Setting a New Course - Tyler Palmer Begins a New Ski Career
Climbing out of his pickup truck on a brilliant Indian summer afternoon, shotgun in hand, the young man with the mop of unruly auburn hair appears much like a score of other North Conway residents out to enjoy the late autumn weather and a little partridge hunting. This is the first fall Tyler Palmer has had much time to do anything other than train, however. A lifetime of international ski racing separates him from the other hunters in the New Hampshire woods.
But life in many ways is starting over at age 30 for Palmer. After 25 years of amateur and most recently professional racing on the World Pro Skiing circuit, the Mt. Washington Valley resident is leaving the world of competitive skiing behind. This winter he'll try the sport from another perspective - as ski coach at Holderness, a small private prep school near Plymouth, New Hampshire. And while the tendency might be to wonder whether he'll miss the bright lights and glamour of world class racing, it's far from the case. Tyler is unequivocally happy about his decision.
"I have absolutely no regrets," he emphasized, relaxing in front of the firsplace of his home in Kearsarge located just above the village of North Conway. "I've been skiing for so long - training, traveling and racing every weekend. It just isn't the glamorous life style people make it out ot be. And I certainly won't miss the competition," Tyler continued, "getting psyched up for every run of every race. Or the travel. I've done all of that I care to do. It all takes too much away from your private life. I'm glad it's over so I can live normally and do the things I've never had time to do before - like bird hunting."
"It just got to the point where I'd been doing it for so long," he reflected, "and it's not as if I haven't done most of what there is to do in skiing." That is a characteristic understatement for Palmer, one of the finest skiing talents ever produced by this country. Joining the fledgling World Pro ski tour in 1972 at the age of 21, he finished third overall twice during his nine-year career, and was the top American racer in 1976, 1977 and 1978. In 1978 he was also awarded the K2 Spider Sabich Memorial Trophy, given each year to the individual who contributes the most to the world of professional racing.
But Palmer's success as a professional racer is eclipsed by his amateur record, which was highlighted by two European World Cup slalom victories, an achievement no other American had ever matched. Those wins came in 1971, when as a member of the US Ski Team Palmer won the prestigious Lauberhorn Cup in St. Moritz, while also taking the slalom at Sestriere and a third in the overall World Cup standing. He went on to a ninth place finish in the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, at the time the best slalom finish for an American in that event.
Tyler has literally lived and breathed skiing since infancy, when he and brother Terry, 18 months his junior and also an accomplished amateur and professional racer, first strapped on skis and careened off downhill. Though born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Tyler learned the sport early from his parents Bob and Sally, both certified instructors, and entered his first race in Canada at the age of five. When he was eight, the elder Palmers purchased the house in which Tyler lives today with his wife Donna and two-year-old daughter. After that, Tyler and Terry competed regularly under the auspices of the Eastern Slope Ski Club. The pair also honed their abilities by setting and running gates on the hillside behind their house, and it was this extra sense of dedication that set them apart early. "Other kids may have had more potential back then, but we were more persistent," Tyler recalls.
That commitment carried Tyler through a two-year stint at Holderness, though he graduated from Kennett High School in Conway, and to the New Hampshire Championship in his specialty, the slalom. In 1968 Tyler captured the Junior National Combined title in Boseman, Montana, and the next year took the Senior National Giant Slalom Championship. Soon after, his wins catapulted him to a position on the US A Team and competition on the then new World Cup circuit.
Skiing for the United States in the late '60s and early '70s was a far different proposition than it is today. In those years, amateurs were very literally that. There were none of the broken time payments or subsidies paid to team members today. Back then, skiers picked up the balance of their own expenses, and to be a World Class racer, one needed either wealthy parents or very dedicated family support. The Palmer clan fell in the latter category, and Tyler, like many of the American skiers, traveled Europe on a shoestring.
The state of the development program in America, designed to locate and nurture young skiing talent, was also years behind Europe's, and the Ski Team's bureaucracy was in a state of political upheaval. Coaches were hired and fired; discipline and training techniques were the subject of endless controversy. Whether the team lacked financial support because they failed to win, or failed to win for want of funds to train and race properly is a moot point, for it led to failing morale and problems among the young skiers. Looking back, Tyler's remarkable World Cup results seem even more amazing in light of the limited financial and emotional support he received.
The turmoil led to inevitable personality clashes, and many of the American skiers ran head-on with their autocratic coach, Willie Schaeffler. Tyler at age 20 had a quick tongue and temper, as well as a reputation as an unconventional talent. An article in Life magazine the year before went so far as to refer to him as a "flake." In spite of his World Cup wins, he often found himself at the center of controversy surrounding team discipline and training methods. "The thing was that although I was skiing really well, personally I was unconventional. Sure I pulled a few stunts, but I was also 20 - a kid," he remembers. "Above all, however, I was fanatical about my skiing, and I would never have done anything to jeopardize that. Still, the coaches didn't have enough faith in me or trust to let me train the way I thought was right for me," Tyler continued. "I didn't agree with many of their ideas, and it didn't seem they understood their individual skiers. I think they crushed out a lot of talent along the way."
In the end, the atmosphere proved too distracting and demoralizing, and following the Olympics in Sapporo, Tyler joined former US Team coach Bob Beattie's World Pro Ski Tour. "At the time I quit, I just never thought they'd change their system," he noted. "I couldn't continue to race with the way I was being treated."
Basic to his decision was the opportunity to make skiing pay off. Still, Tyler denies any resentment today about the lack of compensation for team members a decade ago, even when reminded that skiers like Phil Mahre - certainly the best to come along since Tyler - are growing rich from their endorsements for ski equipment companies. "Sure, turning pro meant that I had a chance to make some money, but still I have no regrets about my amateur days," he stated. "Because I wasn't racing for the money, I had no obligations. I didn't owe anyone anything. I didn't have a contract to uphold with any ski companies. I was a free agent doing what I did best, and the racing itself was bliss."
Tyler discovered that winning on the pro tour required a different sort of attitude and talent. "In the amateurs, it was a matter of putting two runs together, rather than eight or more, so you could focus right in on being psyched for just those two. In the pros, the courses were often more simple, but it took a certain kind of mental stamina to maintain your concentration," Tyler explained. "It was really hard - I can't say the WPS was ever easy for me, It took a very special kind of discipline. Amateur racing is just a little different. It's not the discipline on the hill that always won a race in the pros - it was the discipline off the hill that you really needed."
The pro circuit also lacked the classic races and the intensity of team competition. "It's not that I thought the pros would be like amateur racing, but I still kind of missed not going to Europe," Tyler remarked. "Not having the really big race like Kitzbuhlen and the Lauberhorn. Those races are tremendous. They're a national event and the whole country turns out for them - 25,000-50,000 people at a race. There's an attitude, a feeling about the sport of skiing there that simply doesn't exist here in the United States."
Regardless, Tyler adapted well to the World Pro format - the dual slalom, head-to-head competition - largely because from his earliest days of skiing, he'd cultivated an ability to shut out all distractions during a race. "I always felt that winning was, to a great extent, in your head," he reflected. "Mental preparation is a key. For someone else it might not have been enough, but it worked for me." It worked so sufficiently well that Tyler strung together five victories during his World Pro Skiing Career.
The winter of 1980, however, was not a good one for Tyler. A knee injury that had required surgery the previous summer - his first injury ever - plagued him throughout the season, and the regimen of training and travel was definitely in conflict with life at home. The decision to retire after the winter was an easy one.
Opting for a coaching position rather than a job within the ski equipment industry was also a conscious choice for Tyler, who had his share of conflicts with sponsors during his pro career. There's little doubt that the man's interest in skiing has always been the sport itself, and not its economic aspects. "One reason that I decided to coach is because I've always been interested in working with young skiers, but it will also rest a lot easier on my shoulders," he elaborated. "I'll be able to work within the system and enjoy what I do without having to go with skiing's business establishment."
As to just what qualities make a good coach, Tyler points out that it goes beyond talent and technique to that intangible ability some people have to motivate others. "You've got to get to know each person and figure out what's going to move them," he stated. "I know what I want the kids to do - the techniques aren't revolutionary or new. Technically, I've been doing it for so long, that relating that information isn't an obstacle," he continued. "Being able to motivate them is the key. Recognizing their individual needs and working with them, Some kids need a kick, while others need a pat on the back."
As for his long term aspirations, Tyler is looking no further than Holderness these days. "I think I can achieve a lot there with a low profile," he said. "Professional racing is a high intensity world. I''m looking forward to a rest from the pressures. I've had my time in the sun - I'm ready to step into the shade." After Holderness, he said with a shrug, only time will tell what avenues might open up. In the meantime, it will be a quiet winter in northern New Hampshire for Tyler Palmer. With plenty of time for a little bird hunting.