Bill Allen speaks of his Olympic gold medal like you or I would speak of a high school football game. It’s fair to say that for most, winning Olympic gold would be an unbeatable moment. For Bill Allen, winning Olympic gold was a highlight—it was more than he could ever dream of—but it wasn’t the highlight of his life.
Allen and his brother Harry are lifelong sailors. When Bill won his gold medal in sailing at the 1972 Olympic Games as a 24-year-old, he knew it was a moment he would never forget.
“It was spectacular,” Bill says. “When you stand [on the podium] and they play that national anthem, it is pretty darn incredible.”
Now, 43 years later, Bill is just one of the boys out on Lake Minnetonka, racing nearly every night with his buddies.
Bill, Harry and their four siblings were raised on the lakes. Their father was an avid sailor and he passed his love on to his children. After sailing their whole childhood, Bill and Harry were introduced as teenagers to a new way to experience the water—or in this case, ice.
Bill and Harry found iceboating through their neighbors and friends and fell in love with it immediately. They loved sailing, and now they could do it year-round.
What is iceboating? Picture yourself driving down the highway in a comfortable car. You can hear the wind outside the window, but you’re safe and warm inside. You hear the gravel kicking up around you, but Fred Flintstone you are not, and your feet remain unscathed. Your speedometer hits 75 and you set the cruise, oblivious to the high speed.
Now picture removing the roof. The sides. You’re lying on your back—the comfy seat is gone. The wind you heard outside is whipping in your face at subzero temperatures. The gravel has been replaced by ice chunks kicking up in your face, and the only thing separating you from a life-threatening bath in winter waters is thin ice, a couple of metal rudders and a wooden slab that you lay atop, fully exposed.
Clearly not for the faint of heart, iceboating finds a community of devoted sailors on Lake Minnetonka. On a nice day (nice, in this case, is a cold, windy day on the frozen lake) there will be up to 20 boats taking part in recreational iceboat racing. If you’ve seen what looks like a group of sailboats on Lake Minnetonka in the winter and wondered how someone can be sailing in February, those are iceboats—think wooden luge with a sail attached.
“You are going at highway speed on thin ice,” says Harry. “We’ve gone through the ice, which breaks your boat, but I’ve never heard of anyone getting seriously injured because we exercise so much caution. If you’re safe and prepared, you can control the danger.”
The boats themselves are relatively easy to construct, say the Allens. In fact, most iceboaters build their own–Bill built his first in the fall of 1971.
“It’s like building a model airplane that’s 12 feet long,” Harry Allen says.
Most boats are for solo riders and easy to transport, which is important if you have to chase the right lake conditions. Weather is key because you need some wind and clear ice. To get moving, boaters make a running start, jump on their vessel and let the wind pull them along. Because there’s little to no friction, you can go up to five times faster than the wind. Once the boat picks up speed, you begin creating your own wind—apparent wind—similar to the feeling of sticking your hand out the window of a moving car. Before long, you are flying across the ice at 50 to 80 miles per hour (the record speed is 140 miles per hour).
The thrill from iceboating is unmatched. It is a unique sport that breeds camaraderie among its participants, who know they are part of a select group. The feeling they get from being out on the ice is the highlight of the sport for both Allen brothers.
“When that ice is out there black and newly frozen, it is incredible. It is unbelievable. It is really an incredible experience,” Bill says.
Now in his 60s, Bill reflects on his accomplishments, including his gold medal, but the true highlight of his life can be traced back to 1981—except for a couple more events, it was the year he gave up serious iceboating. The year his daughter was born. While Bill speaks of his gold medal like it is a distant memory, he speaks of his family like they are a part of everything he has ever accomplished.
Bill and Harry only sail recreationally now and are full of amazing stories that take place at lakes around the world. They love the water. The ice. The lakes. Most of all, they love that they have been able to share their passion with entire generations of Allens.
The Allen brothers learned from their father, and have passed that knowledge onto their own children, who have also raced and taught sailing. It’s telling that their father didn’t just buy them their first boat as kids, he sold his own to make that happen. He moved his family to a Minnetonka lakeside home so his kids could learn to love the waters as much as he does.
Bill and Harry have been sailing on Lake Minnetonka for as long as they can remember, and will continue to sail as long as they can. They’ll set up their iceboats in the winter, and their sailboats in the summer, wait for the right breeze and spend an entire day out on the lake.
They’ll continue to live the highlight of their lives every day. An Olympic medal is a past achievement that Bill Allen looks back on with fondness through the fuzzy lens of time. Loving sailing, and sharing that love with everyone around you pulses through Bill and his brother every day of their lives.