By John Clary Davies
At the 1968 Grenoble Winter Olympics, Suzy Chaffee, captain of the American women’s ski team, was a gold medal favorite in the downhill. After a ski wax gaffe—the team didn’t have the resources to have the appropriate wax prepared—Chaffee finished 25th. But she looked good, really good. Chaffee, who modeled briefly in Europe, wore a skintight silver ski suit that garnered plenty of media attention. That popularity galvanized her career.
After her frustrating Olympic experience, Chaffee worked to revolutionize the rights of Olympic athletes. She was the first woman on the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Board of Directors. She lobbied for the Amateur Sports Act. She helped write legislation that allowed teams and athletes to receive sponsorships. She served on President Ford’s Council on Physical Fitness. And she helped pioneer Title IX.
Chaffee retired her silver suit after those first Olympics in order to become one of the first female freestyle skiers. At the time, in 1971, when hot-dog skiing became a sport, there wasn’t a women’s division— Chaffee won its first three world championships anyway. Eventually, an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson helped garner $1 million in sponsorship money to start a women’s division. Despite this lengthy resume, and her starring role in the ski film Fire and Ice, Chaffee is probably best known for her role in Chapstick commercials, in which she claims to have changed her name to Suzy Chapstick.
Now, she’s Suzy Chaffee again. She lives in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and runs the Native Voices Foundation, which connects Native Americans to skiing. Native American kids, she says, “just enjoy themselves. [Skiing is] the biggest preventer of using any alcohol or drugs and getting them to stay in school.” Here, Powder.com catches up with Chaffee to talk about her pioneering career, from snow dancing to politics and Chapstick.
My mother was an alternate for the Olympic team and my father was a pioneer of skiing. My father made his own skis, when he was like six, and was one of the founders of the American Ski Technique.
I loved to go fast. Downhill was my best event. I had a great tuck. I could out-tuck the guys. I loved that. I was a great downhiller.
When I was a kid my coach told me, ‘You’re a pretty little thing, but you’re never going to make it.’ That’s what got me to the Olympics—like, ‘I’m going to show you.’ So when people do those things it’s actually an opportunity to use both the light and the dark energy. They call it the Holy Grail. To use the light and dark side to get your full power and potential.
Being in the Olympics was a big dream come true. The opening ceremony of the Olympics is when you experience oneness. We have a world in harmony and joy and friendship and that’s what sports do for us.
Doug Burden, the top American skier in the 1956 World Championships, designed the silver suit that I wore in the Olympics and the team wore because we looked like a bunch of Salvation Army rejects. It was the silver suit that saved my butt and salvaged my career. We had so little money our coach Chuck Ferris had to borrow money from the Norwegians to get to Yugoslavia to get to Grenoble and just guessed at the wax. And we missed. A Moroccan skier ran into [a teammate] and so she couldn’t race. She would have been the first one down. Instead, I was the first American and we missed the wax so bad that I was five seconds behind before the first gate.
That inspired me to lead the reform for the Olympic system. The Olympic rules were ‘sham-ateurism.’ The playing fields were not level.
I was the first woman put on the board of the Olympic Committee and the eligibility committee and formed the World Sports Foundation with Bill Bradely, Jack Kelly and Muhammad Ali, and came up with the rules that they have today.
Athletes wouldn’t have to hitchhike or borrow money to get to the Olympics or guess at the wax.
I went to the University of Denver because my brother was this ski champion there and they offered me training but only on dry land because they wouldn’t let me ride in the team car when the snow came. I couldn’t afford a car then, so I figured I would hitchhike to Evergreen where the Denver team was training. I came up with signs and I was on the highway hitching, and TV people came by and asked what I was doing. I said my coach wouldn’t let me ride in a car because I didn’t have NCAA insurance, because I didn’t have male genitals. So that was one of the bigger moments for realizing inequity, and so after that I testified in Congress about women in sports. You just have to straddle a gate and it’s pretty obvious who’s more vulnerable.
Women didn’t have opportunities, so when the head of PE Teachers of America asked me after the Olympics to lead the Title IX March in Washington for equal opportunities in women’s sports, I said I’d be honored.
I was on the elevator with Walter Byers, the head of the NCAA. He was this tough guy. So I said to Walter on the elevator, ‘What do you think of women having 1 percent of the budget of all the educational institutions? What do you think would be a reasonable percentage for women to get?’ Guess what he said? He says, ‘I think it’s just fine the way it is.’ That’s when I knew I had to march.
After a march you can ask for stuff, so I called up the White House and set up a meeting with Vice President Mondale. I brought in Billy Jean (King) and PE teachers who had their lawyers for Title IX and we started the whole environment of it. And then Birch Bayh said I got to get Ted Kennedy behind this. He’s a skier, and I had skied with Birch Bayh, and so I ended up skiing with Ted Kennedy. I had already skied with President Ford, so I said, ‘Well, I can do this.’
So when I was reforming the Olympic system we were in Bulgaria. I was sitting down with the vice president of Bulgaria and he said I looked like this American girl that he had fallen in love with. He said to me, if you were the President of the United States, I would surrender.
The Communist Romanian head of the IOC Eligibility Committee says, ‘I know you are an unscrupulous actress hired by the States to infiltrate the IOC.’ And then he says, ‘You know, you’ve done irreparable damage to the sporting world. You’ve opened up people’s thinking.’
So I said to Jim Jordan [Ford’s ad guy], ‘I‘d like to include a fun feeling to this commercial.’ He says, ‘Well, I’ll think about the right product,’ and it came to him in a dream. He had the whole campaign for Chapstick worked out. He decided it was supposed to be Suzy Chaffee, Olympic skier, has changed her name to Suzy Chapstick. That was a version of shock treatment back then. Did Suzy Chaffee really change her name? It got people’s attention. I wanted to use the commercial to bring love to the world, and it turned out to be the first of all fun fitness commercials in America.
Those amazing things happened to me by following my intuitions. So my life has been an amazing adventure. So that’s what I urge people to do—follow their intuition. And skiing, because we are up in the mountains, close to heaven, you can talk to God up there, where the air is clean and you can think better.
I needed something else. I needed other goals to stay interested. I started experimenting with ski ballet and then started doing the competitions. I was a ballerina as a child, so when I started racing at six, I had in the back of my mind fantasies of dancing down the mountains.
Those were just wonderful days. I was a virgin when I was a ski racer. [My freestyle days] were my coming of age time. It was the early ’70s, so it was a time where everything—life was an experiment. Everything was legal then. It was very mind expanding. I just always appreciated that time.
Nothing that can make you higher than the creativity that can come out of your great body and mind.
In the beginning I was trying to get a special category for women so that there could be more women. I brought it up at the meeting in Waterville. If they could just give a tiny amount of prize money to start a women’s division then women could actually say that they placed third or fourth or fifth and get sponsors. That’s when Wayne Wong said, ‘Look, we don’t have enough money ourselves.’ That triggered tears to roll down my face. I didn’t say anything. I just walked out. [They said] ‘OK, we’ll give the girls a thousand dollars to share.’ That’s the start of women’s freestyle.
I said to Johnny Carson, You know, this is such a beautiful sport and all these beautiful young girls don’t have opportunities because if they don’t get in the top five they can’t get a sponsor to fund them in order to do this. We want to make this a great sport for men and women, and that’s when I got all the sponsor offers.
Getting inducted to the Skiing Hall of Fame—especially in three categories, alpine and freestyle and being a sport builder—was really touching. I got pretty choked up. Having such a reunion in Sun Valley, it was kind of the family of skiing brought together: filmmakers, the freestylers, the racers and mountaineers. They even did a wet T-shirt contest.