A conversation with Suzy Chaffee

By Wendy Clinch •  Updated: 12/18/12 •  6 min read

Everyone has their heroes – people who’ve inspired them to take a certain path.

One of mine is Suzy Chaffee. Granted, this goes all the way back to the late 60’s, but Suzy was one of people who inspired me to take up skiing. And that’s had an incredible impact on my life.

For those of you who need reminding, Suzy was captain of the US Women’s Alpine Team in the 1968 Grenoble Olympics. A miscalculation in ski wax kept her off the podium, but her silver racing suit got the attention of the press and helped launch an astonishing career.  Although Suzy’s endorsement of ChapStick lip balm earned her the name Suzy Chapstick, her accomplishments extend way beyond just being a celebrity endorser. In addition to her participation in the Olympics, consider these:

An impressive list. But perhaps her most far-ranging achievement is her work as a champion of Title IX legislation. Suzy was instrumental in convincing federal lawmakers to enact the statute that guarantees equal opportunities for men and women in federally funded sports and education programs.

I spoke to Suzy recently from her home in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

SD: Suzy, can you tell us how you got involved as an activist for Title IX?
SC: I had a wake up call in 1964, when I was at the University of Denver. I chose Denver because it was the Rocky Mountain ski mecca, and my [future Olympian] brother, Rick, was part of their invincible ski team. His coach, Willy Schaeffler, promised me training as one of the top skiers in America. I enjoyed their dry land training, where I carried guys up the stadium steps, but when it came time for on-snow training an hour away at Evergreen Ski Area, I wasn’t allowed to ride in the team car because I didn’t have NCAA insurance. The reason: I couldn’t biologically pass the male physical. Since there were no sports scholarships for girls back then and my family couldn’t afford a car, I had to hitchhike.

In 1977, I was asked by the president of the PE Teachers of  America to help lead a march in support of Title IX in Washington, DC.  Thousands of people showed up, and it made the national news. I realized that unity brings power, so after the march I called the White House and set up a meeting with Vice President Walter Mondale. I brought in Billy Jean King and the PE teachers, who had their lawyers for Title IX, and we got the ball rolling. It was a hard fight. Around that time I was on an elevator with Walter Buyers, the head of the National Collegiate Athletic establishment, and asked him, “What would be a reasonable percentage of the men’s budget for the women since it was still one percent after five years?” And he replied, “One percent is just fine.” We got a lot of powerful legislators behind us — Ted Kennedy, for example, who worked for Title IX for almost four decades, including restoring it after President Reagan got it overturned by the Supreme Court.

SD: Why is Title IX so important?
SC: Studies have proven that investing in girls’ sports improves the health of families, delays pregnancy, reduces population, and transforms communities and countries from poverty to productivity. Title IX has also been a boon for the US sports industries — especially skiing, since moms who fall in love with skiing not only help create Olympians, but help decide where their families go on vacations.  So protecting Title IX and girls’ ski opportunities is priceless to states like Colorado, where 64,000 jobs depend on snow sports tourism.

SD: You co-founded the Native American Olympic Foundation. What is this and what does it do?
SC: Just as Title IX legislation gave women a chance, the Native American Olympic Foundation aims to give Native American youth a chance to develop their talents and compete in the Winter Olympics. According to a senate study by Olympian Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Native youth lack opportunities in sports and jobs. This contributes to the highest suicide rate of any race for the last hundred years. One  in three Native girls attempt suicide, and 1 in 4 Native boys. Snow sports build health, self-esteem, leadership skills, and lasting friendships, as well as provide greater accessibility to educational, job, and career opportunities outside the reservation. They’re also a super way to show appreciation to the Native American ancestors, who gave us the roots for eleven of our Olympic sports. Since ski lift tickets are out of reach of most tribal youth, especially girls, our foundation urges ski areas and communities across America to welcome home their nearby children with a free day of skiing and boarding on their ancestral lands.

SD: I know you also champion environmental causes. Can you tell me more about this?
SC: It’s a delicate time for our planet, and we have to do what we can to protect it. The mountains are our source of drinking water, agriculture, and food. If we keep going in our present direction, we’re going to run out of snow. And that means water. So it’s crucial that we shift funding from military defense to climate change defense. We women are the protectors of nature. We need to create a sustainable world so we can live better in the future.

SD: Tell me, do you ever get tired of the name Suzy Chapstick?
SC: No, not at all. The endorsement opened many doors for me. It was a great opportunity. In fact, when I was on the U.S. Olympic Committee board, I wrote the rule that allowed Madison Avenue to sponsor Olympic teams and individuals, which helped open the international playing field to people from all economic classes.

SD: Puerto Vallerta  seems far removed from skiing. Why are you there?
SC: Because I can see whales jumping from my terrace. It’s a slice of paradise — relaxed, friendly, and affordable.  I missed out on 16 years of vacation pouring all my resources into joyfully giving my gift back to humanity.

For more information on the Native American Olympic Foundation, go here.




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