'Family tradition' takes skier to Olympics

Tiger's tale

Posted: Sunday, January 13, 2008

 

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  Tiger Demers is pictured, third from left, in a well-worn photo from 1962 at the start of the 30-kilometer Federation of International Skiers race in Zakopane, Poland.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"Scoop" Kimball cornered him at the pharmacy.

His former Pop Warner football coach and sports editor at The Valley News in Lebanon, N.H., Kimball had a clear message for young Tiger Demers.

"It was at the drugstore because we used to go get milk shakes," Demers, now 68 and living in Kasilof, recalled. "'Keep up the family tradition. You've got to do it for Sonny.'"

Those words would remain with him for the next five decades.

They may have even helped earn him a spot in the Western State College Sports Hall of Fame, into which he was recently inducted as a rare two-time NCAA Division-I cross-country skiing champion.

"When a guy like that, who you know and respect, says something like that, it kind of gets you to thinking,'Maybe I should kick it up a notch," he said.

Sonny, whom Kimball referenced, was one of Demers' more than 30 cousins. A gifted skier who had just graduated high school, he appeared destined to qualify for the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif., the first winter games to be televised before a national audience.

"He was a contender," Demers boasts. "There's no question about it."

Following a devastating automobile accident that left him with a broken leg, Sonny never skied competitively again.

Demers immediately realized Sonny's dreams had been dashed.

"I went to the hospital and he was banged up," he said. "His Olympic hopes were kiboshed."

Demers' Olympic odyssey, however, was just beginning.

Few people know his real name.

It's Edward.

Born and raised in Lebanon, Demers, one of five children, first strapped on a pair of skis, or as he put it, "barrel slat-type skis, just homemade things with a little toe strap," when he was about 8 years old so he could fly down a hill with the other neighborhood kids.

"It was just another activity that we participated in," Demers said. "Although once I did get to high school, we started competing."

Playing basketball in junior high, he wasn't exactly Michael Jordan.

"I fouled out of basketball so I went out for the ski team," he said with a laugh.

The transition was easier than it could have been, too, having cousins like Sonny around.

Demers looked up to him. A novice on the slopes, he yearned to be as adept as Sonny, a dexterous competitor who was knocking on the door of the upcoming Olympic games and was hopeful to get an answer.

Until that summer day.

Unable to compete anymore, Sonny who, after a long and arduous road to recovery, would eventually go on to ski recreationally again and run annually in the Boston Marathon sold his skis, boots and poles over to his younger cousin.

And with the equipment came that fateful conversation with Kimball.

"He urged me to carry on the family tradition," Demers said.

Those words of inspiration, as well as the nickname that Kimball had bestowed upon him during his days on the gridiron, would forever drive this impressionable young man.

"He was the one that nicknamed me Tiger," Demers said. "(I think) it's an incentive to make you like two one-hundredths of a second faster.

"When you're out there and someone says, 'Go Tiger!' you've got to crank it up a notch, rather than, 'Go Edward.'"

Evidently, it worked.

Edward, err, Tiger, can vividly remember his first high school victory.

It was circa 1956 at a meet in the New Hampshire town of Meriden, a small community near Lebanon, when the temperature rapidly fluctuated between freezing and just plain cold.

"When I crossed the finish line, I was absolutely soaking wet, just from perspiration."

But it didn't matter. Demers had won.

"It was a surprise," he said, "because as a sophomore, I had beaten juniors and seniors on my own team and everybody else."

A four-way skier, Demers competed in every event at competitions. He succeeded in half.

"Traditionally, I'd win the downhill, and fall on the slalom, and win the cross-country, and fall in the jumping," he explained. "So, it was a hectic high school career."

 

Tiger Demers is pictured, third from left, in a well-worn photo from 1962 at the start of the 30-kilometer Federation of International Skiers race in Zakopane, Poland.

With a lingering taste of victory, he constantly hungered for more.

"Even though you win one race, next week you falter and someone else beats you," he saidd. "In my career, there's usually been about a half dozen guys that could have taken first place at any given time. We sort of all took turns.

"You always wanted to win," Demers added, "and of course you couldn't, because of the circumstances."

But he won enough to receive offers from Colorado's Western State College and Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school just minutes from home.

Having never journeyed west of New York made the decision interesting, but weighing a full scholarship at Western State versus an ROTC deal and time in the armed forces at Dartmouth helped make his choice.

"In hindsight, yes," he said of making the correct move and avoiding time in the Army. "I'd have probably been in Vietnam in the early 60s."

Combine that with another conversation, this time with his buddy, and he was ready to trek cross-country with two friends to the campus of Western State.

"This high school friend of mine who was older than me, this fellow skier, he said, 'Don't go to Dartmouth. You'll live at home and you won't experience the college life. Go to Colorado. It's a small school, ski-country USA. You'll never regret it.'"

He hasn't since.

Fear didn't reside in Demers' body.

Rather, he was captivated with heading west.

"I can remember going through the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide and marveling at the beauty of the Colorado Rockies," he said. "It was an adventure to leave little, old New Hampshire and go to the Rocky Mountains and the state of Colorado."

Placing fourth on his team in the opening race of his rookie campaign, Demers, his confidence soaring, decided to focus his efforts specifically on Nordic skiing.

Or maybe it was the other way around.

"In collegiate and international skiing, as far as the competition goes, I was better in that event compared to my peers than in downhill and jumping," he said. "It was the results of the competitions that chose me."

With the 1960 Olympics nearing, and only four available spots on the U.S. team, he tried to accomplish what Sonny could not.

Unfortunately, Demers was selected fifth, the team's first alternate.

When nobody bowed out of the Squaw Valley games, he became a forerunner, skiing down the course before the race and carving tracks along the way.

The excitement was contagious, though. He wanted to compete.

And he didn't have to wait long, joining the Federation of International Skiers at the World Championships in Zakopane, Poland, placing 29th in one race, his best international finish ever.

It was his first trip abroad.

Demers concisely summarized his experiences.

"It was strange," he said behind a devilish grin. "I got to know the KGB."

Back in North America, he improved his sophomore year. But his talent truly began to reveal itself during the upcoming junior season.

A picturesque March day in Solitude, Utah was the setting for the first of back-to-back NCAA championships.

Making matters more difficult than they already were, being the national meet, was the University of Denver, which recruited foreign skiers, specifically Norwegians, to anchor its squad.

"The Scandinavians were superior Nordic skiers and also alpine skiers. They're good," he said. "To beat a Norwegian in a national event was quite an accomplishment."

With maybe three kilometers of the 15K classic race remaining, Demers was locked in on the venerated leader.

At that point, he knew triumph was within reach.

"I knew who it was. I recognized his body style and his technique," he said of the Norwegian. "'I've done it. I've beat him.'

"Once you get him in your sights, you know the interval, you've at least gained on him. And once I passed him, I just poured it on.

"I beat him by 30 seconds. It was a great feeling. You knew that victory was at hand."

That wouldn't be the last time.

Four years after his Olympic dreams had temporarily been placed on hold, Demers again went out for the U.S. team for the 1964 games in Innsbruck, Austria.

It didn't take him long to make an impact either, tying for first in the initial race of the tryout.

Two months later, after training throughout Europe amongst Scandinavian competitors, whom he characterized as, "The Ringers," Demers was no longer a forerunner.

He was an official member of the United States Ski Team.

Demers was the top American skier in the 30-kilometer race. Perhaps more exciting than the race itself, in which, Demers said, the Americans stood no chance, were the opening ceremonies.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with fellow Olympians will forever be embedded in his memory.

"To walk, march in the opening ceremonies was an awesomely good feeling," he said. "That pumps you up, ready to go."

When it was over, a sense of dignity and honor was slightly overshadowed by a feeling of disbelief.

"I would say it was a resolve of disappointment. In hindsight, you sort of analyze what I could have done better or what I shoulda, coulda, woulda," Demers said. "We didn't have any particular dietary program like they have today. So, it was always how you could have trained better, physical conditioning, what you could have done more or better.

"You had a sense of pride, of accomplishment, of what you did achieve," he added. "But then in retrospect, you were always thinking, 'What could I have done better?' So, it's a double-edged sword there."

Demers had conquered the Norwegians before. But these Olympic-caliber Scandinavians and Russians were simply overwhelming.

"The guys I beat that went to college in America, that would be like the B-team," he joked. "The A-team was the A-team. There's a tiered system there."

Revenge, however, wouldn't take long.

Just one week after arriving back in the states, Demers was primed to defend his NCAA title in the national championships.

His hometown university, Dartmouth College, coincidentally was hosting the event.

"That was nice because you have your old high school classmates around and friends and relatives," he said, adding he had more spectators cheering him on than normal. "I was there and we got skiing familiar trails and slopes and stuff, things just sort of clicked."

Demers didn't plan on finishing second.

"I was in tremendously, good physical condition because I had probably competed twice a week for the last six or eight weeks," he said proudly. "I had every intention of defending my title. And it's awesome."

What seemed like half a day after passing another Norwegian on the trail, Demers' phone rang.

"'You got first place by six seconds,'" a voice said.

Only two Americans have won back-to-back NCAA cross-country skiing champions since, one in 1965-66 and another in 1968-69.

"It didn't dawn on me at the time that two-time NCAA was an achievement," he said. "In hindsight, it's rare, very rare."

Judy and Tiger had been together for close to four years by that point. In fact, they married one year before he captured his second championship.

They met on campus, more specifically on the slopes, where a Judy was a member of the women's ski club no official women's team existed pre-Title IX. They dated for roughly three years before he finally popped the question.

And of course, there were skis involved.

"The timing was actually a moment when we had taken a break from skiing to wax and/or re-wax our skis," he said.

They've been waxing together ever since, even spending their honeymoon in Steamboat Springs, Colo., so Demers could compete in a race.

"We were like six or eight of us in one motel room," he said before laughing. "Kind of a college scenario."

There'd be plenty of alone time ahead.

With a degree in education, social studies and physical education and recreation, Demers traveled far and wide for a variety of jobs.

He taught at junior high schools in Colorado and Alaska Judy grew up in Anchorage and was a member of the last graduating class of Anchorage High School, now known as West High. HIs first trip to Alaska was during the summer of 1963, when he worked on the roads and grounds crew at Elmendorf Air Force Base before taking a position transporting freight throughout Alaska following college.

After Judy retired from teaching in 1990, the couple ventured to Saipan, in the Northern Mariana Islands near Guam, to work at a small college.

"If you ever have a chance to go to Saipan, don't pass it up," he says firmly.

While skiing clearly wasn't an option, Demers did find another calling.

"We took up scuba diving. Just like a duck takes to water. I couldn't believe it," he said. "When I left, I had my divemaster's card and I was working on my instructor's card. Just another good sport and it was fun. Just amazing things you see scuba diving."

The pair moved back to Anchorage five years later, owned a bed and breakfast while he was representing fisherman's claims for a law firm during Exxon Valdez oil spill litigation, and then headed south for the isolation of Kasilof, where they now own and rent out property.

And, it appears, they couldn't be happier.

Skiing six days a week at Tsalteshi Trails, occasionally whipping down the slopes at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, and actively participating in the Alaska Midnight Sun Rowing Association during the summer months, its going to be challenging for the two to vacate the state.

With their son, David, and daughter, Darcy, residing in the Portland, Ore. area, along with their two young grandchildren who have already been skiing with Grandpa Demers said they'll eventually relocate to be closer to family.

But they'll be back.

"I don't think I'll ever leave permanently," he said, adding they'll most likely retain local property.

And who can blame them.

This past September, Demers was inducted in the 13th annual Mountaineer Sports Hall of Fame class for his achievements as a junior and senior, which just so happened to coincide with the school's best-ever cross-country championship team finishes, third and fourth, respectively.

That, too, is a moment he won't soon forget.

"Being inducted into the Hall of Fame is an honor," he said. "Some of the old coaches were there and some of my old teammates were there and the current ski team was there.

"I gave a short five minute speech 'Thank you mom and dad, thank you coach, thank you teammates.' It was just a heartfelt, warming experience, especially four or five decades later. They're still thinking about it."

He still thinks about his days on the slopes, saying, "They're memories that pop up from decade to decade."

Instilled in each one is a moment, a turning point, that directly affected the next.

That's something, as he says, which happens to everybody.

In Demers' case, racing for Sonny gradually morphed into competing for the team.

"Doing it for Sonny, I was way beyond that. But to begin .... it goes in increments," he explained. "Here's a scenario where Sonny got hurt. The old football coach says you've got to make the team because it's a family tradition ... so all these little things. But once you get on the team, the focus becomes narrower, so these other peripheral things, they're there, but the moment is the moment."

Each steppingstone along the way has always reverted to the snow-laden trails.

In March, Demers will race in the 2008 Masters World Cup in McCall, Idaho, a competition with more 1,000 participants from nearly two dozen countries. Over the past eight years, he's competed in similar events, his best finish being fourth, while typically crossing in the top 10.

To him, though, it's just another moment intertwined with the last.

From initially putting on a pair of skis, to fouling out of every basketball game; from Sonny's career-ending accident, to Kimball's words of wisdom; from earning a scholarship to Western State while simultaneously avoiding time in Vietnam, to meeting his wife; from sitting in the stands to watch the United States hockey team defeat the Soviet Union in the semifinals of the 1960 Olympics in what he dubbed, "The Original Miracle on Ice" ("It was a thrill. I get more fired up about that win than my skiing career," he said of the event) to finally competing in the Olympics himself and claiming consecutive NCAA crowns; from moving to Alaska, to coaching skiing; from the birth of his children and grandchildren to eventually departing the 49th state; every point along the way has been another piece of the puzzle.

And he's still putting it together.

"Everything that happens in your life is a little step upward," Demers said. "It's like if you had your life to live over again, would you change anything?

"You look back and say, 'God, there's nothing I would change.'"

Now, that's a fulfilling life.

And there's even more to come.

Matthew Carroll can be reached at matthew.carroll@peninsulaclarion.com.



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