By Carolyn Hamilton
On Jan. 10, a few hours before dawn, Jeff Hamilton died of pancreatic cancer. He was enveloped in his family, who, for hours, had whispered songs and told him stories of how much they loved him and how well he lived his life. At 4 a.m. the rain turned to snow. It was a twirling kind of snowfall; part rise, part fall. Jeff would never attribute this to any divine power, but I will admit for him, it was a good atmospheric line to conclude the gorgeous story of his life.
Before he died, I asked Jeff what he wanted in his obituary. He said, “Just tell a story.”
The man who was to become the fastest skier in the world and the fastest skier in America for a number of years was born in Auburn, California to Mary Ann Hamilton and Dick Hamilton on Nov. 22, 1966. My goodness, they were waiting for him, that sweet little boy who would ignite their lives and feed them full of love. A week before he died, Mary Ann said to Jeff, “Thank you for choosing me, Jeffrey.” And he responded, “Thank you for choosing me.”
Jeff grew up loved and free. He was a self-proclaimed “mama’s boy,” gripping her leg, helping her cook, tackling her, yelling “Sistrunkkkk!” as his warning. He gardened for fun, raked for nickels, and roamed the canyon until dinner time. He shot birds with a BB gun in the backyard because he liked a good aim; and he made comments at church that made his mother laugh out loud.
But Jeff was just as happy being still. He read encyclopedias on the floor for hours, studied and memorized the Guinness Book of World Records, spent afternoons watching Hogan’s Heroes with his grandma, Mary Katich, and, if lost, could be found tucking quietly in his bedroom, inspired by a speed ski race he saw at Squaw Valley U.S.A. (now Palisades Tahoe).
Mary Beth, his little sister, arrived when he was 3 years old. From the time she could crawl, she followed him around. She wanted to dress like him, rolling her bathing suit down to match his speedo; and when she wore what he wore to school, he didn’t make her change, he just raced back home from the bus stop to change his own clothes. He took on the role of big brother with playful seriousness, just as he took on all the endeavors of his life. Years later, Jeff invited Mary Beth to join him on the speed ski tour and dialed her in for racing — he let her wear his suit and ride his best skis.
Dick prioritized family, so Jeff’s family foursome road-tripped. In their camper, they fished their way through the West, and clammed with friends at Dillon Beach; they also spent summers hiking to the Merced and Vogelsang High Sierra Camps. And in the winter, they downhill skied. Nobody loved skiing like Dick Hamilton, and he siphoned that passion right into his kids, and did the work to support it, driving the Vista Cruiser to Park City, Utah, driving them to ski team at Boreal Mountain every weekend, and mixing waxes for faster skiing for Far West races all the way through to Jeff’s races on the Speed Skiing World Tour.
Last year, between chemo sessions, on a road trip to Yosemite, I asked Jeff, “Do you think road trips are a suspension of everything else?” And he said, “No, I think they’re not a metaphor for life—it’s just me getting in my car, my bubble, and seeing places, finding new things and maybe a chance to be nostalgic.”
Before Jeff was known for his Olympic bronze medal and his world record in speed skiing, he was known for tucking top to bottom as a kid at Boreal, never finishing a slalom race (way too many turns); refusing hot chocolate during a storm so he could keep skiing; being the smallest kid to keep up with the Harrison boys (the neighbors); perfecting his moon drop; winning the Constitution competition at EV Cain Middle School; and making films with his high school buddies before making films was a thing.
When it was time to move out, Jeff attended Saint Mary’s College as an English major where he engaged in “Thought” seminars, wrote poetry, and found friends with whom he’d spend the next many years of his life traveling, skiing, hiking, and growing families. During summer breaks, he worked at the Merced and Vogelsang High Sierra Camps of Yosemite. Jeff described spending his High Camp days off on Cloud’s Rest by himself because it was the biggest mountain around. And when I asked him if his time in Yosemite made him, he said, with his characteristic lack of drama, “I think it just added to the tapestry.”
Speed skiing added to the tapestry, too. He was living at his family’s cabin at Donner Lake, in the early ’90s, when he just decided to try a speed ski race at Kirkwood ski resort with borrowed gear. Within seven races, he won the bronze medal at the 1992 Winter Olympic Games in Albertville, France.
Before long, he became the first man to ski 150 mph; he still “rents” (as he liked to say) the record, “the fastest crash in the history of non-motorized sports” (151mph); he won four speed skiing world titles. One of his projects during his year living with cancer was to ensure there was an archive of his speed skiing life. Jeffhamiltonspeedskier.com is a beautiful documentation of a special time in Jeff’s life.
The man was fast, but he was never hurried or harried. He loved springtime in France. He loved his friends from around the world. He loved winning. He loved the one afternoon he suggested that he hold the film camera for Warren Miller Productions and skied beside his friend the legendary speed skier “Curly” as she tucked down the track; he wanted to give audiences the sensation of speed. He loved studying his equipment and finding ways to be faster. And, graciously, he took me along for most of it. A man at the top of his game, inviting his girlfriend, then wife, to share in the fun.
I will humbly insert into the story here that we were a good team. Jeff and I met in August of 1992 and married on Oct. 17, 1998. Throughout our lives, we toured Europe together, read books together, wrote a children’s book together, made olive oil together, edited each other’s writing, worked hard together, raised a family together, dreamed big together. He told me before he died, “I expanded your world, Carolina; and you focused and warmed mine. We dominated this life, and we dominated this love.” I will always know our love story was the thread that ran through all the other stories since we met.
Jeff was “always stinking,” which was Jeff’s funny way of saying, “always thinking.” He was an idea man. He could see what was not there. And, with precision, creativity, and joy, he could create so many things into being. With his friend, fellow speed skier, and wax tech Bill Miller, he opened Hamilton Sports in 1997. Who opens a ski shop at the base of Aspen Mountain, one snowball’s throw away from about eight other successful shops? Jeff Hamilton. He went all in. In Aspen, he worked hard, planned well, made friends, and succeeded. His ideas were endless, all the way down to using his sister’s reclaimed piers for planter boxes and suggesting a provocative plot twist in a story I was stuck writing.
In the spring of 1999 when he was in France on tour, Jeff learned he would be a father. Eleanore was born in Aspen, Colorado on Dec. 5, and two years later, on Jan. 17, 2002, Frances was born. And, accordingly, Jeff was born twice into his favorite role in the world: “Daddy-O.”
He brought commitment and fun to fatherhood. He and those girls played — all of the time. Everything was an opportunity for some serious fun. They made funny videos, sculpted snow horses and sand mermaids, built outdoor showers, backpacked in Yosemite, clasped catfish to their fingertips and crawdads to their earlobes. They hunted frogs way after bedtime, and Jeff hung ropes from the living room ceiling so his girls could gear up and collide into each other for fun. With Frances as an eager victim and Eleanore as his assistant, Jeff even made losing teeth fun. They shot videos of extractions that featured string, a dog, a ball, matches, some fire, more string, and a pulley.
Jeff was innovative and confident. He knew there was always a way to do anything. He designed and built our first home at Donner Lake. I will not forget standing with both babies in my arms, watching him do electrical and plumbing with How to Wire Your House and How to Plumb Your House books opened to the appropriate page beside him. All smiles. All curiosity. All determination.
All our lives, I never doubted the leak would be stopped, the road found, the soup more flavorful, the day funnier, the life more wonderful. He was that good. And he was this nice: when I suggested we homeschool our girls, he said yes with one caveat: “as long as we don’t close any doors for them.” And so we began homeschooling, and he jumped into his role as science teacher and math teacher and art teacher and shop teacher and geography teacher, all to be sure we didn’t close doors on our girls. Not a chance, Jeff Hamilton: You flung their doors wide open.
In 2009 as the world reverberated from its economic turn, Jeff led us out of the third home he built and all the way to France. He closed real estate deals over Skype while also inventing ways to play. He created scavenger hunts through our adopted medieval town of Uzes, made friends with locals, shopped the Saturday markets with an eye for the freshest cheeses, the spiciest olives, and maybe a slicer-dicer for his girls to make funny shapes out of vegetables. He summited Mont Ventoux on his bike . . . twice. He made fresh croissants … in France. Repeat. He made homemade croissants in France. Once upon a time, he thought he might become a sommelier, so the wine he chose for us was delicious.
Travel had just begun for us, and through the years, we explored China and Italy and Norway and Scotland, Mexico, Costa Rica, New York, D.C., a transcontinental train ride, Dillon Beach, and our very favorite place in the whole wide world, Evelyn Lake in Yosemite, where he and Frances caught trout for dinner and Eleanore and he ate it.
As his girls grew, they transitioned from Alpine skiers to Nordic skiers. Jeff went from showing them how to tuck and go, how to carve a good turn and hike a good peak, to watching them double-pole and trying it out himself behind them at Auburn Ski Club or on Van Norden Meadow. It made “the leader” so happy to follow his girls.
Yes, he explored becoming an attorney or working for the foreign service, but Jeff poured his professional commitment into real estate. Ask his clients, who became his friends: Jeff was honest, smart, committed, visionary, and so damn nice. He was one of the first agents in Tahoe to join Sierra Sotheby’s International Realty and was instrumental in a leadership role as the top agent in building the firm into one of the area’s top brokerages with seven Tahoe and Reno offices.
The most rewarding time in his real estate career was spent with his partner, Breck Overall, in their top-producing partnership, Overall & Hamilton. Jeff loved Breck, whom he said inspired him, was so smart, and was simply a very good person. Jeff was committed to community service, as well, serving as a board member of the Truckee Donner Land Trust, Sugar Bowl Ski Team and Academy, and most passionately, as the board president of Auburn Ski Club. He cherished the idea of giving foothill kids the chance to play in the mountains.
Ever a follower of “shiny things,” Jeff was electrifyingly curious. His interest in what could unfold guided him deeper into life’s experiences. He founded the Old 40 Cycling Club; hosted pre-Truckee Thursday gatherings in our backyard, where he poured his own simple syrup into his signature mojitos. He trained for and finished the Death Ride® and did color commentary for the first X Games with Bob Beattie. With Frances, he cranked the volume in the car, drummed the steering wheel, and sang loudly to Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against the Machine, Jane’s Addiction, and of course the Go-Go’s.
He could deliver a fierce crosscourt forehand, but always hit the ball to me to keep the rallies going; he played twilight golf, pointing out the coyotes nibbling pine nuts on the greens; he entered into crossword and eventually Wordle and Spelling Bee competitions with Eleanore; he fished in the backyard, hiked up warm granite after dinner, and stopped to marvel at the junipers. He loved all of the big, majestic trees, but junipers struck him: “They are resilient, ragged, imperfect, strong, beautiful, and twisted,” he’d say. Like someone else I know.
On the day his father died in December 2021, Jeff was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. All of his adult life he harbored a gentle jealousy of women because they could experience childbirth and he could not; and dazzlingly, that hunger for experience extended to cancer. He wanted to experience this time with openness and commitment. The year was hard. He experienced a Whipple, which is arguably the most punishing surgery performed; all in all, he lost his gallbladder, spleen, 1/3 of his small intestine, his entire pancreas, and became a new Type 1 diabetic. Diabetes advisors adored him because he asked questions and wanted to master the chemistry of glucose and insulin. Doctors marveled because he withstood three chemotherapy protocols and four bouts of sepsis, and, still, in the late afternoons, before dinner, he could be found on his trainer, spinning, watching a legendary bike race like Paris–Roubaix and lifting weights, willing himself to retain muscle against this muscle-hungry cancer. His oncologist, Dr. Thomas Semrad, told me he was, “extraordinary.”
Jeff was never angry about having cancer. He never threw an expletive at cancer, and he rejected the metaphors “battle” and “fight.” He saw his time on the court of life with cancer as a competition. Accordingly, he applied laser focus, commitment, openness to the point at hand; and a resolve to move forward to the next point if he lost the last. Upon diagnosis, Jeff assured each medical advisor that he was game to do all procedures and chemotherapy regimens, but let it be known he would be on a plane on June 9 to witness Eleanore graduate from the University of St Andrews. Point Hamilton: less than two months after his Whipple he was celebrating Eleanore and even played a round on his beloved Old Course.
For as dazzling as Jeff was, he really did not love being the center of attention. So, he never talked about himself, nor much about cancer. As his body suffered, and his world contracted, as he lost 50 pounds, had his port continually accessed, had his abdomen drained of liters of fluid every four days; as his ability to eat and digest caved, as it became impossible to drive because of the pain it caused his abdomen, as his fingers numbed and toes cramped, Jeff never complained. There was one time he said, “I wish it were a little easier.” That is it.
Instead of complaining, he initiated morning walks and night walks around downtown Truckee with all of us, trips to the ocean, trips to Sebastopol, a trip back to Aspen, and trips to his childhood home in Auburn for some warmer air. He ate bowls of his mom’s homemade tapioca.
He called his pain spikes “cramps.” And he always made sure I knew when he felt good. “I feel goooood, Carolina.” A little gift to me who worried and fussed and wished him no pain. He worked hard in the last months of his life on a project we all named the Jeff Hamilton Legacy Fund, which was ambitious, of course. Jeff might have been subtle, but he was an ambitious man. He wanted to give MacArthur-style awards to community members for their limitlessness in six categories. In developing this fund, he gave his little foursome the opportunity to talk about his death, dream about his legacy, and recommit to contributing to the community and the future. Please see jeffhamiltonlegacyfund.com for more information.
For one blessed year, Jeff led us through Cancerworld with love and presence and honesty. He initiated hard conversations about death and dying, and followed them through with embraces and transparent, humble wishes for being a grandpa, seeing us all evolve, watching us live, taking care of his mom and the next generation, having more fun. “I want three more chapters,” he said.
But the loving person he was, he did not leave us with only his wishes. He told us over and over again, astonishingly, that he loved this last year. He loved how much love there was. He loved the way we all met the challenges and did not run away. He loved his life.
His instructions for us were clear. “Have fun!” So on the third night without him, we pulled out a deck of cards, we watched ourselves laugh, and we got dressed warmly and walked out into the swirling snow, doing without him what he loved doing with us — taking a little night walk, enveloped in each other.
Jeff will continue to inspire his wife, Carolyn; his daughters, Eleanore and Frances; his mother, Mary Ann; his sister, Mary Beth; his brother-in-law Scott; his aunt and all of his cousins and second cousins; and all of those impacted by the Jeff Hamilton Legacy Fund. A memorial will be held at 4 p.m. this Sunday, Jan. 22, at Olympic Village Inn.