Friday Feb 19 2010
Auburn speed skier recalls agony and ecstasy of 1992 Olympic medal win
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
Jeff Hamilton skied to a bronze medal hours after witnessing the death of a Swiss speed skier on the slopes
Eighteen years ago, Jeff Hamilton found himself catapulted from pretty fast skier to Olympic medal winner. Auburn born and raised, Hamilton blistered a half-mile run down a French mountainside at a hair-raising 140 mph-plus and captured the bronze medal in a sport that was grabbing the world’s attention with spacey aerodynamic suits and mind-boggling speeds. Little known at the time, Hamilton’s bronze-medal-winning performance was tempered by tragedy. He had witnessed a skier’s death just four hours before a triple-digit run that would become a high point of his storied racing career. Hamilton, 43, and now living in the Tahoe area, was skiing with three other Olympians on a morning practice run at Albertville when Swiss skier Nicolas Bochatay, who was part of their group, hit a snow-grooming machine and died. Hamilton witnessed Bochatay ski over an edge before hitting the machine at a high speed – a machine he said shouldn’t have been on the mountain while skiing was taking place. Hamilton said this past week that the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili at this year’s Olympics during a practice run brought back some awful memories. “My whole Olympics were highly emotional,” Hamilton said. “He (Bochatay) was the last one to have died before this year and the luger’s death just flooded me with emotion. To see him (the Swiss skier) die and then four hours later win a medal …” Hamilton’s mother, Mary Ann Hamilton, was in Albertville for her son’s medal-winning run with husband, Richard. She remembers her own concern as Jeff accelerated to blinding speed. But she couldn’t watch because of her own fears. She may have snuck a peek on the TV screen through her fingers but that was it, she said. “It was way too scary for me,” Mary Ann Hamilton said. “I never really watched until he was down safely.” After the Olympics, Hamilton would return to a hero’s welcome in Auburn, including a parade and a chance to show off his medal to a room packed with well-wishers at the annual Celebrity Chef’s event later in the evening. A graduate of Placer High School as well as E.V. Cain and the now-closed Alta Vista in Auburn, Hamilton’s hometown welcome was heartfelt – and heartwarming, noted his mother. “Auburn opened their arms to him because he was from Auburn,” Mary Ann Hamilton said. “Even now, I go to the grocery store and people still ask about him. That wouldn’t happen in a larger community.” Hamilton would turn the medal-winning performance into just one of several highlights in a career that started in 1990 and would end with one last win in Aspen in 1992. Hamilton never was given a chance to return for a shot at another medal. The speed-skiing circuit continues in Europe and Canada but there are no races in the United States at that level. And there have been no more Olympic Games speed skiing competitions since Albertville. The event was a demonstration sport for just the one year. Hamilton, even without another Olympic Games to shoot for, made his mark on the sport. From 1997 to 1999, Hamilton was on top of the Federation of International Skiing World Cup circuit rankings, eventually retiring as a four-time world champion. The Guinness Book of World Records put him on the cover of its CD-ROM edition. He was the first skier to reach 150 mph and, in 1997, skied a personal best of 151 mph. After living in Aspen and co-owning a ski sports store there that still bears his name, Hamilton returned to California in 2002 to be closer to both his own family and his wife, Carolyn’s. Hamilton now works at a real estate agent with Chase International Real Estate, selling lakefront, luxury properties from an office at the base of the mountain at Squaw Valley. Hamilton is following the Olympics and is taking special interest in Tahoe area skiers as they vie for medals – just as he did 18 years ago. He said he’s pleased to see Squaw Valley skier Julia Mancuso’s three medals and the possibility of Truckee’s Daron Rahlves also medaling. He suffered a few injuries during his race career but describes his physical health as very good – good enough to ski three or four days a week. These days though, he puts the brakes on any warp-speed runs like the ones of years gone by. He’s enjoying skiing with his family, including 10-year-old Eleanore and 8-year-old Frances. “It’s a family sport for me now – and the kids are as fast as I am,” Hamilton said.