Wilhelm Josef "Willy" Schaeffler (13 December 1915 – 9 April 1988) was a German-American skiing champion, winning coach and ski resort developer. He is best known to the public for his intensive training programs that led the US ski team to gold and bronze medals in the 1972 Winter Olympics. In development circles, he is known for his role in the development of Vail and Whistler Blackcomb.
Schaeffler was born in Kaufbeuren Bavaria on 13 December 1915. Working in the mountains as a shepherd, he was a competitive skier by the age of 8. In 1932, at age 17, he was the winner of Bavarian Alpine Championships. Schaeffler was named to the 1936 German Olympic team, but broke both legs before the Garmisch-Partenkirchen Games, and was unable to compete.
When World War II broke out in 1939, Schaeffler was drafted into the German Army as a "political unsafe," and eventually ended up on the Russian Front. Captured and tortured by the Soviets, he escaped and returned to Austria, where he joined the anti-Nazi resistance forces working in the Austrian Alps. Following WWII, Schaeffler started training the United States Army Europe, and in this role taught George Patton and other high-ranking U.S. military personnel how to ski and rock climb. This, and his romance with American Betty Durnford, his future wife of 14 years, was his ticket to U.S. emigration, and he moved with Betty to the U.S. in the spring of 1948.
In June 1948, Schaeffler wrote to Larry Jump, who was setting up the Arapahoe Basin ski resort in Colorado, looking for work as a ski instructor. Jump hired Schaeffler, who moved to Colorado that year and introduced the alpine skiing technique known as "short-swing". Short-swing remained the standard beginner training technique across North America for decades. Nearly a decade later, the national sports magazine, Sports Illustrated, would feature Schaeffler and parts of this new technique in two issues, on a 1957 cover story.
In the early 1950s, Schaeffler was hired for his second job as the coach for the University of Denver Ski Team, part of the Denver Pioneers. Under his tutelage, in 22 years, his D.U. Pioneers won 13 of 18 National Championships (NCAA). In general competition, the team placed in the top three 122 times out of 123 meets, with 100 of those being first-place. This record of wins and places stands unchallenged to this day. Thirty-three of his racers were named to the NCAA All-American teams, and 15 named to the Olympic Ski Teams and FIS championships. Otto Tshudi, Marv Crawford, Keith Wegeman, and Chuck Ferries are among his premier student skiers.
In 1957, Schaeffler became the Director of Ski Events at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California. He was responsible for designing the alpine courses. In the early 1970s, was part of the group that submitted the winning bid for the 1976 Winter Olympics for Denver, but this bid was later withdrawn by the voters of Colorado, and the games returned to Innsbruck for a second time. Schaeffler's work on the design of the runs at Squaw Valley had placed him in high demand around the world and across North America as a ski area and ski run designer, and over the next two and a half decades, he consulted with dozens of ski resorts. One of these was the original plan for what is today the Whistler Blackcomb resort, site of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. His design for the downhill course, later named for Dave Murray, was used 50 years later as the main alpine course for those games.
In 1970, Schaeffler was named as Director of the U.S. Alpine Ski Team; Schaeffler held this position until 1973. During this period, he served as head coach for the U.S. team at the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, where the team won gold and bronze medals. Not surprisingly, Schaeffler was often referred to as "America's Most Successful Ski Coach". Schaeffler was largely responsible for moving the U.S. National Ski Team to its permanent headquarters in Park City, Utah, in 1974 and established the first national ski training center here. He laid out large parts of the area, including several runs on Ski Team Ridge, known as the U.S. Ski Team training runs. Today, a ski run is named in his honor at Park City, called "Willy's Run." Another run in Beaver Creek, Colorado, called "Willy's Face," is also dedicated to the memory of Schaeffler. A third, in the ski area Willy Schaeffler helped found, Arapahoe Basin, in Colorado, also bears his name, titled "Willy's Wide."
During the 1970s, Schaeffler worked with Walt Disney, in an effort to open new ski resorts. The first project, in Mineral King, expanded greatly during design and was eventually planned to host more than a million visitors a year. The Sierra Club objected and a lengthy series of court cases followed, until Disney finally gave up on the idea, following the death of Walt Disney. A second attempt followed at Independence Lake near Mt. Lola in Northern California, not far from Lake Tahoe. A similar series of environmental lawsuits followed, and these plans were also abandoned, along with Disney's interest in the ski market.
Schaeffler developed a special intensive training program for his skiers, plus he planned and proposed a sports medicine program, and a traveling medical team for his athletes. Schaeffler was also one of the founders of Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA), separating instructor training within the USSA into an independent organization. In 1968, Schaeffler received USSA’s highest award for outstanding service to the sport of skiing, The Julius Blegen Award. In 1969, Schaeffler received the USSA Rocky Mountain Division’s highest award, the Halstead Trophy, for outstanding service. In 1972, was inducted into Colorado Sports Hall of Fame. In 1974, he was inducted into National Ski Hall of Fame. In 1977, Schaeffler assisted in the formation of the Special Olympics, along with the Larry and Marnie Jump and the Kennedy families.
Schaeffler died on April 9, 1988, in Denver, Colorado, after having had five open heart surgical procedures and a pacemaker implanted during the prior 17 years. Established by Schaeffler's son, Jimmy Schaeffler, a permanent set of scholarships at the University of Denver today pays further tribute to Schaeffler. One is a foreign exchange scholarship of disabled student-athletes, with a preference for competitive skiers; the other is a foreign exchange scholarship for able-bodied student athletes, also with a preference for competitive skiers. Currently, two additional Willy Schaeffler endowments are being planned, one a ski coach fund at the University of Denver, the other a Norwegian-based fund for Norwegian disabled scholar-athletes to attend the University of Denver.
- The Hall of Fame claims this took place in 1946, but the Denver Library has the original letter from Schaeffler to Jump in its collection; it is dated 6 July 1948.
- "U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame"
In 1986, the Willy Schaeffler Scholarship Fund was created at D.U. by Willy's son, Jimmy Schaeffler. The fund provides full scholarships for disabled and able-bodied ski athletes.
- (Jump), "Arapahoe Basin Records", Denver Library
- (Coach), "Schaeffler to coach U.S. national skiers", The Montreal Gazette, 26 May 1970
- (Plaque), "Markers and Monuments Database: Wilheim "Willy" Schaeffler", Utah Department of Community and Culture
- (Fame), "Wilhelm Josef "Willy" Schaeffler 1915-1988", Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame
- (Fund), "Willy Schaeffler Scholarship Fund Benefits Disabled Scholar-Athletes", Denver Pioneers, 19 May 2009
- (Walking), "2010 Village Olympic Walking Tour", Whistler Museum & Archives Society