The January 31, 1955 cover of Sports Illustrated featured a fresh-faced young skier, blonde curls falling languidly over her sun-and-snow tanned forehead, blue eyes meeting the photographer’s lens with a seriousness that belied her exuberant personality.
Her name was Jill Kinmont, and at 18, she was the national slalom champ and a likely medal contender in the 1956 Olympics.
The day before the magazine came out — 65 years ago today — Kinmont was hurtling down the giant slalom course at the prestigious Snow Cup in Utah, an Olympic qualifier, when she ricocheted off an icy bump.
“Miss Kinmont hit the bump, lost her balance in midair, fell backward, landed on her head, bounced forward and cartwheeled 50 feet down the slope into a bystander,” The Milwaukee Journal reported. “Then she and the spectator rolled another 50 feet in a tangle of skis, poles, arms and legs.”
Kinmont recalled the accident in a 1964 interview with Life magazine. “I came into this spot and it was so steep that it threw me back up into the air. What I remember was straining like mad to keep from crashing into the trees.
“In the middle of the tumbling, all of a sudden there was sort of a vibration — no sound, something within that I could feel, something very odd. When I finally stopped rolling, I couldn’t feel anything. I thought maybe it’s the way you died.”
Kinmont was one of four skiers injured that day on the wickedly fast and windy course, but she was the only one who would never walk — let alone ski –again. The teenager whose athletic beauty would grace newsstands a day later was a quadriplegic, her neck broken and her spinal cord badly damaged. She spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair.
It seemed a particularly cruel blow, but life was not through with Jill Kinmont. Less than three years later, her fiance, daredevil skier Dick “Mad Dog” Buek, was killed when his small plane crashed. A close college friend and mentor died of polio complications just a few years after he and Kinmont met. In 1964, an earlier boyfriend, skier Buddy Werner, died in an avalanche.
It was the stuff of movies — really sad movies — and indeed, Kinmont’s story endures in part because of a 1975 film, The Other Side of the Mountain.
Critics derided the movie as overly sentimental, but it is hard not to be touched by Kinmont’s indomitable spirit. After graduating from UCLA, she was refused admission to the university’s School of Education because it regarded her as “unemployable.” Undaunted, she earned her teaching credentials at the University of Washington — and then, as she told the Los Angeles Times in 1968, struggled to find work:
“A Los Angeles school district physician kept saying: ‘What a tragedy. A young girl, cut down in the bloom of youth.’ All that,” Kinmont said. “I told her, ‘That’s nothing. The only tragedy is if you won’t hire me because of this injury.’ ”
Kinmont eventually taught for many years, giving much of her energy to Native American children and those with physical and mental disabilities. After retiring, she became an accomplished painter, using a hand brace in tandem with her neck and shoulder muscles.
Self-pity was not in Jill Kinmont’s lexicon, and she regarded the pity of others as “their problem.”
“I’ve always believed that you don’t whine, you don’t bitch,” she told Life in 1964. “Sure, I’d rather not be in a wheelchair, for the sake of a lot of people involved. But I don’t think I’ve been gypped.”
She did not linger in the past, nor in the province of what ifs. “I certainly can’t live on being Jill Kinmont, champion skier,” she told Life. “But I want to be somebody again. It’s possible. So, why not?”
That was the Jill Kinmont others knew: upbeat and determined to “look for what’s good that’s left,” as she told the Times. Not even John Boothe, the trucker to whom Kinmont was married from 1976 until her death in 2012, can know what private darkness she endured, how she navigated the hushed and ragged contours of the despair she must have sometimes felt. No one can know how Jill Kinmont reconciled her disparate lives: that of the Sports Illustrated cover girl with a snow-capped world unfolding beneath her, and that of the paralyzed daughter, teacher, artist and wife.
Had she not crashed on that icy slope in Alta, she would almost certainly have been an Olympian, and likely a medalist. She might have had a long and illustrious career as a skier — and then disappeared into the relative obscurity of athletes from another age.
Instead, we remember Jill Kinmont still, as a profile in courage. Not just as a glorious young skier stripped in one horrific instant of so much promise, but as a woman who year after year refused to give up on another promise, the one she made to herself: to become somebody again.