N.H. Olympians: For Gordon Eaton, skiing came with the territory

Monitor staff
Wednesday, February 14, 2018

It’s different up there, starting at the White Mountain National Forest and extending north.

There’s winter sports up there that are ingrained into the youth culture like video games, with snow visible on some of those mountains through May, and traditions passed down through conduits like the Franconia Ski Club.

That’s the way it was for Gordon Eaton in the 1940s and ’50s. He grew up in Littleton and took advantage of all that snow and all those long winters, skiing right into the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley in California.

He finished 17th in the downhill, and later coached the men’s Olympic Team at the ’68 Games in Grenoble, France.

“When you are a kid growing up in northern New Hampshire and you get involved in ski racing, you meet these guys who are part of the Olympic team and part of the whole experience,” Eaton said by phone. “It gives you the incentive to work harder.”

Eaton, now 78, lives in Vermont with his wife, former Olympian Karen Budge. They co-own Gordi’s Fish and Steak House restaurant in Lincoln, where you’ll find photos and history that, essentially, scoop you up on a chairlift and drop you off on the mountaintop, ready to tackle the course.

Towns like Lincoln and Littleton and Easton, where Olympic star Bode Miller grew up, form the nucleus of this mindset, the one needed to learn and grow into an Olympian.

Eaton grew up paying 25 cents to ski at Mt. Eustis Ski Hill in Littleton, where a car engine-driven rope tow pulled from the top and a wheel rotated at the bottom.

“It was not sophisticated and it got families started skiing that way,” Eaton told me. “There was support for that little tiny ski area, and the town was very much involved with it. All the kids got involved. It was a relaxed setting and we wore dungarees and sweaters.”

He attended Middlebury College in Vermont, taking classes for seven years because training and competing at the Olympics and on the world circuit had become a regular part of his life.

Eaton was recently inducted into the Middlebury College Hall of Fame. He was introduced at the ceremony by Terry Aldrich, the college’s longtime cross country coach, who recalled the respect he and others had for Eaton at the Middlebury Winter Carnival more than 50 years ago.

“We were standing on the side of the hill before the slalom inspecting the course,” said Alrdich, who was a freshman at St. Lawrence University at the time. “One of my teammates whispered, ‘Here comes Gordi,’ and everyone stopped what they were doing. No one talked; they just watched him ski.

“That memory to me was a testament to the aura and respect that Gordi had earned among his peers,” Alrdich said.

At the 1960 Winter Games, Eaton finished 17th overall in the downhill and second among U.S. skiers. He was 20 years old and remembered getting sucked into the pageantry, telling me:

“It was a wonderful and exhilarating experience, and that first year I was probably not that focused on ski racing and was more wide-eyed and trying to take it all in. I worked hard at it and I was very serious about it, but when you go through that level, it’s an education and you realize you were not as good as you thought you were, and that’s a good lesson.”

Eaton never got the chance to put the experience he gained at Squaw Valley to good use. He made the Olympic Team four years later but was unable to compete at the Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria, after suffering a concussion during a training run just two days before the downhill.

As Eaton explained it, conditions were poor at the Games, forcing officials to truck snow in and pack it down, before snowmaking was common.

In fact, Australian skier Ross Milne lost control, hit a tree and died from a head injury, also during training.

Eaton didn’t recall whether Milne had died before or after his own injury. But he’ll never forget Milne’s death or the conditions that caused it.

“It was really hard and bumpy, and I was going too fast and I took a hell of a fall,” Eaton said. “When you get sitting back and you’re going 65 miles per hour, you know you’re in trouble. Somewhere in there I hit my head.”

Contacted again later to comment on Milne, Eaton told me, “As you get involved in any sport you recognize the dangers and make a decision that this is what you want to do. Charge forward. At some point in there I’m sure there were some people who quit.”

Eaton raced one more season at Middlebury College, then coached the U.S. Men’s National Team later in the 1960s and his alma mater’s team in the ’70s.

He bought the restaurant more than 30 years ago in Lincoln, a town on the southern edge of the White Mountain National Forest.

The start of ski country, where the slopes are a way of life.

“All the international stuff is on TV and I follow all those races all winter,” Eaton said. “And the Olympics – oh yeah, I’ll be watching.”