Editor’s note: A versrion of this story was submitted to Ski Racing Media by Bill Farrell, Director of Communications at Berkshire East Ski Resort, and has been reprinted with his permission.
It was early in September of 1986 and University of Vermont freshman, Jim Schaefer, was tearful and rejected. At Deerfield Academy, he was a standout skier; however, he was now in the big leagues of competitive collegiate skiing and he didn’t have any “blue book” points necessary to even be considered for a position racing for a Division I NCAA championship team.
As Schaefer walked away from the administration building, Marty Heib, the Men’s Alpine Coach, walked up from behind and put his arm around him.
“Look, I can see that you’re bitterly disappointed about what we told you up in the office…but here’s what I’m going to offer you,” said Heib. “I can’t promise you anything, but I’m going to ask you to attend the dryland sessions and work your tail off. From there, we’ll see what happens, but don’t tell anyone that I invited you.”
Schaefer never did tell anyone about Heib’s secret invitation; he worked his tail off and eventually participated and captained the team to a pair of NCAA championship titles.
So, what made a decorated NCAA Ski Championship coach so sensitive to a young unheralded kid’s disappointment and give him an opportunity, an opportunity that another coach might not even consider worth his time or effort?
It’s answered with another question: what made Marty Heib?
Heib grew up in Elmira, New York, a small hamlet near Corning. His parents, John and Catherine, fostered a love of outdoor sports and especially alpine skiing with Heib and his two brothers, Mike and Dan. In 1962, a 12-year-old Heib won first place in his age group at the U.S. giant slalom championships held at nearby Greek Peak. A year later, and racing in the older age division, Heib won again. Heib developed into a successful high school ski racer and eventually represented nearby Greek Peak with a fifth place result in the Brodie Mountain Pro Race in 1972.
During his senior year at Cortland Community College in 1971, Heib completed his degree as an intern coach at the newly founded Burke Mountain Academy in East Burke, Vermont. Heib immediately embraced Burke’s philosophy of excellent academics, a technical understanding of ski equipment and rigorous daily training. Burke’s head coach, Warren Witherell, offered Heib a contract and from there, Heib developed a devoted following of believers.
Heib had a unique gift for inspiring and motivating marginal athletes into becoming champions and enjoying life. Heib not only encouraged his own charges to excel, but his enthusiasm spilled over to other ski racers.
“When I was at Stratton and Marty was at Burke, he didn’t care that I wasn’t a Burkie Bear,” says Bill Doble of Dodge Ski Boots. “Marty helped me as much as any coach I had at Stratton.”
Heib’s tenure at Burke led to his ascension into the top ranks of alpine ski coaching throughout Europe, Argentina and at most every major ski racing venue in North America. In 1977, at age 27, Heib was named to the men’s coaching staff of the U.S. Ski Team, where he coached the men’s Europa Cup Team in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and then on to Squaw Valley, California, for a downhill training camp.
On June 9, 1978, Heib was positioned near the last knoll of a downhill training course at Squaw Valley, when he heard a radio transmission informing everyone that the course was closed. However, and unfortunately in this situation, radio waves travel much faster than the final ski racer who was now on the course. When Heib moved beneath the knoll to perform some routine course maintenance, the last racer, Joel Personne, inadvertently struck Heib in excess of 60mph.
Personne explained that in the moment before the collision, he instinctively turned his skis sideways to avoid hitting Heib’s head with the ski tips. Both racer and coach were severely injured. Personne, a good friend of Heib’s, broke his femur and dislocated his hip and Heib sustained a horrific impact to the left side of his skull. Heib’s heart stopped beating and instinctively, one of the other coaches began performing CPR which saved Heib’s life.
Heib was transported to the Washoe Medical Center in nearby Reno, Nevada, and spent the next month in an unconscious state. When he exited the comma, he couldn’t speak or walk. The severe brain injury left him completely paralyzed on the right side of his body. He was then airlifted to the Craig Hospital in Denver, Colorado, which specializes in head and spinal rehabilitation. During the following 16 months, Heib demonstrated the same absolute intensity that he always expected of his skiers. At first, he had to relearn how to move each finger individually, and then, 105 days after being admitted, Heib walked out of the hospital.
Walking out of a hospital and resuming the life as an accomplished athlete and a high level coach are several planets apart. Heib was only 29 and now he had to face the challenges of continuous rehabilitation, securing a livelihood and pursuing the improbable dream of perhaps one day finding his way back to coaching.
In 1979, the University of Vermont’s Chip LaCasse hired Heib as the Men’s Alpine Ski Coach. What appeared to be an improbable leap of faith by LaCasse and UVM to hire Heib, eventually turned into a real-life fairytale.
When Heib arrived in Burlington, two accomplished UVM skiers, John Teague and Chris Mikell, were buoyed over the thought that they would once again work with their beloved coach who had nurtured them when they attended Burke Mountain Academy. However, they also recognized that he was not the same Coach they once knew.
Instinctively, Teague, Mikell and the rest of the team understood that this would only work if they all pulled together to help each other. Heib was finally back in the coaching game and while he had many physical limitations, he never lost his ability to organize, work with ski manufacturers and to inspire and motivate others.
Whenever the team trained and travelled, Teague remembers that there was always one team member assigned to stay vigilant up in the passenger seat whenever Marty drove the team van. Everyone pitched in, everyone helped Marty return to become the best coach that he could be.
At the 1980 NCAA championships in Lake Placid, New York, UVM Nordic skiers under Perry Bland took an unexpected early lead. At the time, UVM had never won any national skiing championships — or any national championships in any sport for that matter. When Heib and his Alpine skiers were handed over the responsibility of preserving a respectable finish for the Catamounts, they did the unthinkable.
“We crushed it; we absolutely crushed it,” remembers Teague. “Tor (Melander), Chris (Mikell), Scott (Light), Dave (Bean), and I blew away the rest of the NCAA field.”
After UVM won the 1980 NCAA Division I Skiing Championships, Kay Rockwell, an editor from King Prussia, Pennsylvania, wrote”
“Marty Heib’s remarkable progress toward full recovery has continued in his few months at the University of Vermont. That progress and the ideals from which it evolves, has become a sterling example behind college athletics. The UVM Ski Team dedicates its participation in the 1980 NCAA Skiing Championships to Marty Heib and to his philosophy of motivation and determination, the product we have observed for ourselves.”
Heib continued coaching at UVM and in 1986, he earned a Masters in Education from the University. He went on to become the Headmaster at the Waterville Valley Academy in New Hampshire in 1987 and for the rest of his life, Heib continued to inspire and motivate athletes and everyone he ever met.
The entire skiing community was deeply saddened by Marty’s unexpected death in early October of 2018. At the time of his death, he was the Director of Rental Operations at the Catamount Ski Area in South Egremont, Massachusetts. Marty leaves behind his wife Meg, Evan and Adelle Heib of Rye Brook, New York, and a brother, Dan Heib, in Victor, New York.
A “Celebration of Marty Heib’s Life” will begin at noon at the Warfield House Inn in Charlemont, Massachusetts, on Saturday, November 17, 2018.