Ed’s Note: Few ski bums have perfected the art of living the ski life better than Mountain Gazette’s editor-at-large, Peter Kray. The man has spent years seeing the sport from every angle—from the finish line of the Vancouver Olympics, to safety breaks in the Jackson Hole backcountry, to the halls of the SIA trade show in Vegas, to hiking A-Basin’s East Wall with his dad and brother, to racing as a kid at Eldora, to slumming it up in Austria, Portillo, Alaska, Santa Fe… His book, The God of Skiing, is due out this fall and he will be sharing excerpts from it here at the Gazette for the next few months. Enjoy.
THE GOD OF SKIING
By Peter Kray
The Sports Illustrated story was called, “In Search of Strau: What’s become of the daredevil king of collegiate skiing?” I was in high school when it ran. The photo on the page was the first time I ever saw him, standing on the stage at the NCAA Championships on the top podium.
He was golden and glowing like a statue in the sun. Like a movie star with his broad Swiss face, his white crooked smile and his wheat white hair blowing in the wind. His eyes were as blue as deep water and he stood out from the crowd like a sunflower he was so tall and tan.
He was the quarterback just come off the bench to win the game, except with something tattered and about to be broken. In the scar that cut from his right temple to his cheek. In the careless way he raised the silver trophy in his right hand. You wanted to be there to catch it for him. To tell him that his red speed suit was torn and his biceps showed through at the arm. To show him how his long black skis were both bent at the tips, and how the two other skiers on the stage, the posters, green, red and blue banners and people in the crowd were all falling out of focus in a swirl of color behind him.
The story counted up the long list of come-from-behind victories and heartbreaking wrecks in two columns right beside each other until they began to seem like the same thing: the stunning wins where he careened down the course and everybody forgot to breathe as he zipped by, or the quiet after the crash before the blood hits the snow and the skis are still sliding. From triumph to tragedy, one after another, they read like the made up rumors of some distant, crazy cousin.
His fluid, aggressive style in the downhill and Super G was described as ‘angry,’ ‘feral,’ and even ‘pathologically transcendent.’ It shocked collegiate racing. He skied so close to the gates that they would explode from their moorings. They were left flopping in his wake. Sometimes it seemed he skied right through them.
For two years at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York—where Bob Parker of the 10th Mountain Division had gone to college, and where I would go too—he built his own East Coast legend. He won races from way back in the field when the spectators were starting home and the courses were rutted and rotten. He ran from the top of the mountain all the way to the bottom on icy blue pavement like tilted frozen lakes through the trees where it’s only glory or ruin; where only because of their balls, their fear or their fuck-it-all skiers first see if they can survive, then win. And Tack won downhills by a whole second sometimes, which is good as a mile in skiing. Or he crashed so spectacularly that a hush ran up the hill.
“Is he dead?” “Will he ski again?”
They would rush back to the orange fencing when they heard his split-time come over the PA system. Those early East Coast drunks, leaving their beers on the bar as they ran outside for that glimpse of a shooting star—the vapor trail of snow as he was passing. Shouts erupted from the finish line as the adrenaline went through someone. Or there was a collective gasp as he sailed into the woods like a car off the road and everybody waited for the explosion; the blue and red fiberglass poles burst like fireworks, the horse breaking its stable and the raceworkers standing dumbstruck as it happened.
“Tack ‘Tornado’ Strau,” the announcer would say. “Let’s hope he’s not hurt too bad, ladies and gentlemen.”
But he never missed a race. No matter how badly hurt he was, he was always back the next weekend. He hid the bulk of tape around his fractured ribs with an extra turtleneck and told his coaches he was cold. His broken wrist with bigger gloves. He took off an eye patch on the lift and stayed off the drugs to pass the piss test, choosing alcohol over Percodan.
Between his ribs, his arms, his legs and hands he broke 17 bones. But it said you would have to look to see where it slowed him. It said, “He smiles like a joke he shouldn’t tell, with perfect white teeth and thick Swiss lips that are always burned and cracking. He laughs like coffee, like some party or fistfight about to happen.”
He drank after races with his growing legion of fans, the “Scarecrows,” who took to making phony casts, wrapping themselves like mummies in toilet paper and blacking their teeth with markers and charcoal to cheer him. At the NCAA championships in Lake Placid, he annihilated the field in both his disciplines. Then, almost as a joke, he entered and won the slalom. In the post-race interviews he revealed to a reporter that a week before he had torn the medial collateral ligament in his right knee during a training run. He said the doctor told him he needed surgery and at least four months off before he could ski again.
“Why risk it?”
“It’s like being pocket rich,” he said. “You spend it when you can.”
And then that immortal quote: “If it weren’t for gravity, I’d probably be in Nebraska building engines.”
Photo by Chris Denny