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profile: Jenny Victoria Palacios Altamirano Stillo

Jenny Stillo had always been athletic growing up in Honduras where the tropical climate averages from a low of 57 degrees to summer’s 104 in the capital city of Tegucigalpa. The country is about as likely to produce an Olympic Nordic skier as Jamaica is to have a bobsled team.
But Jenny did indeed become an Olympian.
Jenny was born to an innovative and brilliant mother with vision who earned a scholarship to Vanderbilt University. Knowing her young daughter would most likely spend a lot of time in the United States, she named her Jenny—not Jennifer, just simply Jenny—and she packed up her two-year-old and moved to Nashville, Tenn. in 1962.
For the seven years her mother was enrolled at Vanderbilt, Jenny went to American schools. When they returned to Honduras, Jenny continued in the American school, where her mother was a teacher. Jenny explains, “It was very hard to get into that school. Kids who are born today are enrolled before they can even crawl because it’s still so hard to get into.” The education at the American school is the best in the country.
“I loved growing up in Honduras. Life was easy and it was safe,” Jenny says, but also tells of the typically male-dominated world there, especially in sports. Although Jenny discovered her diverse athletic abilities at an early age, she notes that women weren’t encouraged to take part in sports then. But she pushed forward in running, swimming, and sometimes baseball, and ended up in the top three in her school for the Presidential Fitness challenge.
“I wanted to show that females were strong and the American school [in Honduras] allowed me to do that through sports. I encountered resentment outside of the school,” she says, pointing out that the attitude beyond the environment of her bilingual school did not tolerate women in sports, especially if they excelled.
“I was resented because I was a female and I was a fast runner. I grew up in a country that basically raised their daughters to be ‘feminine’—they weren’t supposed to do sports,” she says.
After high school graduation in 1978, Jenny returned to the United States to study basic computer language in Albuquerque, back when huge computers filled entire rooms. She wasn’t enamored of that field of study because it wasn’t challenging enough for her.
At tech school, she had a boyfriend who had a brother in Gunnison but she didn’t want to return for college because, she laughs, she was enjoying the good life back in Honduras.
Nevertheless, her beau convinced her to go for a student visa at Western State College (WSC), a very complex and difficult process that took her two years. By the time the visa was granted, the boyfriend was long gone but because the visa process was so excruciating, Jenny decided to go through with enrolling at WSC anyway.
Additionally, she felt that since there were only 21 foreign students at that time in 1980, WSC welcomed the diversity.
When she first arrived at the campus, Jenny experienced culture shock. “The money, the cars, everyone had a stereo—everybody had all this stuff,” she recalls. Even though her family was part of the upper middle class in Honduras she remembers thinking that there was a lot to be grateful for in the United States.
“I came in the summer and friends convinced me to go cliff diving at Blue Mesa. I almost died, it was freezing. My ears rang for two weeks.” The warm-blooded girl from Honduras cringed. Oddly, that’s precisely what propelled her into getting tougher. That winter she started cross-country skiing. She couldn’t afford to downhill ski but recalls seeing it for the first time and not understanding how it worked.
“I didn’t understand how they balanced on skis because from a distance I couldn’t see they had on bindings and boots. I thought, wow, these people are very talented to be able to balance and stay on those skis unattached. I could only relate it to surfing,” she says. Fortunately, she realized her folly before she tried alpine skiing without bindings. Three years later in 1983, she graduated from WSC with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a minor in accounting.
At WSC, Jenny realized she was not only athletic—she thoroughly enjoyed it, since she was “running, teaching aerobics and skiing.” She married Scott Brown, an avid skier on the famed WSC Ski Team, who helped her Nordic progress. Their son, Justin Andrew, was born in 1983, and they moved from Gunnison to Mt. Crested Butte. “Scott was an amazing athlete,” she says of Brown, and adds, “He was gifted in everything he did. He was the inspiration for my skiing.” But the two parted ways in 1986.
Jenny recounts the events that led her to the Olympics. “When I first started skiing here, I did this one competition, the Solomon Series, and I came in second in the whole progressive series. I was working for the ski area at the time as marketing coordinator, and Dan Dennison with Channel 9 News took an interest in the fact that a Honduran had competed well in the Solomon Series.”
Jenny recalls the twist of fate that made officials in her country aware that one of their own was outstanding in a sport most of the country had never experienced. “Out of all the channels in the world, Honduras could only get about four TV channels and Denver was one of them—and they saw me.” The National Olympic Committee for Honduras (NOC), which never before had representation in winter sports, called her immediately to ask if she would ski for Honduras. A lifetime opportunity and the ability to put forth a concept prompted Jenny to take on the challenge.
“I wanted to show that women could get out of the house and do sports and be good at it. And here was something that was so foreign to Hondurans—snow and skiing. I wanted to show that women could excel, and that it’s not only men and soccer teams,” she says proudly. Then she was off to the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France with her husband of three years, Tom Stillo, who was the official photographer for Honduras.
Jenny’s unforgettable experience at the Olympics was quite extraordinary, as she describes it, “The world coming together for sports. It’s peaceful, it’s wonderful, it’s camaraderie, it’s friendship.” She was surprised at the science and technology that goes into Olympian-level ski and track maintenance. “Humidity, snow and air temps, every country had their secret techniques,” she notes. “But I felt more like a participant than a competitor. I had the opportunity to go, to participate.” The following year she and Tom had their daughter, Asya, “because I was getting old,” she laughs.
Jenny is grateful to be an American citizen but her heart also remains entrenched in the culture of Honduras. She’s concerned about her former country’s susceptibility to climate change, where pollution has already rendered their rivers unswimmable. She explains, “Our mahogany quality and production is in the top three in the world, along with our coffee, tobacco and bananas. The mahogany forests aren’t depleted yet but will be in the near future because of the harvesting. The Japanese will donate building huge schools in Honduras because it’s a vested interest for them… in return, in 20 years, they want the mahogany forest.”
Still teaching Spanish and English after 25 years, Jenny has recently launched her business as a professional translator and interpreter. She spent two years at Arizona State University, earning her certificate in translation, while commuting between Crested Butte and school.
She still skis but, she admits, not every day anymore. Stillo Photography Studio keeps her busy these days, as it has for the past 30 years. Jenny goes back to Honduras often to visit her mother, who, at 83, is writing educational children’s books.
Although there are many aspects of Honduras that she misses, Jenny still chooses to live in the upper valley, since “I love Crested Butte—this is my home. The mountains are as big as the oceans in Honduras. The ocean is healing and it’s the same as breathing this mountain air, it’s healthy living. I love the people here. I’ve always felt welcome and very accepted.”

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