Remembering ski icons Kyle Smaine, Jeff Hamilton

Author Mike Akay with Jeff Hamilton. | Mike Akay

Saying goodbye to friends is hard, especially when they’ve become part of the tight-knit ski community. There have been so many recent ski community tragedies, it’s mind numbing.

I lost two friends in two weeks, guys that I competed against in ski events and who ultimately became my friends. They were both giants in skiing and in real life; their presence and accomplishments were admired worldwide. Kyle Smaine, 31, died in an avalanche in Japan on Jan. 29; two weeks before that we lost Jeff Hamilton, 56, to cancer.

Kyle Smaine
This is what I wrote and felt about Kyle in a 2010 piece when he had yet to finish his senior year in high school:

“The future of skiing comes from South Lake Tahoe and is presented to us in the human form known as Kyle Smaine. Remember this 18-year-old’s name as this Heavenly Mountain rider is the skier of the year. His race and freeride results for this year alone are unparalleled in the history of winter sports. Kyle took second in Daron Rahlves’ Silver Belt Banzai at Sugar Bowl, first place at the Buckle Up Big Air at Sierra-at-Tahoe, fifth in a Nor-Am Skiercross, 11th in Heavenly’s Far West Slalom Championship, sixth at the U.S. Freestyle National Championships in halfpipe, two firsts and a second in three separate rail jam events and was winner of the High Five’s Trains Slopestyle at Sugar Bowl.

“Luckily for me, I was in the start gate riding with him at three of those events and got to see firsthand his power and ease. Kyle is an amazing competitor, always smiling and charging, a real inspiration to all who hang with him. … The future of skiing is in good hands, thanks to those guys and their massive crew.”

It’s hard now to believe I was hanging with those guys 13 years ago. It doesn’t seem that long, but during that time Kyle matured into a fine man. Part of that crew I referenced includes David Wise, Walter Wood, Davis Souza and Kyle’s best friend and constant ski companion, photographer Brian Walker. In the last 12 years, Kyle went on to achieve many more trophies, trips, photo shoots, a college degree and an ultimate career gold medal halfpipe win in Austria at the 2015 FIS World Championships. These talents enabled him to live a life he truly loved, a life on skis.

My heart goes out to his family and his wife Jenna.

Jeff Hamilton
Olympic champion, friend, fellow competitor and Truckee local Jeff Hamilton died after a lengthy battle with cancer. During his last days, he balanced survival and family in a most heroic and inspirational way, emblematic of how he lived his life. Back in 1991, Jeff ultimately beat me at Silverton, Colo., during the North American Speed Skiing Championships and Olympic qualifier to make the U.S. Ski Team and I felt I couldn’t have lost out to a nicer guy. He made the U.S. Ski Team and then went on to win a bronze medal in the Olympics when it became a demonstration sport in 1992.

After the Olympics, he further cemented his legacy to the sport by becoming the world-record holder in speed skiing and the first human to break the 150-mph threshold and simultaneously breaking theretofore unknown barriers in science and sport. His coach at Auburn Ski Club said he was always a great glider. A glider can do well in speed events, carrying his or her speed across the flatter portions of a course. He carried that skill to the world stage and made America and the world proud. He was not just a great glider, but a great guy.

Jeff gave and gave to everyone: to his kids, his friends, the Auburn Ski Club, his business and his cherished wife, Carolyn. She returned that love in one way with a most eloquent and heartfelt eulogy published in Moonshine Ink so everyone could enjoy this hero’s last days. She did his life justice and I hope we can continue to give all these fallen skiers the justice they deserve, whether in our hearts or in the annals of sport history.