SABICH, VLADIMIR Skiing Champion-Military
Downhill skier Vladimir “Spider” Sabich from Kyburz, California, placed fifth in the slalom event at the 1968 WInter Olympic in Grenoble, France. Turning professional in 1971, he was twice professional world champion on the pro circuit. Sabich suffered a career- threatening back injury in 1973 but staged a dramatic comeback to capture the prestigious Benson and Hedges special slalom event at Mount Snow, Vermont, in January, 1974. He swept past his opposition including second place finisher Mike Schwaiger of Austria, in surprisingly easy fashion. Forty professional skiers turned out for the competition, staged on a 36 gate course which dropped 450 feet on a 1,800 foot layout. Said to be the inspiration for Robert Redford’s film “Downhill Racer,” Sabich died tragically in a shooting incident involving actress Claudine Longet in Aspen, Colorado, in March, 1976.
Sabich started skiing at the age of 5. By her best guess, Frances Sabich figures her three children -- Mary, Spider and Steve -- broke at least 15 bones combined. "We had someone in a cast every winter," said Frances, who lives with her husband, Vladimir, in Colusa, California. The son of Croatian immigrants, Vladimir Sabich flew B-25 bombers for the U.S. in World War II and spent a year in a Siberian camp after being shot down over the northern part of Japan. In 1945 the Sabiches named their first son Vladimir, but he was never known by anything other than Spider.
"He was a long baby, but he had no flesh on him," Vladimir said. "He was all skin and bones. I said, 'Geez, he looks like a spider."'
Vladimir and Frances moved from Sacramento to Kyburz in 1950. The handful of kids who attended Silver Fork Elementary -- a one-room schoolhouse to this day -- went to class in the summer and skied in the winter. The Sabich children competed for the Red Hornet team at Edelweiss, a popular hill that closed down in the early 1960s. The Kyburz kids sometimes hitched rides up the highway in Vladimir's patrol car. There was a Catholic church across the road from Edelweiss where Spider and Steve served as altar boys on Sunday mornings before strapping on their skis. After a brief fling with high school football -- "The way he played football, he was only going to get hurt," Vladimir said -- Sabich accepted a skiing scholarship to the University of Colorado in Boulder. Bob Beattie was the coach, and his skiers included Sabich, Kidd, Jimmy Heuga, James "Moose" Barrows and Ni Orsi -- Olympians all. Steve Sabich also went to Colorado on a ski scholarship, but a knee injury ended his career prematurely.
“ There were two things interesting about Spider," Beattie said. "He had a great sense of humor and a lot of flair. He was a great-looking guy, very spirited. But he also majored in engineering when he came to Colorado. His mind worked very thoroughly, as an engineer's would. He had these two opposite sides to him." Kidd and Heuga won Olympic medals in 1964, pioneering a breakthrough for the U.S. men's team in the European-dominated sport. Sabich's shot at Olympic glory came four years later. The top Americans spent the latter part of 1967 training in France, and a dispute over the bill in a fancy restaurant on New Year's Eve landed Sabich and Kidd in a Grenoble jail. "It was an adventure," Kidd said. "We were in pretty good spirits that night." Less than two months later, Sabich finished fifth in the Olympic slalom. The race was marred by fog and mist that greatly limited visibility. "It was so foggy, we never saw Spider," Vladimir says. "We heard him go by, but we didn't see him." Sabich left the US Ski Team in 1970 to join Beattie's pro circuit. He was the perfect ambassador -- photogenic, colorful and articulate. He was also unbeatable, or so it seemed in 1971 and 1972, when he achieved his greatest results. The competition wasn't as strong as it was on the World Cup circuit, but Sabich finished first in the first pro race he entered and won nine of 18 events in 1972. He earned $50,600 that year, when his combined income from prize winnings and endorsements exceeded $150,000.
Dede Brinkman, a longtime friend who has lived in Aspen since 1970, explains the attraction she and other women felt toward Sabich. "He was so charming and very sexy," Brinkman said. "It was the same type of charisma you see in movie stars." Sabich moved from Boulder to the Aspen area in 1971. The home that Steve Sabich built for his brother at a cost of $90,000 in neighboring Starwood is now worth approximately $3 million. The beams came from an old aerial tramway the brothers tore down. Those were heady times, what with the view, the skiing and the nightlife. Kidd and several of Sabich's contemporaries downplay his widespread reputation as a partier, but his brother doesn't. "Spider smoke, drank and did whatever all of us did," he said. "Let's not forget, those were the '60s and '70s. But I also remember grabbing a bunch of poles and setting up courses when there wasn't anyone else on the mountain at Snowmass. He'd do his 25 runs. A lot of people who'd see Spider out partying didn't see him doing those 25 runs. He was serious about his training."
Sabich’s memory lives in a framed display at the Hard Rock Cafe in Aspen. There is also a Spider Sabich Ski Racing Arena on Snowmass Mountain. Tragedy struck the Sabich family again in 1988, when Mary died of brain cancer. She was a doctor, just 45 years old. She is buried next to her brother in Placerville, Calif. "I don't know how my parents have handled it," Steve Sabich said. "The only thing we can do is take the positive, high road and make sure Spider is remembered for his accomplishments rather than as a victim. He was no victim. He was a very strong guy."