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FOOTLOOSE FOOTWEAR WALKS ALL OVER THE COMPETITION

Mark Thatcher of Flagstaff, Ariz., doesn't live far from the Four Corners homeland of the Anasazi people, but the 1,000-year gap between their time and his would probably be a conversation killer if a lost tribe were to turn up today.

Unless, of course, somebody mentioned sandals. In that event, they'd have so much to talk about they probably wouldn't break for lunch.The Anasazi were among the premier sandalmakers of North America in their day - 1 A.D. to 1300 A.D. - and if you doubt that, you should check out the exhibit of some 800 examples of Anasazi footwear now on display at the Utah Museum of Natural History.

The exhibit, "Treading in the Past: Sandals of the Anasazi," opened April 22 and will run through Oct. 22, along with a variety of lectures, workshops and classes in the technique of weaving yucca fibers into footwear.

If that sounds like too much work, you can do what millions of other modern sandal wearers have done: Go to the store and buy some ready-made Tevas.

Tevas? That's where Thatcher comes in. He owns what is probably the only sandal company in America whose name has become a household word.

A brief history of Tevas: A decade ago, Thatcher was working as a raft guide on the Colorado River - a job that guarantees perpetual wet feet.

Back then, white-water rafters basically had three choices in footwear:

1. Go barefoot, which could be painful;

2. Wear tennis shoes, but they quickly became waterlogged and trapped gravel inside;

3. Wear thongs (a.k.a. flip-flops, shower shoes) that were constantly falling off and floating downstream.

There must be a better way, said Thatcher. In the tradition of all great inventors and entrepreneurs, he went to work on the problem and Voila! (or maybe Eureka!) the Teva Sport Sandal was born.

Last week, Thatcher was in Salt Lake City as a corporate donor to the museum exhibit and to check out the Anasazi precursors to Tevas.

Thatcher says Teva is an ancient Hebrew word for "nature" and is pronounced "Teh-vah" not "Teeva." But he allows that you can pronounce it any way you want, especially if you buy a pair.

In 1983, Mark went to work marketing his new product to river guides out of the trunk of his car. When one day he spied them on the feet of some trendy types who were definitely not river guides, it struck him that maybe Tevas weren't just utility items, maybe they had become fashionable.

In 1983, Thatcher applied for a patent and copyright on the design and name, and in 1985 signed a licensing agreement with Deckers Outdoor Corp., Carpinteria, Calif., to manufacture and distribute them. In 1991, he renewed their long-term agreement.

By 1992, it was official, Tevas had become hugely popular, and the icing one the cake came when the U.S. Canoe and Kayak Team adopted them for use in the Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona. Teva will continue as a sponsor of the team in 1996 in Atlanta.

More icing on the cake: Meryl Streep wears them in her film "The River Wild," and Wesley Snipes and Gary Busey are Teva-shod in "Drop Zone."

Meanwhile, regular folks keep sending photos to Mark showing them hiking, biking, climbing, cliff-jumping (whatever that is) and sky diving in their Tevas.

Tevas aren't yet as popular as Nikes and Reeboks, of course, but Thatcher is working on it. From sales of 200 pairs his first year, about 3 million pairs of Tevas will go out the doors of retail stores this year - around $100 million gross wholesale. That's a lot of yucca.

Just kidding. Tevas aren't really made of yucca, they're made of cellular rubber, compression molded EVA, rigid pebax, encapsulated gel and lots of other high-tech stuff that is as big a mystery to me as it was to the Anasazi. The latest catalog offers some 90 models, styles and colors, including the new SandalBoot so you can wear your Tevas in the snow.

Incidentally, if it sounds like it was just one smooth raft ride from the moment that Mark conceived of making a waterproof sandal until he made his first million, forget it.

There have been all kinds of legal hassles (17 patent and trademark infringement lawsuits in all) that are too complex to go into here. Besides, Mark has no doubt his proprietary product will prevail over knockoffs and competitors, and he has the sales figures to prove it.

"A lot of people have speculated that this whole thing is a fad, but I don't think so. I like to say `Free your feet and your mind will follow.' How can that go out of style?"