In 1939, 80 years ago this winter, a dedicated group of young men on the University of Nevada ski team were training for their best season yet. The ski program was new and the team had struggled against larger universities in the West, but now Wayne Poulsen was their coach and expectations were high on the squad.
Coach Poulsen was a real competitor who had grown up in Reno and cut his teeth in collegiate skiing as the University of Nevada’s team captain and jumping champion. After graduation, Poulsen took over as coach. A noted ski pioneer, Poulsen established Nevada’s first ski area with a gasoline-powered rope tow at Grass Lake near Mount Rose. In 1943, he purchased land in Squaw Valley, the first step in that resort’s future development as a major ski area and eventual host for the 1960 Winter Olympics.
Although the Nevada ski program was just three years old in 1939, there was no lack of excellent skiers trying to make the team. But it wasn’t easy.
Poulsen organized Nevada’s first ski team as an undergraduate in 1936, but it wasn’t recognized by the university until 1937. In the early years, the athletes received no funding and usually had to find their own transportation to meets as far away as Utah. Poulsen was undeterred: “We’ll compete against the nation’s best, even if we have to travel to Salt Lake on our skis.”
Although the Nevada ski program was just three years old in 1939, there was no lack of excellent skiers trying to make the team. But it wasn’t easy. For many years, American intercollegiate ski competition followed the European tradition where each skier had to compete in all four disciplines: downhill, slalom, cross-country and jumping. Coach Poulsen later said, “We could not afford any prima donnas. Our best alpine man was also a very good jumper, but we had to take him off the team because he wouldn’t run cross-country.”
There was no doubt that Poulsen’s 1939 team was tough and skilled. Under his experienced tutelage, the squad went undefeated and won that year’s National Collegiate Ski Championship — or so they claimed.
That intercollegiate requirement demanded well-rounded skiers who could uncork a killer launch off a scaffold-built ski jump, schuss downhill at top speed and handle the kick and glide endurance of a fast-paced cross-country race. The downhill and slalom races were tough with minimal course grooming. There were no gates as in the modern downhill, but a gate where you started and a gate at the finish. The skier picked the fastest line down the hill.
There were no chairlifts to take skiers up for training runs. Bindings were fashioned out of heavy copper plates with the edges bent up around the skier’s leather boots. Unlike modern safety bindings that release when stressed to prevent leg and ankle injuries, early downhill skiers used leather straps laced through slots in the skis and then wrapped around the boot. Their wooden skis were homemade with metal edges screwed on. Cross-country skis were old alpine skis cut down and then routered underneath.
On weekends, the Nevada team traveled to Cisco where the Auburn Ski Club had a ski jump. At Cisco they trained with some of the best jumpers in the country. The college boys learned from top skiers such as Andy Blodger, Sig Vettestad and, of course, Roy Mikkelsen, star of the Auburn Ski Club and America’s national champion.
The Nevada ski program was in its infancy, but all the hard work and practice came together for the team during that 1939 season when they finally toppled the University of Washington Huskies, the perennial Pacific Coast champs. The Huskies had always beaten the Wolf Pack, but only by narrow margins. Nevada’s first victory over Washington was achieved after the team staged an impressive comeback at the final meet held at Yosemite’s Badger Pass.
On Day 1 of the competition, the team was off to a poor start. Plagued by injuries and far from full strength, they lost the opening cross-country ski event so badly that they were almost out of the running. But Nevada pulled back from defeat. Dick Mitchell came blasting down the downhill and slalom runs to take first in the alpine and downhill events leading Nevada to within striking distance of the leaders. Nevadan Marti Arrougé also took a top position in the downhill, but on the next run he crashed into a tree stump after swerving to avoid a group of spectators that had crowded onto the course. Nearly three-quarters of a mile from the finish line and suffering from painful injuries, Arrougé gathered himself together and finished the run, turning in a time that when figured with the performances of his teammates, gave Nevada first place in the event.
At the finish line Arrougé collapsed and was rushed to the hospital with serious but non-life-threatening injuries. His teammates were distracted by the medical emergency, but the contest wasn’t over and with Arrougé out of the competition, the Huskies smelled blood. Handicapped by the loss of Arrougé and other star performers, Nevada seemed destined for another close defeat, but four of their skiers finished among the top 10 in the jumping competition, taking the event, the meet and the coast title.
The claim that the Nevada ski team won the 1939 National Collegiate Championship was not exactly true. They had outscored every college they competed against, but they never skied head-to-head against Dartmouth College from New Hampshire, considered the team to beat. Nevada based the victory on a “comparison of results,” because they had beaten a strong University of Washington team by a larger point margin than Dartmouth had. Ultimately, at the time no team could claim a national championship because there was no nationally sanctioned authority for intercollegiate skiing until 1954 when the first NCAA National Intercollegiate Ski Championships were held at Slide Mountain.
The young athletes on the 1939 University of Nevada ski team were champions in every sense of the word. During War World II, the skill and courage that they showed on the race course were the same characteristics that made them heroes in both war and peacetime. Grit and determination are the hallmarks of true competitors and these guys had it in spades.
Wayne Poulsen, who died in 1995, was proud of his alma mater’s skiing program: “The Nevada ski team has produced more national champions, more Olympic team members and more national and international recognition than any other group of athletes from UNR.” That’s quite a legacy and one that these young students had a right to be proud of.