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Ironman Skier Turns 80


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CARRABASSETT VALLEY, Maine Feb. 17, 2003 (AP by David Sharp)–Paul Schipper has skied through rain, ice and blizzards. He has skied through sickness, pain and injury. Whatever the cost, he has skied every single day that Sugarloaf USA has been open since 1981.

Schipper, who turns 80 this Sunday, admits it’s not always fun. But with a streak of more than 3,600 days, he’s not stopping now. So he puts on his ski boots, drives two miles to Sugarloaf and carves his way down the slope.

“I’ve always said if I quit, I’ll be sorry,” the retired airline pilot said after a run last week. “I don’t want to have any regrets.”

Schipper’s eyesight isn’t as good as it used to be. He has both glaucoma and macular degeneration and wears prescription goggles. He has slowed down a bit to avoid spills and wears a helmet.

But he’s still skiing every day. And he has no plans to stop anytime soon. His 80th birthday will be day No. 3,641.

“He’s a tough old bugger,” said Richard “Crusher” Wilkinson, vice president of mountain operations at Sugarloaf.

Wilkinson, who came to work at Sugarloaf in 1981, the year Schipper’s streak began, says his good friend is a role model because he’s doing something he loves.

“He’s a good example. He sets a goal and sets his mind on something and he doesn’t give, no matter what the weather,” Wilkinson said as he operated a two-ton snow-grooming machine. “He doesn’t let up.”

Schipper started the streak after retiring and buying the Lumberjack Lodge a stone’s throw from Sugarloaf, the state’s tallest ski mountain. His passion was skiing, and he wanted to do it as much as possible.

Back in 1981, he and some buddies were in the ski lodge recounting over a couple of beers how many days they had hit the slopes. Schipper vowed to try to ski every day. The others said they’d try it, too.

A year later, Schipper was the only one who had done it, having skied all 174 days in the 1981-82 season.

“In those days, it was easy,” Schipper said. “These days, it’s not so easy.”

Somewhere along the way, he picked up the nickname “Iron Man.” Others have called him the “Cal Ripken of Skiing,” a reference to the Baltimore Orioles star who played in 2,632 straight games.

It’s no surprise that family and friends describe Schipper as goal-oriented, fiercely determined and full of energy. Wife Chris calls him “bullheaded.”

Those traits served him well in his days in the Air Force. He completed training as a fighter pilot in the waning days of World War II and flew into the jet age in F-86 Sabres.

Along the way, he picked up a passion for skiing. He skied whenever and wherever he could, and he taught his children how to ski while working as an Eastern Airlines pilot based in New York City.

He continued skiing after breaking his ribs, wrists and several vertebrae in 1969. He was injured jumping to safety after his airliner caught fire and had its landing gear collapse on a runway in New York.

He continued to ski after breaking his leg in 10 places after he hit a rock while skiing in upstate New York.

Keeping the streak going may be his toughest challenge ever, though.

One day last season, he didn’t feel well but tried to ski anyway. Before he could get on the lift, he was doubled over, retching in the snow. He managed to ski down to the parking lot and was taken to the hospital. He spent the day in the emergency room being treated for pneumonia.

The next day, he was back skiing.

Perhaps the best story is how he managed to attend his son’s wedding in 1987. His solution: He skied at midnight, drove 7 1/2 hours to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for the wedding, and was back on the slopes the next day.

In 1993, he delayed surgery for removal of a cancerous kidney for a few weeks so he could keep skiing until the season ended. The cancer has not recurred.

In 1995, he underwent bypass heart surgery during the offseason. The surgeon also replaced one of his hearrt valves with a valve from a pig. He was back on the slopes in the fall.

In 1997, Schipper broke a thumb when he was hit by a snowboarder. He brought the handle of his ski pole to the doctor’s office so he could be fitted with a special cast that let him keep skiing.

These days, Schipper’s eyesight is his biggest worry. He’s almost blind in one eye, so his depth perception has suffered. He no longer skis expert slopes.

Cheryl Fullerton, Sugarloaf’s communications manager, worries about Schipper when the temperature dips to 20 below and the wind howls.

“In some ways, I wish he’d give himself permission to stop. Every time I think of wild weather, I think of Paul,” she said. “We just want to make sure he goes out on a high note.”

Sitting inside his snow-grooming machine, a devilish grin grows behind Wilkinson’s mustache as he talks about Schipper’s exploits. But he grows serious when the subject turns to calling it quits.

“He knows better than anyone when it’s time to stop,” Wilkinson said. “But he’s not going to sit around and watch ‘Oprah.'”

Schipper knows he can’t go on forever. One target he mentions is reaching 4,000, which would mean another two years of skiing every day.

A few years ago, Schipper didn’t think that would be a big deal. He said he knew of plenty of people who skied into their 80s. Last week, Schipper observed that many of them aren’t around anymore.

Taking a break before skiing down the Skidder trail, he said he wants to keep going, even though it’s getting harder.

“I’d like to keep the streak going. I’m hanging in there,” he said before kicking off and gliding down the trail.

His family can’t imagine him stopping, either.

His daughter, Kibby Schipper, who spends winters in West Palm Beach, Fla., still invites her father to visit. But she knows he won’t because he’ll be skiing.

“He’s pretty energetic, like the Energizer Bunny,” she said. “He’d be miserable not doing it.”

Wife Chris, a Tennessee native who doesn’t ski, knows he won’t stop. She doesn’t really want him to, either. It gives him purpose, and it’s good exercise.

“Yeah, he’ll make the 4,000th, even if I have to take him up the mountain on a gurney,” she said.

Copyright à‚¬(c) 2000 The Associated PressMan Who’s Skied More Than 3,600 Consecutive Days Turns 80