Prying open a door with a forceful nudge that suggested it hadn't been cracked in a while and ducking under corner-covering spider webs, Leonard Thompson was searching for a treasure from his past.
As the 85-year-old Lodi farmer crept through his sportsman gear-filled shed located in the middle of his vineyard off Davis Road, he walked past a croquet set, golf clubs and camping gear until around a dozen pairs of long and slender planks came into view.
The lifelong skier passed up the shiny Rossignols and dug out a tall pair of wooden skis with chipping green paint on the tops and scratches and gashes on the bottoms, the result of endless adventures on the slopes.
These are the treasure: These are the skis Thompson wore when he served as an official for the 1960 Winter Olympic Games at Squaw Valley.
Running his fingers over the old bindings, which Thompson says a skier would have to have a death wish to use now, his face lights up. "These are almost as old as I am. I have a lot of miles on these things," Thompson said. "These were Olympic-caliber skis back in those days."
Fifty years later, Thompson still vividly remembers being a part of the historic Games.
From farming to skiing
A Lodi native, Thompson has been farming since the 1940s. He still owns and operates L.V. Thompson Farming. When he wasn't out working, however, he spent as much time as possible on the slopes.
After picking up skiing in his late teens, Thompson had become pretty good at the sport when he read an article in the 1959 San Francisco Chronicle expressing the need for volunteers for the upcoming Olympics at Squaw Valley. Thompson, then 35, couldn't let the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity pass him by.
He signed on and headed to Squaw Valley, a resort that only had one chairlift when it received the Olympic bid in 1955 and had to completely transform to host the 1960 Games. According to Thompson, he demonstrated some basic skiing maneuvers to prove he wouldn't tumble down the mountains and then judged a few, and earned his spot as a volunteer gatekeeper for the Games' skiing events.
With a lack of snow at Squaw Valley leading up to the Olympics, everyone was concerned there wouldn't be enough powder. Then a huge Sierra storm blasted Squaw Valley, and by the time Thompson returned to the resort in February 1960 for the 10-day Olympic festival, another problem surfaced: Would the blizzard-like conditions allow for the events to be held? That's when some all-American Disney magic came in.
"I can still remember, Walt Disney put on the opening ceremonies and he said God was on his team because as soon as he got out there the skies broke open, the sun came out and it was just beautiful," Thompson said. "It was spectacular."
As one of many gatekeepers and judges, it was Thompson's job to make sure the athletes made clean runs and passed through all their gates. He was an official for the slalom, giant slalom and downhill disciplines in both the men's and women's races.
"It was a lot of fun, and that's why I did it," Thompson said. "It was a tremendous opportunity to be on the scene."
Whether it was sharing a seat on the chairlift or chatting on the slopes, Thompson was able to mingle with many of the athletes. As an official, he also wore a pass around his neck that let him into any of the other Olympic events.
One of his favorite memories was seeing the U.S. hockey team come up with one of its most historic wins, a prequel to the famous Miracle on Ice, on its way to a gold medal.
"I was right there at the rink when the Americans beat the Russians in hockey," Thompson said.
Thompson said he can still visualize many of the events and how breathtaking it was to see them in person. He especially remembers the ski jumping.
Squaw Valley Olympics at a glanceThe Winter Olympics were held at California's Squaw Valley in 1960. With the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia on Feb. 12, here is a look back at when the Winter Olympics were held in the Sierras 50 years ago.
— In 1955, Alexander Cushing helped Squaw Valley, a town with no mayor and a ski resort with just one chairlift, secure the bid to host the 1960 Winter Olympics.
— The 1960 Winter Olympics were the first Games held in the Western United States and the first to be televised.
— The Olympic Village Inn was built to house more than 750 athletes; it allowed all athletes to be housed under one roof for the first and only time in modern Olympic history.
— Computers were used to tabulate results for the first time. The glass-walled IBM processor drew almost as many observers as the competitions.
— After a virtually snowless early season, a heavy Sierra storm moved in to save the Games. At the Opening Ceremonies, dense snowfall greeted the Greek delegation as it led the athletes' procession. The storm broke and the sky cleared just as Vice President Richard Nixon declared the Games officially open. Walt Disney, head of pageantry, oversaw the release of two thousand doves into the cold air.
— CBS paid $50,000 for the right to broadcast the Games in the United States. Also, officials, unsure if a skier had missed a gate in the men's slalom, asked CBS if they could review a videotape of the race. This inspired CBS to invent "instant replay."
Source: Squaw Valley USA
"It was spectacular the way they can go down off that jump," he said. "It's amazing they don't kill themselves."
A wild ride
After the Olympics, Thompson served as an official for skiing events only a few other times in his skiing career. He continued to visit Bear Valley and even made frequent trips back to Squaw Valley to ski. He also passed on his passion for the sport to his two sons.
Having skied at Squaw Valley both before and after it hosted the Games, Thompson said the Olympics forever changed the resort. He is still in disbelief that a small resort with one chair lift in a town so small it didn't even have a mayor could have landed the bid to host the Games.
"It was really a long shot," he said. "When they put in the bid, nothing was ready. But when they got the bid, it was quite an opportunity and it really made Squaw Valley and the Sierra a winter scene. That set it off."
Skiing has changed drastically since Thompson first strapped on skis in the 1940s. Resorts are monstrous, the equipment is advanced, the skiers are faster and more adventurous and giant machines groom trails.
Thompson recalls 1,000 U.S. Marines marching on the Squaw Valley slopes, boot packing them in preparations for the Olympics.
Having been able to witness the evolution of the sport, Thompson said it was a fun ride.
"It changed a lot. It became a lot more fun as the equipment got better," he said. "The preparation on the slope got better. Nowadays when you go skiing, it is all prepared and rolled, and it wasn't always that way."
Thompson retired from skiing over a decade ago, saying, with a laugh, that he gave it up for the safety of others. He still enjoys watching the Winter Olympics and looking at the $1 Olympic Program and other souvenirs he collected from the 1960 Games.
After gazing at his skis, Thompson flung them over his shoulder and wound back through the dark and dusty shed to return them to their home. Despite their worn and outdated status, they still stand out among the closet's inhabitants, just like the Squaw Valley Winter Olympic recollections stand out a little more than anything else in Thompson's skiing memories.