Stein Eriksen, an Olympic gold medalist from Norway whose charisma, dazzling gymnastic grace and innovative style on the slopes influenced generations of skiers around the world and who capitalized on his appeal by helping launch ski resorts across the United States, died Dec. 27 at his home in Park City, Utah. He was 88.
His death was announced by Utah’s Deer Valley Resort, which he helped found in 1981 and turn into one of the country’s premier destinations for winter sports. The cause was not disclosed, but Eriksen was hospitalized in 2013 for “neurological symptoms.” His health had weakened after a skiing accident in 2007.
Eriksen, who came from an accomplished athletic family, put on his first pair of skis when he was 3 and practiced skiing secretly deep in the mountains during the German occupation of Norway in World War II. He came to be recognized as something of a Nordic mountain god, always competing bareheaded to allow the sun to gleam off his luxuriant blond hair as he sped downhill.
In the early 1950s, he developed a new method of making turns, called the reverse-shoulder technique, which enabled him to slice through the gates of slalom and giant slalom races with breathtaking speed.
At the 1952 Winter Olympics in his native Oslo, Mr. Eriksen was leading the giant slalom when his skis went out from him near the finish line. At one point, only his left hand was in contact with the snow, but he called on his early training as a gymnast to regain control, get back on his feet and complete the race.
When he won the gold medal, he became the first Olympic champion in alpine skiing who didn’t grow up in the Alps. He also won a silver medal in the slalom event. Two years later, Eriksen became the first skier to win three gold medals at the world championship competition.
People who saw him at the top of his form marveled at his ability. He kept his skis so close together that they seemed to carve a single track through the snow. He was so stylish and graceful that he was called Fred Astaire on skis.
“For most of us, even the great ones, skiing seemed to be a muscular, difficult thing,” skiing writer Nicholas Howe wrote in 1990, recalling that he first saw Eriksen in action in 1953. “What Stein did was something else. It was all lithe curves and delicate balances; it was the floating grace of a ballet dancer. Where gravity was concerned, Stein seemed to have choices not open to the rest of us.”
In skiing exhibitions, he often performed flips and other aerial stunts, essentially becoming a pioneer of freestyle skiing, which later became a major sport in its own right.
Widely acknowledged at the time as the world’s greatest skier, Eriksen retired from competition in 1954.
“I had heard about athletes who had faded after their big victories and had not been happy with themselves or with life in general,” he told People magazine in 1988. “So I stopped when I was on top. I have never regretted that.”
Settling in the United States, he taught skiing in the winter and sold ski clothes (including sweaters knitted by his mother) in the warmer months.
As an instructor, Eriksen was known for his disciplined approach and his engaging personality. He more or less invented the position of “director of skiing” and, beginning in the 1950s, was hired to organize ski programs, design courses and revitalize resorts in Michigan, Vermont, Colorado, Idaho and California.
In the late 1960s, Eriksen came to Utah, where he helped transform Park City into a popular haven for winter sports. The U.S. ski team has made Park City its headquarters since 1974.
Eriksen helped found and design the Deer Valley Resort, which opened near Park City in 1981. Its well-appointed and celebrity-studded Stein Eriksen Lodge is often ranked the No. 1 ski hotel in the world.
Stein Eriksen was born Dec. 11, 1927, in Oslo. His mother, Birgit, was president of a women’s ski group. His father, Marius, a cross-country skier and champion ski jumper, won a bronze medal in gymnastics at the 1912 Olympic Games and later ran a business manufacturing and selling ski equipment.
The family had a tennis court at home, and Eriksen competed in gymnastics and skiing from an early age. “Actually, my only real concern as a boy,” he told Salt Lake City’s Deseret News in 1991, “was deciding which sport I would pursue.”
An older brother, Marius Jr., became a revered Spitfire pilot in England during World War II, credited with downing nine German planes before he was shot down in 1943 and held by the Germans as a prisoner of war. In 1948, both brothers were members of Norway’s Olympic ski team.
Eriksen’s first three marriages, to Merrill Ford, Garvene Hales and Jerry Sue Von Hagen, ended in divorce. A son from his second marriage, Stein Eriksen Jr., died in 2012.
Survivors include his wife of 35 years, Francoise Eriksen; four children; and five grandchildren.
Eriksen often spent summers in Montana, where he enjoyed fly fishing. But when the snow began to fall, he could always be found back in the mountains, headed toward fresh powder on a pair of skis.
“To think, my whole life,” he told the Deseret News in 2002, “all I’ve done is play around in the snow!”