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The Mayor of Big Mountain
After 86 years of skiing, former ski racer Peter Brucato works to regain strength and hit the slopes following stroke
Sitting in his home in the Edelweiss complex at Whitefish Mountain Resort, Peter Brucato talks about his decades of skiing and sailing. Brucato, who is 91, still skis and is a popular figure and ambassador commonly referred to as “The Mayor of Big Mountain.” Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
WHITEFISH – Walking into the Hellroaring Saloon and Eatery at Whitefish Mountain Resort, Peter Brucato is showered with “mayor” greetings.

“The mayor of Big Mountain,” a woman calls out, invoking his nickname and prompting a grin from the 91-year-old Brucato.

Brucato acknowledges every greeting as he makes his way to a table for lunch. His gait is methodical and careful, the aftereffects of a stroke marking his stride. But focusing on the finer details of bipedal mechanics is nothing new to him. As a champion downhill ski racer and accomplished cross country skier, he has long thought carefully about his legs’ role in life – in getting from point A to B, in getting to the top of his age division’s standings, in taking steps, small and big, and moving on.

But this is a step unlike any other he’s taken. Following the stroke, his balance is off and his legs are weaker. Skiing is tricky. Taking a step is no longer simply a force of habit. Moving on is hard. Yet you would never know it. He smiles more than anyone in the room and he’s as sharp as a tack. He’s confident and reassuring. Isn’t that what we look for in a good mayor?

After 86 years of skiing, Brucato could easily call it quits. If nothing else, his stroke was the perfect excuse for him to put away the skis and take up the couch. But there he is, standing on one leg in his condominium demonstrating to a visitor an exercise designed to help restore his balance. And there he is, shuffling up a mountainside on his way to Hellroaring for lunch. He’ll tell you what gives him the strength. It’s that snow crunching under his feet and those people in the restaurant, waiting to greet their mayor.

“Skiing and the friends that I met skiing is the driving force behind me to keep going,” Brucato says. “Because when I had my stroke at the end of May, that sort of slowed things down, but I feel fortunate to have made a recovery. I feel very fortunate.”

Brucato is the type of guy who still talks about his wife, who passed away over 20 years ago, with the type of youthful, smitten admiration usually reserved for newlyweds. He loves her and his children and his grandchildren. He loves his friends and he loves skiing, perhaps in a way that very few people could understand. Someone who has been skiing for 30 years is relatively new to the sport in his eyes.

Growing up in Massachusetts, Brucato began skiing when he was 5 years old. His first encounter with the “big peaks” was in Utah in 1941, followed by a stint working and skiing in Sun Valley, Idaho. By the late 1940s, after serving with the U.S. Navy in World War II, he was skiing with the nation’s best as an Olympic alternate. In 1950, he won the New York state downhill ski competition, one of many championships in a racing career that would span decades. His involvement with the U.S. Ski Team over the years included several different positions and he was the chairman of the U.S. Ski Educational Foundation.

And he completed the 34-mile American Birkebeiner cross country ski marathon 25 consecutive years, including one year when he was recovering from a spinal fusion and defied a doctor’s orders, according to his son, Pete Brucato Jr.

“He was in a back brace to keep his streak going,” the younger Brucato said.

Yet, even with that extensive ski resume, it would be hard to say whether Brucato is a more accomplished skier or sailor – he has dedicated as much of his athletic energy to sailing and was an Olympic alternate in that sport as well.

“It’s remarkable to me to be able to compete at that high of a level in two sports,” Brucato Jr. said.

There are so many medals and trophies spread out in Brucato’s Whitefish Mountain Resort condo that he doesn’t know where they all are. This, however, has everything to do with the sheer volume and value he places on the awards, and nothing to do with his memory. He knows exactly where all of the photographs are of him and his wife, and he can describe the subtlest details of an event that occurred 70 years ago.

“He has an amazing memory,” Brucato Jr. said. “He remembers events and people far better than I can.”

Peter Brucato is seen with his wife Martha in Sun Valley. | Contributed photo

There is a lot to remember from over 90 years of a life fully lived. The younger Brucato calls his father “the closest thing I have ever seen to a living Forrest Gump.” There’s a Time magazine photo of him sailing with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. There are articles featuring his athletic exploits in publications like Outside magazine. One sailing headline declares: “Nothing Stops Brucato.” And those are just the officially documented stories.

Other anecdotes pop up only in the context of a certain conversation, and surprise even those closest to him. As an example, Brucato Jr. tells the story of when his kids asked their grandpa if he ever saw Babe Ruth play baseball.

“He said, ‘No, but I met him a couple of times,” Brucato Jr., who lives in New York, said. “That’s just my dad. All of the people he met over time is remarkable. I still learn things about people my dad has met that I didn’t know about.”

Two core passions have guided Brucato’s far-ranging adventures: sailing and skiing. And it was a sport spawned from the unlikely marriage of those two passions that brought him to Whitefish. In the early 1980s, he was living in Wisconsin and involved in “ski yachting,” where athletes compete in both skiing and sailing events. Brucato attended a ski yachting event in 1983 in the Flathead Valley, a perfect location for the sport with the largest freshwater lake in the Western U.S. and a ski resort in Whitefish.

Through the 1980s, he visited Whitefish only sporadically up until his wife’s death in 1990. The following year, he purchased a condo at the resort and moved to Montana for good. He became a fixture at the resort and befriended its former CEO, Michael Collins, according to longtime operations manager Chester Powell. It was during those years he was dubbed “The Mayor of Big Mountain.” Powell said Brucato was an information resource and de facto ambassador before the resort officially adopted an ambassador program.

“Peter has always been an ambassador of the mountain,” Powell said.

“With all he’s done,” he added, “the guy’s pretty amazing.”

Brucato concedes he’s not “bulletproof” and has been slowed by health issues before. Following a quadruple bypass six or seven years ago, his son said he scaled down his skiing activity. Still, there are YouTube videos of Brucato gliding gracefully down the mountain on skis at the age of 90. For Brucato, challenges exist to be overcome.

Wearing his U.S. Ski Team vest, Peter Brucato shows the view overlooking skiers loading onto chairlifts at Whitefish Mountain Resort from his condo in the Edelweiss. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

“If you present a challenge to him, he will seize it,” his son said. “If, for example, you told him that he wouldn’t be able to ski this year, I’d bet you dollars to donuts he’d be out there. He’s got that competitive fire.”

That competitive fire was fueling him when he took to the mountain earlier this winter for the first and – as of last week – only time this ski season. But if the spirit was there, the balance and leg strength weren’t. He fell three times, a revelation more damaging to his morale than his body.

“Here I am, this top skier and I fell three times because of my balance,” he said.

The days of skiing five or six days a week are likely gone, but Brucato isn’t ready to retire from his beloved sport. He’ll continue to do his exercises. He asks visitors to meet him at the entrance of the Edelweiss condominium complex so he can walk the three flights of stairs to build up his legs. He works on his balance and listens carefully to his medical advisors. That competitive fire burns, and eight-decade passions don’t die easily.

But there are realities to consider. Since his stroke, he’s lost 30 pounds, including a lot of muscle. His blood thinners present dangers. He’s 91 years old. Yet, even if he wishes he could spend a few more days on the mountain, he is content no matter what happens. He is content because he has friends, family and new passions, like the 17 years he has spent helping with the Special Olympics of Montana, which holds its state winter games at Whitefish Mountain Resort. The forces that inspire him to regain his strength for skiing – loved ones and shared passions – are the same forces that give him the strength to embrace life’s new realities.

“I had a tremendously happy and healthy marriage,” he said. “I have wonderful kids and grandkids. And I have a host of good, deep friends. I’ve been blessed.”
On 01-09-13, ride4fun commented....
What an amazing gentleman…..
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