close friend. Sabich snagged a fifth in the slalom at the Games in
Grenoble. His sole World Cup victory came two months later at
Heavenly Valley, Calif., where he nabbed the slalom win. Sabich
went on to finish eighth in the World Cup slalom standings that
year and also took home the U.S. downhill title. In 1969, he finished seventh in the World Cup slalom rankings and 11th overall.
After the 1970 season, Sabich retired from the World Cup and
joined Beattie’s new pro circuit, where he was a top racer, winning two world titles. He was 25 when he retired from World Cup
racing; had he stayed on the U.S. team, his successes may have
become increasingly impressive. In those days, World Cup racers
were unpaid amateurs, and the pro circuit offered athletes a way
to actually make a living skiing.
In a 1971 Sports Illustrated article, Sabich said: “It was such a
relief to stop racing as an amateur. I was fed up with the hypocrisy, fed up with racing against guys who made $50,000 a year,
guys who had other people to wax their edges, guys who could
go home when they were tired.” On the pro circuit, Sabich reportedly pulled in six figures a year in prize money and endorsement
deals. In November 1974, GQ featured Spider on its cover, touting him as the world’s richest racer.
Sabich also moved from Boulder to Aspen, which was ground
zero for the ski world. Racers, Hollywood stars, ski bums and
East Coast bluebloods mingled on equal footing at the Hotel Jerome. Sabich fit right in. By all accounts, he was the life of every
party. But he was also gracious and kind — he offered his time to
kids who approached him on Aspen’s Main Street. He didn’t hold
himself above the average Aspen ski bum, instead enjoying après
with large groups of “townies,” and he had gone out of his way to
help younger athletes on the U.S. team when he was still racing
for the national squad. He didn’t let fame get to his head.
Which is not to say he didn’t enjoy the perks celebrity afforded
him. The son of a World War II bomber pilot, Sabich earned his
pilot’s license and bought a small plane, which he used to ferry
himself and his entourage to his North American pro circuit races.
He cruised around Aspen in a sexy sports car. And in 1972 at
a pro-celebrity event in California, he met a doey-eyed French
songstress/actress — and former Vegas showgirl — named Clau-
dine Longet. Little did he know, his fate had taken a wrong turn.
In 1973, Sabich compressed a vertebra during the pro circuit fi-
nals on Aspen Highlands, relinquishing the title to Jean-Claude
Killy. It was the beginning of the end. He never quite recovered
from the injury, and three seasons later he retired from the pro
tour. On March 21,1976, Sabich popped into Beattie’s house after
a day on the hill. He hung around for a bit and then headed home
to change clothes for an evening out. As he was taking off his ski
gear in the bathroom of his Aspen home, Longet shot him in the
abdomen with a pistol Sabich’s brother had given him. He died on
the way to the hospital. She claimed it was an accident.
Rumors swirled: their romance had withered; he was having an
affair; she was high on cocaine. Longet got off with a laughably
lax charge of negligent homicide and was fined 30 days in jail. In
no time, Longet became the most unpopular woman in Aspen. Af-
ter the trial, she ran off to Mexico with her defense attorney, Ron
Austin, who ditched his wife and family to take up with her. Even-
tually, Longet and Austin married; today, they still live in Aspen.
Mick Jagger even wrote a song about the scandal called “Clau-
dine,” which was supposed to be released on the Stones’ 1980
“Emotional Rescue” album, but was pulled after being deemed
too controversial. Some of the lyrics: “Now only Spider knows
for sure. But he ain’t talkin’ about it any more. Is he, Claudine?
There’s blood in the chalet. And blood in the snow. Washed her
hands of the whole damn show.”
But Sabich’s legacy rises above the made-for-TV scandal. He
was a part of a critical group of athletes — Kidd, Klammer, Killy
and company — who helped popularize the sport in the U.S. In
remembering Sabich, Beattie says: “He was everything you could
want in a ski racer. He was aggressive and he went all out for the
win. He trained really hard and he had tact at all times. He was
just a terrific guy and I still miss him very much.”
Billy Kidd, who named his own son Spider after Sabich, once
said: “Nobody lived more than Spider. Nobody.”
Natalie Wood poses with
Spider Sabich, whom Robert
Redford said helped inspire
his character in “Downhill