A SKIER NAMED KENNEDY: ROBERT F. KENNEDY JR

ROBERT F. KENNEDY JR. WAGES BATTLES UPHILL TO KEEP SLIDING DOWNHILL

Robert F. Kennedy Jr – Whoa: Is the racer on the red course hauling ass or what? Bending low over custom boards, the speed merchant aims directly at gates before shrugging last-second, infinitesimal turns around them.

A-skiier-named-Kennedy1For a 61 year – old, he appears remarkably fit and limber. If the Deer Valley Celebrity Skifest exists more for fun than for competition, this guy didn’t get the memo. Racing fourth on Steve Mahre’s team, he has absolutely blistered the slalom. Tommy Moe, Giancarlo Esposito, and J.B. Smoove should be worried.

“You could say skiing is in my blood.” —RFK Jr.

The racer charges across the finish line. He doffs goggles and flashes a toothy grin. He looks familiar, and for good reason: The racer is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (or, as the start-list calls him, “Bobby”). More handsome in person than in photos, he bears a startling resemblance to his patrician, chiseled father.

Though hospitality-tent delicacies beckon, Kennedy remains near the finish, standing as tall and regal as one can in severe plastic race boots while greeting well-wishers, sponsors, and other brandishers of VIP lanyards. DVCS is the principal fundraising event for Kennedy’s Waterkeeper Alliance, which supports swimmable, fishable, drinkable waterways worldwide. The frozen dendrites of the Wasatch have hosted DVCS for 23 years now. The event, which is televised nationally by CBS, has blended skiers and celebrities for such a long time it may well have fostered the term “ski-lebrity.”

The next racer trips the wand and Bobby cranes to watch. As he squints into the sun, Redford-like wrinkles frame blue eyes for which the only accurate adjective is “dreamy.” He turns back to his conversation, smoothly resuming an appreciation for Deer Valley’s green initiatives. Bobby emanates charisma like no one I know, and he’s not even talking to me. (For the record: I’m many yards away, exploring hospitality-tent delicacies.)

Through Kennedy’s charismatic, passionate advocacy, Water keeper has sprouted 250 grass roots chapters tackling local water issues on every continent except Antarctica. While it fights pollution as well as any green movement, Kennedy knows Waterkeeper is still getting its ass kicked. While riding a Deer Valley chairlift after the race, he bemoans Earth’s sickening loss of sun-reflecting ice-sheets. “It’s scary what’s happening in Glacier National Park,” he frowns. There were 121 glaciers there when the park opened; now there are only 14.”

A-skiier-named-Kennedy2Snowpacks matter deeply to Kennedy. They always have. “You could say skiing is in my blood,” he says. “My parents actually met on a ski trip to Mont Tremblant in Quebec.” Ethel and Robert Francis Kennedy Sr. welcomed Bobby Jr. to the world in 1954—and 10 more children afterward. Were they birthing a political dynasty? Or their very own World Cup team? Given the family’s origin story, it’s no wonder what recreation the Kennedys pursued. “All of us kids were on skis by age 5,” he recalls. “In my case, that meant wooden skis with cable bindings. I feel sorry for my mom: Imagine removing nine pairs of leather boots and unlacing all those laces!”

From their Massachusetts home, the Kennedy clan took short trips to Stowe and long trips to Idaho. “I skied at Sun Valley with Stein Eriksen every winter from 1963 to 1968. I raced a bit in high school, even trained at Mt. Hood for a summer or two,” Kennedy says. “I skied a lot with [noted racer] Jimmie Heuga there.”

He can certainly milk velocity from a fall line. Accompanied by Bobby’s son Aiden, we ski off the chair and down Birdseye, a groomer that gets progressively steeper as it falls. Kennedy assumes the lead; he will not be passed. With shoulders kept perpendicular to the fall line, he rockets down the hill, never across. U.S. Ski Team star Daron Rahlves once said the goal in racing is to stick your turn in just the right place at just the right time: Kennedy skis as if he knows this intuitively.

Bobby believes the first Kennedy to ski was his oldest uncle, Joseph Kennedy Jr., who was also the first family member to be groomed for the presidency. During World War II, Joseph Jr. left Harvard Law School before his final year to become a naval aviator. On his 26th combat mission in 1944, a bomb exploded prematurely, killing Joe before he could parachute to safety. What followed Joe’s passing, of course, was a boggling string of family tragedies played on the most public of stages. Indeed, “Kennedy Curse” now claims its own page on both Wikipedia and UrbanDictionary.com.

The event, which is televised nationally by CBS, has blended skiers and celebrities for such a long time it may well have fostered the term “ski-lebrity.”

Only 13 months after Lee Harvey Oswald killed Uncle Jack, Bobby joined his parents, six siblings, two cousins, and widowed aunt, Jacqueline Kennedy, for a ski trip to Aspen. The ensuing heavy press marked the first time most Americans ever heard of Aspen. While Bobby has attended Kitzbühel’s Hahnenkamm with Franz Klammer and heli-skis in British Columbia’s Purcell Mountains every winter, his family’s ski legacy largely transits among old money bastions of America’s leisure class. Deer Valley, for one. Sun Valley, for another. And of course, Aspen, where our sport most infamously tangled with the Kennedy Curse.

It was the final day of 1997. Bobby’s younger brother Michael and several relatives were in Copper Bowl, playing ski-football (without poles or helmet on an icy slope) after-hours. (Apparently, patrol sweep rules did not apply to Kennedys). A witness said Michael went out for a pass, caught the “ball” (a snow-packed water bottle) and slammed head-first into a tree. As torrents of blood saturated the snow, Michael’s friends and family knelt beside and recited the Lord’s Prayer. He died shortly thereafter.

Playing football on skis without a helmet! Michael’s death has always been viewed with moral outrage, widely judged as the height of human folly. Not really. I’m not making excuses for the Kennedys, but c’mon, it was simply a freak accident. The Kennedys knew what they were doing. Expert skiers, they had played ski-football for generations.

A-skiier-named-Kennedy3We hear so much about Kennedy Power, Kennedy Wealth, and Kennedy Tragedy that we neglect a fourth pillar: Kennedy Athleticism. The Kennedys always test their limits. They always compete. At Michael’s funeral, Bobby eulogized him thusly: “In all my life I’ve never seen anyone ski as beautifully as Michael. He had the quick feet of a professional mogul skier, and a fluid movement as I’ve ever seen on any skier. Bob Beattie, who coached the U.S. Olympic team, once said Michael was the best natural skier he had ever seen. He was completely at ease in the air and on every terrain. So many of us had the experience of holding our breath when Michael entered a glade at high velocity after a 40- or 50-foot jump, and watching relieved as he’d float out of the forest through a mogul field at impossible speed—as graceful as flowing water. He always landed on his feet. He never got hurt.”

One week later, Sonny Bono fatally skied into a tree at Heavenly. Sales of ski helmets doubled. While few skiers wore helmets before, now 60 percent of us do, including Bobby Kennedy. He still skis 30 days a year—and with enough élan to make SkiNet’s gallery of “Politicians Who Rip.”

The day we get together at Deer Valley, Kennedy shreds till closing. While he seems to enjoy himself, he realizes he’s not just here to play. “The Celebrity Skifest is fun because it’s like
a family reunion,” he says on our final lift ride. “But for me, the fundraiser always entails a bit of high anxiety. I’m nervous, wondering if the money will be there.” He notes the endless funds the Koch brothers give to deniers of climate change and the failure of Congress to pass climate change legislation. It’s a depressing situation for a rabid skier and a guardian of water health. Snow is at risk. So Bobby Kennedy Jr. fights on, waging an uphill battle to keep sliding downhill.