Apr 29

Active Retirement: Keeping Up with Kittleson

by Brett French

Warning: Trying to keep up with Gary Kittelson is difficult. Even though he’s 74 years old, the Billings retiree is a competitive ski racer, enthusiastic and dedicated windsurfer, a bow and long-range rifle hunter as well as a diversified angler who utilizes fly, spinning and spey rods. Over the course of the year, he has a schedule lined out for each activity

“So I always say I have the perfect life and the perfect wife who lets me do it,” he said while riding up the Willow Creek chairlift at Red Lodge Mountain Resort in March. He and his wife, Nancy, a retired emergency room nurse, have been married for almost 50 years.

“I’ve been pretty lucky. Everything I’ve done I’ve really enjoyed.”

Kittelson was born in Billings, but his parents moved to Kalispell when he was in the third grade to run the Mountain View Tavern. It was growing up in Kalispell where he first learned to ski when he was 9 years old and then raced in high school.

After graduating from high school, Kittelson returned to Billings to attend Eastern Montana College, now Montana State University Billings. He remembers skiing the first day that Red Lodge Mountain, then called Grizzly Peak, opened in 1960.

“We didn’t have much racing here because we didn’t have a coach,” he recalled.

Ten years ago Kittelson retired after working as a sales manager at two Billings car dealerships, giving him more time to play. Although he raised his five children to ski, and he competed in Red Lodge Mountain’s Town Series races, Kittelson said it wasn’t until last year when Lisa Densmore began coaching the Masters ski racing program that he really became enthusiastic about the sport again.

“I would have quit skiing if it wasn’t for racing,” Kittelson said. “I’ve only been on my other skis one time this year.”

Densmore said Kittelson was one of the first people to sign up for the Masters program at Red Lodge. It’s an activity he’s fully embraced. In his red and black striped Lycra racing suit, he aggressively turns his skis while speeding downhill, carving wide powerful arcs. While riding up the chair lift he is jovial, taunting fellow skiers passing below while exuding a restless enthusiasm to once again be on the move.

“He is still an incredible athlete and has such a go-for-it attitude,” Densmore said. “I would say he’s a real anchor of the program. He’s always at training, and he keeps on going, which is really impressive for an athlete of his age.”

Kittelson’s race times prove that he’s not messing around. He typically beats local skiers in his age group by 30 seconds. In March, he won his division in the annual White Stag giant slalom race at Red Lodge. In a recent Masters race in Idaho he placed third, but the skiers who beat him included a two-time Olympic downhill ski racer and a Masters national champion in the United States and Norway.

“Most of the guys are ex-racers from college, some are ex-Olympians and then there are those of us trying to catch them,” Kittelson said and laughed.

After learning to ski in leather boots on wooden skis in a manner popularized by Stein Eriksen – skis together and shoulders counterrotated – Kittelson has had to relearn the sport about four times as gear and technique has advanced. Along the way he’s broken his leg three times. “Trying to learn the technique is like the old dog learning a new trick, it’s harder for us to learn,” he said, acknowledging that like the old Wide World of Sports phrase, he has experienced the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

A good sense of humor and a tendency to play hard are attributes many of Kittelson’s friends and acquaintances mention when asked about him.

Densmore, who has gone fly fishing with Kittelson on the Bighorn River, said the man is always upbeat.

“He approaches fishing with the same joie de vivre, it exudes from him no matter what he’s doing outdoors,” she said.

His friend, George Andrikopoulos, agreed. “He’s happy go lucky and will do anything at the drop of a hat,” he said.

Andrikopoulos recalled a windsurfing trip he took with Kittelson years ago in Wyoming. Andrikopoulos had carefully packed a cooler for his meals, but when he picked up Kittelson he looked “befuddled” when asked where his food was. Walking into his kitchen, Kittelson grabbed half a loaf of bread and a half-empty jar of peanut butter.

“And that’s what he ate the whole weekend,” Andrikopoulos said. “He didn’t care.”

There can also be an edge to Kittelson’s raucous enjoyment.

“He’s extremely competitive in whatever he does, no matter if it’s skiing, fishing or mountain biking,” Andrikopoulos said.

Andrikopoulos met Kittelson in 1983 when he employed him as a car salesman. “As soon as he hired me we started talking about skiing, then we became fast friends and started skiing together a lot,” Andrikopoulos said.

Not long afterward, Kittelson took up the emerging sport of windsurfing, practicing on Lake Elmo in the Billings Heights. At first he found the boards clunky and difficult to maneuver. Then he discovered smaller boards and his love of the sport took wing.

It wasn’t long before he began annual summer migrations to the Columbia River Gorge, which has become an international windsurfing hot spot. Every summer, beginning in early July, Kittelson packs up and moves to the gorge to spend a few months riding the river’s gusty wind currents.

“I have friends from all over the world that come there,” he said.

He said the sport has held his attention for so long because he’s continually able to improve his ability, “which is conducive to liking it.”

In the past couple of years, Andrikopoulos said his friend has groused about slowing down. Although he can still clip along at 40 mph while windsurfing, he now takes naps in the middle of the day to refresh himself, a ritual that prompts ribbings from his younger windsurfing mates.

“I tell the young guys who give me a hard time that before I take the long dirt nap, I have to practice,” he said and laughed.

Like his zestful living of life to its fullest, Kittelson vows not to leave this earth quietly. He said he used to have a tree picked out on Red Lodge Mountain that he planned to ski into at “Mach 10” rather than ever enter a nursing home. But this summer the ski area cut down the tree. “Now I’ve got to find a new one.”

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