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Why We Need Older Heroes

Forget the children vying for your attention; you should be getting inspiration from your seniors

Illustration of man walking
The Arrow/Courtesy Canadian Ski Marathon

Shortly after turning 55 this year, I realized all the great sports heroes of today could be my children. Not, like, my “spiritual” children. I mean my fricking chronological ones. And I’m not just talking about the Aaron Judges or the Pete Alonsos who are just now hitting their midcareer sweet spots. Had I met their mothers, even the “old men” of sport — Messi, Ronaldo, Scherzer — biologically speaking, they all could have been my spawn.

I can live with that. But the problem remains, regardless of where we are in our lives, we all need someone who is farther downfield, looking at us over their shoulders with a wink telling us, “Keep going! Believe me, the ball is still in play!”

Which is why this winter I was so thankful when I retraced the footsteps of the cross-country ski legend “Jackrabbit” Smith-Johannsen. 

Not familiar with that name? Well, saddle up, friend, because I have quite the tale to share with you.

Born in Norway in 1875, Herman Smith-Johannsen emigrated to the United States at the turn of the century. He managed to carve out a humdrum career as an engineer, living in the New York suburbs. At 55, an age when most men were retiring, he decided to make a change. He didn’t have much choice, with his savings wiped out by the Great Depression. 

He earned his “Jackrabbit” nickname because of what came next. He nearly single-handedly introduced Nordic skiing to North America. 

For the second 55 years of his life — yes, that math is correct — Smith-Johannsen did test runs in Lake Placid to figure out the best routes for the 1932 Olympics, decamped to Montreal and built ski jumps, and laid trail well into his 80s.

I decided to follow — OK, ski — in his footsteps. For four days, I skied The Jackrabbit Trail of Northern New York in zero-degree weather. Every time I hit a hill that seemed a little too steep to ascend or a little too slick to schuss down, I was reminded that the Jackrabbit had broken a similar trail out of the wilderness when he was my age.

I was reminded that he’d made the first same-day ski ascent of the state’s tallest mountain at around the same time.

At 94, he worked his way across the Atlantic on a freighter ship, splicing rope to earn his passage. He only succumbed when he caught the flu while visiting his native Norway. He died in 1987 at the age of 111 in the arms of his octogenarian son.

As I soldiered on, getting passed here and there by 20-somethings trying to do the entire 30-mile trail in a single day, I was comforted by the fact that the Jackrabbit was never big on setting records. For him, it wasn’t the miles he’d logged on skis that made him feel satisfied. What was important was just keeping himself and others going. 

Indeed, when he looked back on his long life, the only number that made him feel proud was the massive amounts of people, young and old, who had discovered cross-country skiing through his example. 

I don’t know if I’ll make it to 111. I don’t know that I want to make it to 111. But what I do know is that to keep going along the trail, I’d much rather look ahead to my elders than to the “heroes” of popular sport that are fast disappearing in my rear-view mirror. 

For that perspective, I’m endlessly grateful that the Jackrabbit crossed my path.

Follow Article Topics: Inside-Dope