It’s been 40 years since Lonny Vanatta was dealt a blow that, in the moment, he wasn’t sure he could recover from.
He’d grown up in Steamboat Springs, skiing in the shadow of the town’s giants. Buddy Werner was going to the Olympics when Vanatta was learning to race. Jim “Moose” Barrows was ripping down Howelsen Hill, and Vanatta was getting his start.
Those skiers helped craft the thick Olympic atmosphere that still cloaks the city, and as he grew and improved, it all seemed there for Vanatta’s taking, especially after he was named to the U.S. Ski Team at 18 years old.
Then, everything changed — that Olympic future brought to such a sudden stop a seatbelt should have been required. Vanatta wasn’t invited back to the U.S. Ski Team. That’d be a brutal blow to any potential Olympians’ hopes today, but in 1978, it was even more devastating.
Vanatta has never gotten all the way over that slight, but 40 years ago, he got the process started by turning pro, beginning what would be a brilliant career on the World Pro Ski Tour. Racing on that raucous circuit brought Vanatta the success he never got the chance to realize on the World Cup, and last month, it was announced it helped land him a spot in the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame.
“It means an awful lot. It’s a great honor,” Vanatta said of his looming enshrinement.
The Colorado Ski Hall of Fame is based in Vail, and a ceremony for this year’s class will take place there in October.
Joining him there this year will be Chris Anthony, a member of Warren Miller’s film team, Bob Dart, the long-time director of mountain maintenance and competition director at Winter Park, and Brad Ghent, a coach with the U.S. Ski Team as well as several Colorado ski clubs.
For Vanatta, the call that he’d be included was a long time coming, something he’d yearned for since his world seemed to come crashing down around him when he wasn’t included on the U.S. Ski Team in 1978.
He initially considered retirement when he didn’t make that team. He had other options, including attending college on scholarship.
The option he chose, however, came to define him as a competitor. He chose to compete in the World Pro Skiing Tour, established by veteran U.S. Ski Team coach Bob Beattie, who’d guided the U.S. first in the 1964 Olympics when Billy Kidd and Jimmy Heuga became the first American men to medal in Alpine skiing, then again at the 1968 Olympics.
“I still felt like I had the talent and wanted to pursue my dream of being a great ski racer, so I decided to try pro racing,” Vanatta said. “It was the best thing for me. I was just grateful and so thankful that Bob was there. I wouldn’t have this honor today if it wasn’t for Bob and World Pro Skiing.”
Vanatta found a fun, sometimes even wild world, and one that paid — a significant consideration in a time when Olympic athletes had to maintain amateur status. Off that particular career track, Vanatta was free to collect prize money and take endorsements, and he quickly rose through the world-class field of competitors to become the top American on the tour.
He placed 11th overall in his first season, then won four slalom races the following season.
The World Pro Ski Tour amped up the excitement by pitting ski racers head to head on dual slalom and giant slalom courses. Vanatta, always a strong technical skier, was a perfect fit.
“It was a great format, and I adjusted to it well and excelled in it,” he said.
He won six races in the 1980-81 winter, winning the season slalom championship, placing third overall and finishing as the top American in the standings, a title he held for several seasons.
The burn of being left off the U.S. Ski Team in 1978 never truly left Vanatta. It drove him to his success on the World Pro Tour, but it sometimes still stings today. Steamboat Springs counts more than 90 Olympians, a fact few visitors to the city could ignore. Vanatta may have been as good or better of a skier as many, but he’ll never make the list.
He went on to coach with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club for 17 years after retiring from the pro tour in 1984. Then, he owned his own outfitting business until selling it earlier this year.
So much of that, he said, came not from one decision in 1978 but from his reaction to it. So did his inclusion in the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame.
“With pro racing and the money I made, that gave me a huge head start in life,” he said. “Without it, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I still think about it a lot. I picked a different avenue. It wasn’t what I wanted at the time, but looking back, it was the best choice and the best avenue I could have taken.”