Dick Buek: Olympic Legend
An Extreme Athlete
Few "extreme" athletes of today could have competed with the likes of Soda Springs native, Dick Buek. Whether he was diving off cliffs in Acapulco to win gas money home or flying his airplane under the chairlift cables at Palisades Tahoe and beneath the Lincoln Highway Bridge on Donner Summit, Buek was a fearless athlete and skier. He was characterized by Oakley Hall in his novel, The Downhill Racers.
"He was a fascinating man and the definition of daredevil," says Mary Ann Haswell, a close friend and Tahoe resident." His highs came from doing extraordinary things."
As a youth Buek was coached by ski champion Hannes Schroll. In 1952, Buek won the United States National Downhill and competed in the Oslo Olympics, finishing 12th.
"Dick could have been the greatest racer of his era," explains Sugar Bowl's Bill Klein. "He was the first skier to ever schuss Exhibition in Sun Valley, a feat that even Emile Allais said could never be done. Buek never recognized his own ability. If he had, he would have won a lot more races."
In 1953, Buek crashed his motorcycle. The accident crushed his leg, pelvis, and shoulder. When the National Championship at Aspen occurred the following year he could still only bend his right knee 60 degrees. Pins in his left shoulder hampered his stance. Though he won the race, he was passed over to compete at that season's FIS World Championships.
"You're still something of a basket case," the U.S. Selection Committee quipped. "We can't take responsibility for you."
In 1957, at age 27, Dick Buek crashed an airplane into Donner Lake, for the second time. This time he died.
"He used to say he'd never make it to 28 years old," recalls Haswell, who had survived the first crash into Donner with Buek. They were towing water skiers, the story goes. "Dick died a few days short of his birthday."
Ironically, Buek wasn't at the stick of the airplane in which he was killed. It was a friend's plane and Buek was giving the friend a piloting lesson. The wings iced up and the plane dived straight into the icy waters.
"Dick was a dynamic person and ahead of his time in pushing the limits of extremism," says Haswell. "It was great being around him, if only for such a short period of time."
Buek entered the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame in 1974.