's (Ford's Pulitzer Prize winner photographer) gave me that shot. Both President Ford and I were friends of (skiwear designer-Olympian) Willy Bogner. When we went skiing together the year before, we were wearing the same outfit."
Members of the press were on hand, and Chaffee said they were giving the president a hard time about falling.
"If you don't ski, you don't realize that if you never fall, you never learn," she said. "He was a beautiful skier. When I was on the chairlift, I said to the press, 'President Ford is the most physically fit president we've had since JFK, and I challenge any of you to take him on. It was terribly quiet. You could hear a snowball drop."
Once atop the mountain, Chaffee said she wanted to calm the president's nerves, so she gave him her headphones.
"It had the song 'Young Americans,'" she said. "It really loosened him up. He started almost dancing down the mountain. It was like he went to a whole different level of skiing."
Chaffee became involved with the President's Council on Physical Fitness under Ford's predecessor. She said when she returned from the 1972 Olympics in Munich she took part in a press conference for the council and offered it a new direction, suggested by the Germans and Scandinavians â€” physical fitness as fun.
"The council's pitch was, if you're not staying fit, you're going to die of a heart attack," she said. "Not a very inspiring message."
Chaffee said her message resonated and caught the attention of a number of people. During her time on the council, she got flexibility included in the National Fitness Test, and was solving some problems with his Olympic Sports Commission that day on the slopes.
While it wasn't passed until the Carter Administration in 1978, Chaffee said she gives Ford most the credit for the Amateur Sports Act.
"It democratized sports," she said. "It gave athletes representation on all the boards and associations, creating a communication link between athletes' needs and officials who used to think they had to keep an arm's length from athletes."
The previous year, Ford had established the President's Commission on Olympic Sports, and Chaffee said that body helped resolve the historic NCAA and AAU battles, like the ping pong players were caught between, when they returned from opening up China.
"I wrote him a poem and delivered it to him there because I was impressed with what he was doing with the commission," she said. "While we were on the chairlift, I gave him input and he solved those problems that week. That's what I call 'Chairlift Diplomacy.' What the president did streamlined Olympic sports in America. He was the best."
Chaffee said she saw the same sort of altruism and problem-solving in Ford's other actions.
"He really was a peacemaker," she said. "We had already lost so much time for getting things done for humanity. Nixon was already totally shamed. He did the right thing."
Chaffee said that while she has taught a number of celebrities to ski, the times with Ford remain her favorites.
"Skiing with Ford was one of the highlights of all because he was such a lovely man," she said. "He said in Bogner's movie that captured his ski expertise, 'skiing is the one thing I do that makes the whole world go away.'"
Contact Gordon Dritschilo at firstname.lastname@example.org