2002 Olympic freestyle ski coach Diana Williams dies at 56

(Photo courtesy of Alex Gambal) From left, Ellen Shields, Bruce Williams and Diana Williams this past February at Jackson Hole.

Diana “Dee” Williams saw something in Matt Gnoza’s blind spot.

After a year on the freestyle ski team at Killington Mountain School in Vermont, Gnoza thought it was obvious that he wasn’t cut out to be an athlete. He saw no future in the sport. It took considerable coaxing by Williams to convince him otherwise.

“The athletes that she worked with, she made lifelong impressions on these athletes, whether they turned out to be Olympic athletes or just happily did a little stint in the sport of freestyle mogul skiing,” said Gnoza, who is now the head moguls coach for the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association. “Many of them went on to be very successful people in the world.”

Williams, a cornerstone of freestyle skiing in the United States and a mentor to numerous coaches and athletes, died of complications from colon cancer in June. She was 56.

As an athlete, Williams found some success on the upstart FIS World Cup circuit. From 1982-84, she recorded 18 top-10 finishes while competing in all three disciplines: acro, aerials and moguls. She punctuated her career with a bronze-medal performance in the combined at her final World Cup, in Breckenridge, Colo., in January 1984, two years before the sport’s first World Championship.

Williams’ greatest impact on freestyle skiing, however, was made as a coach.

(Photo courtesy of Alex Gambal) Diana "Dee" Williams was a member of the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team from 1982-84 and head coach of the team from 1998-2002.

“Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you can coach it,” Park Smalley, the first U.S. Freestyle Ski Team coach, said of his former athlete. “She could do it and she was able to get her athletes to perform at their highest level. She helped so many people along the way.”

Williams reignited the freestyle ski program at her home resort of Killington, where she served as the program director from 1988-98. While there, she not only saw promise in Gnoza as a coach, but nurtured the careers of future Olympians Evan Dyvbig (1998, ’02), Alex Wilson (1998) and Hannah Hardaway (2002).

From 1998-2002, she worked as the coach of the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team headquartered in Park City. She was named U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s International Coach of the Year in 2000.

“She was a beautiful person inside and out, classy and very organized in a sport that can be quite hip and wild,” said Donna Weinbrecht, the first Olympic gold medalist in moguls, who trained under Williams at national team training camps. “She was very, very grounding.”

Under Williams, the U.S. Freestyle team claimed three medals at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, the most of any country in the discipline. Shannon Bahrke and Travis Mayer each won silver in moguls, Williams’ specialty, and Joe Pack took silver in aerials.

Williams retired after the 2002 Olympics. She married winemaker Alex Gambal in 2007 and in 2009 started Hidden France, a boutique travel and tour service. The two split their time between Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Orches, Burgundy, France, where she would often host dinner parties for her former skiers.

“She never had children of her own,” Weinbrecht said, “but she had many, many ‘children.’”

Williams was diagnosed with colon cancer two years before she died at her home in Jackson Hole. A remembrance is planned for Sept. 19 at the Old Wilson Schoolhouse near Jackson Hole. It will be broadcast over Zoom.

Weinbrecht said a celebration of life and perhaps a more ongoing way of honoring Williams is being planned in Killington. Gambal is also establishing a fund in her name to assist promising young skiers on their path to skiing at the international level.