Friday, February 13, 2015

In remembrance: Jack Owen

Last night I talked to my dad as he was on his way to pay his last respects to Jack Owen. Jack was one of the greatest generation. He was instrumental to putting U.S. skiing on the map. Here is the letter I received from my dad today, the day Jack passed away. You will be missed -- and missed dearly.

February 13, 2015

Jack Owen, one of the Pacific Northwest’s preeminent and pioneering ski coaches passed peacefully last night at the age of 95.  A lifelong and accomplished outdoorsman, Jack discovered Nordic skiing in the mid-1960’s when his five children joined Herb Thomas’ fledgling Wenatchee Ski Club. 
Prior to that discovery, Jack had been a standout high school basketball player.  His father’s Granite Falls, Washington sawmill provided cedar stock to George Pocock’s, and Jack struck up a friendship with Pocock in the course of making deliveries to Pocock’s Boatworks.  Some Owen lumber may have accompanied the Boys in the Boat to Berlin.  If so, it would not be Jack’s sole brush with the Olympic Games.

Following high school, Jack and his family homesteaded on Kodiak Island, and Jack’s first career was as a tug boat captain working in the Gulf of Alaska.  Jack enlisted during the second World War, was trained as a weatherman, and scrambled up a Normandy Beach on D-day.  Following the war he used the GI bill to attend Montana State University where he earned a degree in electrical engineering.

Following graduation, Jack began working as a engineer for Alcoa.  He was eventually transferred to the Alcoa plant in Wenatchee, Washington; a community that meshed perfectly with Jack’s interests in family, the outdoors, and career.

Jack took over head coaching for the Wenatchee ski team in 1967.  Both he and Herb Thomas had been years ahead of Title 9; and believed that females could equally train, compete, and enjoy endurance sports.  This was a time when the US did not have a women’s ski team; when women were barred from the Boston Marathon, and when the longest track event for women at the 1968 Mexico Games was the 800 meters.   

Jack was all in as a coach, and like Arthur Lydiard, made sure to trial his training ideas and concepts on himself first.  He possessed an analytic, engineering orientation; and became a student of great classic ski technique.  It was ultimately evidenced in his skiers.  There is a ski technique bible in Norway that devotes a chapter to the classic technique of Jack’s daughter Alison.

Jack was the sort of coach who reached out to other disciplines.  He developed a friendship with legendary University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman.  The two shared a passion for fly fishing, and shared coaching ideas and perspectives while bringing trout to fly on the McKenzie River below Bowerman’s home.

Female Swedish and West German ski champions made a point of stopping in East Wenatchee while touring North America.  Those were wonderful opportunities for stars and up-and-comers alike. The porch light was always on for nordic skiers at Jack and his wife Bess’ home.

In 1966, Jack’s 13 year old daughter Alison broke the gender barrier at the Junior Nationals in Winter Park, Colorado.  She had qualified for the PNSA boy’s team, and raced in the boy’s class.  The organizers made precautionary provisions, with an ambulance standing by.  Alison showed them something, and the next year females were welcomed and had their own races.

There was a time in the mid-1970’s when half the U.S. women’s team came from a one block radius in East Wenatchee.  The five neighborhood girls were Alison and Sally Owen, Tammy and Tracy Valentine, and Joanne Musolf.  The latter four finished 2 – 5 at the 1974 Junior Nationals in Steamboat Springs.  Not surprisingly, they also won the relay by a wide margin.

A number of Jack’s skiers went on to NCAA and international success.  Alison was the most notable, winning World Cups and finishing second at Holmenkollen.  Perhaps more telling is the profound respect and connection they have maintained with their old coach, and with one another.

Jack retired from ski coaching in 1982.  A number of his former charges followed him into coaching, and remain active role models today.  Having caught the endurance bug as a coach, Jack indulged it after his retirement from Alcoa, also in 1982.  

He became an accomplished road cyclist.  Coming down a generation in age group, he and Muffy Ritz were a formidable tandem team at the Master’s nationals.  Devoted to his custom made Davidson road bike, Jack would allow himself a replacement every 70,000 miles.

Jack lived independently into his 95th year.  He followed his beloved Seahawks from his apartment to SuperBowl 49.  He had the good sense to fall asleep for their 4th quarter demise.

Jack is survived by his five children, and host of admirers.