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The Good Old Days in Darien / Ed Chrostowski

Published 1:03 am, Thursday, March 11, 2010
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Rising from the chill of February's snowdrifts and the media blizzard on the Olympics are some pretty warm memories of Darien's brush with the international games over the years.

Local Olympians were perhaps less spectacular than the decathlon champions from New Canaan (Bill Toomey, Mexico City in 1968) and Newtown (Bruce Jenner, Montreal in 1976). And the Darien associations of some of them were less direct. But their medals were just as shiny.

Sadly, the athlete who doubtlessly would have ranked among the greatest of the 20th century Olympians never got to compete because he was at his peak during the 1940s when the games were cancelled because World War II was raging across Europe.

His name was Torger Tokle and he came here from Norway in 1939 at the age of 19 to be with his brother, Kyrre, a painter/carpenter who lived in Noroton. As legend has it, Kyrre was scheduled to compete that weekend in a ski jumping competition at Bear Mountain and Torger asked if he could "yump" also.

Well, the rest is history. Torger won 42 of his next 48 jumping competitions, setting a slew of records along the way, and took the national championship in 1941. The national press tabbed him "the Babe Ruth of skiing" and he was known internationally as a "sensation sure to bring the gold medal to the United States in the next Olympics." He never got the chance.

The world had become engulfed in a bloody turmoil. The Olympics were cancelled and Torger Tokle became a sergeant in a U.S. Army ski patrol. Tragically, a sniper's bullet found its mark while Sgt. Tokle was leading his squad in Italy's Appenine Mountains in March, 1945. He was 25 years old.

The Tokle name remained prominent in the ski jump world, however. Kyrre was still competing at the age of 55 and a younger brother, Art, who lived in New Jersey and worked as a carpenter, won several regional titles. Torger and Art were both named to the National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.

Indeed, Kyrre's success gained him a legion of Darien fans and a group of us followed him up to Salisbury, the foothills of the Berkshires in the northwest corner of Connecticut, one Sunday. The "old man" was competing in the Eastern Ski Jumping Championships that day in the early '50s and though he didn't win, he was a champion in our eyes.

After the meet, we all stopped at a cozy country inn to warm up at the fireside, perhaps with a hot toddy or two, and amid the Scandinavian accents and the hearty laughter, led by Kyrre himself and Arne Ohrn of the Noroton Heights diner, we marveled at the courage and the graceful skill of the skiers risking their necks on that incredible slope. And we lamented the fact that fate had denied the Tokles a shot at the Olympics.

Probably the most prestigious Olympian with a Darien connection was Bill Steinkraus, a horseman who competed in six Olympics and won the jumping event in the 1968 games in Mexico City to become the first American to win a gold in an equestrian sport.

Steinkraus was originally from Westport, but came to live in Noroton after he married Helen Ziegler. In those years, he trained regularly at the Ox Ridge Hunt Club in Darien.

Ox Ridge produced two other international equestrian winners, Ronnie Mutch and George Morris, who trained with Otto Heuckeroth and Felicia Townsend at the club and gained wide acclaim in the horse show world.

Mutch never competed in the Olympics, but was a frequent champion among the world's best riders and jumpers at the National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden, New York City. He later established his own horse farm and became a trainer in addition to writing several books on equestrian skills.

Morris, who hailed from New Canaan, was a member of the U.S. team that won a silver medal in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He also competed in other international events as a member of the U.S. Equestrian Team.

Another Darien resident also rang up a first for an Olympian. Andrew Kostanecki, who lived then on Pratt Island in Noroton, was the first sailor ever elected by representatives of all 44 Olympic sports as an officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Kostanecki, an industrial designer by profession and once one of the regular sailors at the Noroton Yacht Club, had sailed in Olympic competition and had designed boats before turning to the executive administration side of the sport. He was chairman of the U.S. sailing team in 1996 in Atlanta, Ga., and in 2001, he was awarded the prestigious Herreshoff Trophy by the International Sailing Association Federation in recognition of his four decades of leadership in sailing.

Darien also was in touch with a strange sport that befuddled sports announcers and writers at the Vancouver games, a sport that one Wall Street executive likened to "sipping merlot." Curling, it's called, and long before the sports world had heard of it, it was played regularly in Darien.

More than three decades ago, the Nutmeg Curling Club was based at the Country Club of Darien (it moved a few years ago to the Wonderland of Ice in Bridgeport) and its team competed in many regional bonspiels (tournaments). In fact, the "skip" (captain) of one of the club's teams, Ed Morley, was considered by many aficionados of the game to have Olympic potential.

Back in the '50s, Darien was without an ice rink of its own and the high school hockey team had to practice and play in the Westchester County League at the Playland rink in Rye, N.Y., (where the New York Rangers also worked out). But skaters were cutting some pretty fancy figure eights on local ponds and Darien fans always hoped an Olympian would emerge. After all, the public park ponds in Greenwich produced Dorothy Hamill in 1976.

Ed Chrostowski was editor of The Darien Review in the '50s. He can be reached at skicrow@att.net.