Marolt’s Midas Touch
By Tori Peglar
Eighteen years ago, Bill Marolt found himself in Zermatt, Switzerland, watching 13-year-olds Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso ski with the United States Olympic training program.
Marolt—then the new CEO of the United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA)—was amazed by their talent. “I thought, ‘The only way these girls were not going to do well was if we screwed it up,’” Marolt says, laughing.
Today, Vonn and Mancuso are two of the world’s best skiers, and some of their success is owed to Marolt, who spent 18 years at the USSA, quietly but boldly retooling the organization with a singular focus: elevating the U.S. Olympic skiing and riding program to be the best in the world. It was a goal naysayers thought unattainable. Yet, of the 95 Olympic medals American skiers and riders have won, an astounding 70 were won under Marolt’s leadership.
And that’s not all. Marolt, who retired last year, spent his career bouncing between the USSA in Park City, Utah, and the University of Colorado in Boulder, leaving behind a seemingly impossible string of victories.
There were the 1983 World Cup titles won by Phil Mahre and Tamara McKinney, the first ever won by Americans, when Marolt served as the Olympic team’s alpine program director. There was the 1990 CU football national championship clinched while Marolt was CU athletic director. There was the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, where U.S. skiers and riders won more medals than any other country for the first time in Olympic history, with Marolt as the USSA’s CEO.
“It’s the message you send—what is acceptable in terms of performance and commitment,” says Marolt, who is disarmingly humble. “When I took over USSA, I said we were going to win more medals than anyone in the world. You instill that in your athletes, coaches, trainers and staff. And you need to know who you are, where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.”
Marolt credits his strategic mindset, in part, to his ski coaches who demanded performance. In Aspen’s early days, before Gucci arrived on South Galena Street and the Silver Queen Gondola carried skiers to 11,212 feet, Aspen native Marolt started skiing as soon as he could walk. Racing became a way of life.
At age 20, he competed in the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, with teammates Billy Kidd and Jimmie Heuga, both of whom became the first American men to win Olympic medals in alpine skiing.
While at CU, Marolt won three NCAA championships—the 1963 downhill race, 1964 slalom and 1965 giant slalom. After his 1963 victory in Alaska, he hitched a ride home with fellow student Connie Parfet, who drove her Pontiac station wagon onto Stapleton Airport’s tarmac to pick up the team. The two have been married for 49 years.
“I think he is a natural-born leader, which is really rare,” Connie Marolt says. “People look at Bill, and they trust him. He has a way of doing things where he never asks of people what he wouldn’t do himself.”
After he graduated, Marolt coached the Buffs to seven consecutive national ski championships, a university record only surpassed by head ski coach Richard Rokos in 2015.
‘I’m a Fixer’
But Marolt’s most public role was as CU-Boulder athletic director. When he took the job in 1984, coach Bill McCartney’s football team was 1-7, following two unremarkable seasons. Sensing the program needed continuity, he made the unpopular and risky decision to extend McCartney’s contract.
“That was one of the most critical of all decisions I made as AD,” Marolt says. “The next season we were 7-5, and it might still be the biggest turnaround in the history of the program.”
The team won three consecutive Big 8 Conference titles and the 1990 national championship. In 1990, the men’s basketball team reached the NIT Final Four, the ski team won its 14th national championship and Dal Ward Athletic Center opened. Even today, strangers often approach Marolt to thank him for that golden era of CU athletics.
But Marolt also cared about small victories, like empowering a basketball player contemplating transferring. “Bill had me bring [the player] to his office,” recalls David Plati, associate athletic director. “I watched Bill turn into a combination father/authority figure and convince him the right thing to do was to work through everything and remain a Buff. And he did.”
In 1996, Marolt left CU for a new challenge—to become CEO of the debt-ridden and unfocused USSA.
“I think jobs have 10-year cycles and after 10, you have to step back and ask, ‘Am I still passionate?’” he says. “I think my real skill set is I’m a fixer and can get things back on track. I was confident I could fix [the USSA].”
On his first day there, he spoke with staff about making the Olympic ski and snowboard teams the best in the world. It became an organizational mantra.
“We weren’t even in sniffing distance of that,” says Luke Bodensteiner, USSA’s executive vice president of athletics. “He came in like a lightning bolt and was super focused. It was really empowering. He always asked, ‘Is this going to make us the best in the world?’”
At the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, the U.S. earned a record 10 medals, followed by 10 at the 2006 Torino Games where a rebellious Bode Miller imploded, going 0 for 5 in alpine events.
At the 2010 Vancouver Games, the team won a record 21 medals, more than any other country. In Sochi, the team received 17 medals, second to Russia in overall medals.
“You are always teetering on the edge of success and failure,” Marolt says. “When you have success over a long time, you can start to lose your focus. You have to stay focused, and always keep your eye on the prize.”
Tori Peglar, a freelance writer, is founder of Ideologie Lab, a content and marketing company.