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Fountain of Youth – Unusual Path – An REI Co-op Publication


Sooner or later in October 2019, 93-year-old Charley French packed his wetsuit, trainers and triathlon package right into a suitcase. He strapped his time-trial bike onto his new automotive, a bit skeptical that the bike rack’s glorified suction cups would stay hooked up on the lengthy drive from his dwelling in Ketchum, Idaho, to the race in San Diego. However he didn’t have a lot alternative. While you drive a Lamborghini Gallardo, as French does, bike rack choices are restricted. “The rack was speculated to be good for 80 mph, however I seemed, and I used to be going 120,” French laughs.

Ever thinking about why issues succeed, why they fail and what we will do higher, French constructed a profession on the intersection of innovation and pace—with a wholesome dose of the pure atmosphere he loves thrown in for good measure. Over the many years, his work has touched lots of the outside world’s core actions. He labored with Bob Smith to create the fashionable ski goggle and spearheaded the event of Scott’s influential Superlight ski boot. He additionally helped form each biking and triathlon by hammering out a brand new mannequin of handlebars. French received’t brag about these accomplishments. Play impressed his work, he says, and vice versa. “I made a decision I really like sports activities,” he says “so I’d work with the intention to go play on the weekends.”

And like that Lamborghini, this REI Co-op Member isn’t eager on slowing down, even at age 96.

French, age 77, on the 2003 Queenstown ITU Triathlon World Championships in New Zealand. Picture courtesy: Charley French

How it began

Charles Sale French was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1926. In junior highschool, his single mom moved him and his two older sisters to Santa Monica, Calif. There he tried out for basketball and soccer. “I used to be by no means any good. I noticed that wasn’t me,” he recollects.

Because it turned out, neither was formal training. “I used to be decided to not go to school,” remembers the long run engineer. French had a stressed thoughts and thirst for adrenaline. He constructed a dragster from junkyard components and raced it on the streets at evening, a pastime that led to a number of tickets and an exasperated mother or father. When French determined to enlist in World Conflict II at 17, an age that wanted his mom’s permission, “She stated, ‘The place do I signal?’” he laughs.

After the warfare, French returned to Southern California and spent as a lot time as doable browsing in Malibu and snowboarding at Mt. Baldy the place he taught snowboarding. He additionally gave up his school avoidance and began a level in engineering. Earlier than he completed, although, he discovered a job that took him throughout Europe, together with to Germany. He began making weekend ski journeys to Kitzbühel, Austria, the place he met an American orthodontist named Bob Smith who shared French’s frustration with inferior ski goggles that permit in powder snow.

French had an concept: Why not make goggles extra like home home windows, heat-sealed and double-paned? They went out and jury-rigged a prototype… that instantly fogged up. French toyed with extra prototypes, however he by no means pursued a patent. Again dwelling, Smith did, and he used nimble-fingered dental college students to assemble his new product. Right now, the world goggle maker nonetheless sends French a free pair every year.

By 1970, at age 44, French was uninterested in working for the weekend. He moved to Ketchum, dwelling to Solar Valley Resort, in hopes of snowboarding his beloved moguls each day. Quickly he bought a job at Scott Sports activities, and his life would pivot once more.

Charley French, 92, on the 2019 Masters World Cup in Norway.

First years as a Scottsman

On the time, Scott, based by Solar Valley engineer and ski racer Ed Scott, was identified for its ski poles. However the firm had simply bought patents and manufacturing rights for a ski boot. The deal additionally got here with 1,000 pairs of flawed boots. “I flexed ahead, and [the boot] broke,” French recollects.

French and his crew dove in to design a greater product. They’d begin work at 7am, work ’til midday, ski for 2 hours to check the boot, and return to the workplace to enhance the design. “Each day was one other problem,” he says. “It was lots of enjoyable.”

Roughly one yr and 90 design modifications later, French and his crew had engineered the Scott Superlight ski boot, designated a manufacturing facility to make it and constructed manufacturing gear. The Superlight was a brand new type of boot—a lot lighter and extra conscious of what the ski was doing, but nonetheless heat, all of which endeared it to freestyle skiers. “The primary time I walked by a sporting items retailer in Ketchum, and I noticed the pair of trainers within the window, I simply stopped and stood there for about 20 minutes,” he says. Its lightness additionally made it terrifying to put on at excessive speeds, he says, and laughs.

French’s contributions haven’t been restricted to snowboarding. In his 50s, the innovator grew to become buddies with Boone Lennon, then head coach of the U.S. Alpine Ski Staff. The pair began biking collectively and competing in the identical occasions. Sooner or later, on the experience dwelling from a race, Lennon informed French he had an concept for an uncommon new handlebar. The design lets a bicycle owner relaxation their elbows and palms in entrance and put the rider in a extra aerodynamic tuck. French constructed the primary prototype of his good friend’s imaginative and prescient out of wooden. They took turns bolting the crude gadget to their bikes; take a look at rides by the boys confirmed that it may make a bicycle owner sooner.

Aero Dynamo

Loads of triathletes shook their heads in 1986 when French, then age 60, confirmed up on the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii sporting the now-aluminum aero bars, formed like a bent U, on the entrance of his bike. French received his age group. The triathletes stopped laughing.

Devoted bike racers had been a more durable promote. “We tried to get guys to make use of the bars,” French says, “however no bike racers would use them.”

By 1989 Lennon had acquired a patent for the aero bars via Scott. French crafted a brand new pair and flew them to Lennon in Europe in the course of the Tour de France. Lennon confirmed them to the highest American rider within the Tour, Greg LeMond, who accepted the supply to make use of the handlebars.

Earlier than the time trial on the race’s ultimate day, LeMond trailed French front-runner Laurent Fignon by 50 seconds. LeMond determined to attempt the aero bars. LeMond received the stage and received the Tour by simply 8 seconds—the narrowest margin in Tour historical past.

“After that, each bike racer wished to make use of the bars,” French says. Even at this time, although, he received’t brag about it. “It was Boone’s concept,” says the nonagenarian.

Shifting gears

After hitting 50 within the mid-Nineteen Seventies and realizing he not was getting higher at actions that he cherished, equivalent to mogul snowboarding, French shifted gears. He started to cross-country ski in earnest, and to pursue triathlons—shifting from the fun sports activities to the “ache sports activities,” as he likes to name them.

As he confirmed along with his Ironman win, he’s embraced the ache. Over the next many years, French claimed 5 age-group world titles in triathlon and 7 Masters World Cup medals for his age group in cross-country snowboarding, to not point out scores of different trophies.

As of late, the Masters athlete nonetheless rides his bike and swims recurrently. He spends a number of days per week on the cross-country ski trails, coaching for his subsequent race. (He’s signed up for the Masters World Cup 2023 in Austria). Final February, French competed on the “The Charley Course Half-Boulder,” the 15-kilometer model of the longer Boulder Mountain Tour, a long-running Nordic ski race in Utah that he participated in for therefore many many years that organizers named the shorter race for him. This yr, he received his division once more—however at his age, he says, “after all, I used to be the one one in my age group.”

These groaning cabinets of awards are usually not solely a testomony to French’s willpower to enhance as an athlete however to maintain evolving as an individual, say those that know him. “He’s at all times pushing to be higher,” says Muffy Ritz, a former Olympic Nordic skier and shut good friend.

Charley (proper) along with his good friend, Muffy Ritz, a former Olympic Nordic skier.

Studying from a legend

French isn’t positive there’s a secret to his longevity as an athlete, however he has just a few recommendations.

One is to embrace the fitness center. French at all times hated weight coaching, however he begrudgingly took it up in his 70s—half-hoping it wouldn’t work and he may cease, he jokes. Alas, pumping iron bore outcomes. “A yr later, my triathlon occasions had been higher, and my swimming occasions had been higher, and I stated, ‘Oh man, this isn’t good!” he says. “And sadly, I’m nonetheless there within the fitness center.” He additionally eats effectively and enjoys coaching typically.

Nonetheless, he attributes a lot of his athletic longevity to luck. “It’s luck how good your physique is, how a lot power you’ve got, how a lot need it’s important to do issues,” he says. “You possibly can alter these to some extent, however I’ve simply been fortunate.”

French says he has slowed down a bit in the previous couple of years in comparison with when he was in his 80s. He’s beginning to really feel his power and stamina decline a bit. He thinks: “Huh, possibly I’m getting previous.”

Previous is relative, although. French nonetheless participates in multi-day guided bike excursions. He’s coaching for a motorbike journey in Portugal subsequent summer season. He’s nonetheless driving that Lamborghini to the trailhead, his skinny skis within the passenger seat, ideas protruding the window.

It’s essential to have objectives, French says. “Each day it’s important to have initiatives, it doesn’t matter what they’re.” Targets maintain you centered; they maintain you optimistic. “Should you’ve skilled arduous, and also you suppose you’ve finished every thing proper, even for those who don’t win, you’ll really feel good,” he explains.

French was speaking about his strategy to coaching for triathlons however he may have been advising a lifestyle.

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