SALT LAKE CITY — As then head of Utah State Parks, Courtland Nelson remembers feeling frustrated as he listened to Howard Peterson criticize a plan he’d laid out for how a proposed cross country ski venue for the 2002 Winter Olympics would be managed after the Games were over.
“This was before the 2002 Games when it was key to get fiscal and management commitments from both the state and special interests to keep Soldier Hollow operational into the future,” Nelson recalled. Nelson listened from the audience as Peterson argued for more control and offered “some pretty sharp criticisms of my proposal and lack of understanding of the needs for a successful Nordic venue, which was certainly true.”
Afterward, the two men “got into a shouting match.”
“Out of frustration I finally said something along the line of, ‘Howard, instead of criticizing me in front of the Legislature, my boss and our supporters, why don’t you help me and come up with a plan we can follow that will lead to success?’ And that’s exactly what he did,” Nelson said, noting Peterson’s document “served to move Soldier Hollow forward for the next 15 years during Howard’s term as executive director and visionary for Heber Valley specifically and the Wasatch Back in general.”
Nelson recalled that memory, along with a long list of ways in which Peterson solidified an Olympic legacy, in paying tribute to the creative, innovative and fierce advocate for winter sports who died on May 11 in a Heber City hospital after an extended illness. Peterson was 69.
His name is not well-known to casual winter sports fans, but those in the ski and Olympic universe understand the massive debt they owe Peterson, a Maine native who fell in love with the outdoors through climbing. It wasn’t until he joined the U.S. Ski Association staff development program in 1978 that he began to have an impact on the sport that would become one of the strongest for U.S. Olympians.
“Howard Peterson’s vision and leadership has impacted thousands of athletes, brought hundreds of thousands of visitors through the Heber Valley and generated tens of millions of dollars in economic impact to the region,” said Tom Kelly, a longtime associate and former vice president of communications for the U.S. Ski Team. “His career has touched many, from his visionary work in Olympic skiing and snowboarding, to developing a unique outdoor venue at Soldier Hollow that has become a centerpiece for tourism and community (recreation) in the Heber Valley.”
Peterson was a creative, innovative thinker who saw ways to expand athletic opportunities, while also finding ways to help Olympic sports like downhill ski racing become economically viable. Even before he took over as the director of the U.S. Ski Team in 1988, he was key in major developments in the sport, both in the U.S. and internationally.
Among the ideas he championed in the early to mid-1980s: bringing freestyle skiing into the International Ski Federation and ultimately the Olympics; elevating adaptive skiing through partnerships and expanded opportunities; initiating the Bill Koch Youth Ski League, a grassroots program that remains the backbone of youth skiing in the U.S.; forming the Great American Ski Chase, connecting the largest of the cross country ski marathons across America; and in 1988 consolidating USSA and U.S. Ski Team into one organization, despite major rifts, which helped them become one of the most successful winter sports governing bodies.
But maybe what both athletes and fans should be most grateful to Peterson for was the fact that he understood that facilities had to create and nurture Olympic dreams, as well as fulfill them. If the U.S. wanted to succeed on the world’s largest winter sports stage, it had to develop young talent, forge partnerships with private businesses and educate sports fans.
Even before the U.S. earned its Winter Games in 2002, Peterson was advocating to support a city that would commit to building an Olympic legacy. It was a concept that Salt Lake City’s bid committee fully embraced, and many believe it helped Salt Lake beat out Reno and Anchorage, and become the U.S. Olympic Committee’s official choice in 1998 and 2002.
“Many voices were involved in shaping the early ideas behind an Olympic legacy in Utah, but none was louder than Howard’s when it came to thinking about year-round athlete training in addition to hosting a three-week international event,” said Colon Hilton, president and CEO of the Olympic Legacy Foundation. “This was absolutely not the norm back in the early ‘90’s and set the stage to have Utah really advance a new pillar of the Olympic movement involving ‘legacy.’”
Hilton said this approach led to the venues being built years before the Games, and allowed U.S. and international athletes to train at the venues where the 2002 Games would be hosted. But it wasn’t just about the immediate needs of elite athletes — it was about inspiring future athletes with actual opportunities.
“Thanks to Howard’s quiet insistence and influence on others, the legacy that Salt Lake City committed to continues to thrive today,” said Luke Bodensteiner, who was an Alpine athlete during Peterson’s time leading USSA and worked closely with Peterson during the expansion at Soldier Hollow. “Those efforts have been rewarded by the tens of thousands of our youth who’ve experienced winter sport and thrived in it through our legacy venues and programs.”
Nelson, who still serves as the head of the Soldier Hollow Advisory Board, said anyone who worked with or near Peterson understood and took pride in “hard work and focus that Howard Peterson displayed as a leader.”
Peterson helped establish the Soldier Hollow Charter school in 2002, the Soldier Hollow Sheepdog Classic in 2003, and helped raise more than $1 million to build a day lodge for the site of Nordic events during the 2002 Games. He retired from his role as executive director of Soldier Hollow Legacy Foundation in 2014.
Kelly said a celebration of Peterson’s life is being planned for when group gatherings are allowed. Peterson was preceded in death by his wife, Susan Renton, who died in 2016.