Howard Peterson, visionary in establishing a legacy for Utah’s Olympic venues, has died

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Howard Peterson poses for a portrait at Soldier Hollow Lodge Tuesday June 10, 2014. The former U.S. Ski Association director and founder of the Soldier Hollow Legacy Foundation died Monday, May 11, 2020, in Heber City. He was 69.

During a meeting that went late into the night, Howard Peterson lobbied the United States Olympic Committee to select Salt Lake City as its bid site for the 1998 Winter Olympics. Peterson stressed that the U.S.’s pick should be a place willing to build training venues for athletes that would see use long after the games. It was a hard sell. Anchorage, Alaska, had been the USOC’s pick for the past two Games, and it was seen as a strong favorite to win the bid again.

On the strength of two votes on a second-round ballot, though, Peterson’s persistence paid off. Salt Lake City earned the USOC’s favor for the next two cycles, ultimately hosting the 2002 Games and changing the identity of the state forever.

Peterson, who played a pivotal role in bringing the Olympics to Utah and to making the state a hotbed for world-class skiers, died Monday in Heber City after a prolonged illness. He was 69.

“He was one of those guys who was always looking ahead. He was always thinking about where the next opportunity would be and where the environment around him was going, whether it was the political or the sport environment,” said Luke Bodensteiner, chief of sport development for the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation and general manager of the Soldier Hollow Nordic Center. “He had a lot of long-term vision and was unbelievably patient. He had ideas and sometimes would sit on them for years, waiting for the opportunity to present them.

“He wasn’t the kind of person to really rock the boat, but he found a way to create a lot of change.”

A native of Maine, Peterson came to Utah in 1981 when Park City Ski Area owner Nick Badami picked him to run the U.S. Ski Association. He expanded the USSA to include a national team for adaptive skiing and helped shepherd the now immensely popular discipline of freestyle skiing to the Olympics. He also orchestrated the relocation of U.S. Ski & Snowboard to Park City from Colorado Springs, Colo., in 1988 after reuniting the national team with the USSA.

(Photo courtesy of Tom Kelly) Howard Peterson, center, is flanked by Luke Bodensteiner, left, and Tom Kelly. A former U.S. Ski Association director and founder of the Soldier Hollow Legacy Foundation, Peterson died Monday, May 11, 2020 at age 69.

Still, Peterson may have best been known for his influence on Soldier Hollow. Adhering to the principals he pitched to the USOC on that night in 1989 in Des Moines, Iowa, he ensured the facility would remain active even after the 2002 Games were done.

In 1997, three years into his retirement from the USSA, Peterson was asked to join the Soldier Hollow Legacy Committee. He became the executive director of the group, which was tabbed to build a world-class cross country center at the site. In a widely lauded Olympics, Soldier Hollow emerged as one of the stars. Nevertheless, it was not originally included among the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation venues, which are funded through a $76 million endowment left by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.

So, Peterson established the Soldier Hollow Legacy Foundation.

“The Soldier Hollow Legacy Foundation’s genesis was Howard Peterson’s genius,” Lyle Nelson, a four-time Olympic biathlete and original Soldier Hollow committee member, told former USSA communications manager Tom Kelly in an article about Peterson’s retirement from the foundation in 2014. “Howard guided every step in creating the foundation. He envisioned and believed in what Soldier Hollow could be post-Olympics. His conviction in that vision pulled in resources to make it happen.”

As promised, Peterson made Soldier Hollow an elite Nordic skiing training ground. In addition, he created youth programs and tubing hills. To keep the facility in the black, he got creative, bringing in obstacle races, the Soldier Hollow Pow Wow and the Sheepdog Classic. His events, Kelly said, brought millions of dollars into Wasatch County.

In 2016, Soldier Hollow was added to the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation.

(Photo courtesy of Tom Kelly) Howard Peterson, center, stands amidst the U.S. national alpine ski team in this file photo from the early 1990s. A former U.S. Ski Association director and founder of the Soldier Hollow Legacy Foundation, Peterson died Monday, May 11, 2020 at age 69.

Kelly, who worked with him for more than a decade, said Peterson’s central objective was to give athletes a voice. Peterson championed athletes’ rights and advocated for them to receive more sponsorship opportunities.

“Howard has helped produce some Olympians in the Wasatch Valley,” former state Rep. David Ure said during Peterson’s retirement ceremony in 2014. “But his greatest contribution is that Howard tried for the last 30 years to make the Olympics more athlete-oriented.”

"He helped make the Olympics more respectable,” he added. “He's made the Games more pure.”

Peterson is preceded in death by his wife, Susan. Also a strong Soldier Hollow proponent, she died in 2016. Kelly said a celebration of life will be planned at Soldier Hollow when the timing is appropriate.