The Mad Foot Scientist

Orthopedic Magic with Jacques Thomas

above Jacques Thomas does some base inspection in the early 1980s with speed skier Franz Weber, who broke the world speed record four times and held it for five years, topping out at 129 mph. A signed pair of Weber’s skis still sits in Le Feet Lab. Photo: Thomas Family Archives

Nordic Vic had long been a loyal customer of an unnamed cult boot fitter in my hometown of Winter Park, CO, spending a small fortune in both cash and 80-proof gratuities. But something continued to nag Vic—his feet. So, on the advice of friends, he headed to a bedraggled strip mall nearby—specifically, the small shop wedged between a 7-Eleven-turned-liquor-store and vacant VHS rental shop.

Vic sat on a sofa next to a sleeping shop dog. An aging man emerged from a set of stairs, past a collection of bisected boots that resembled the anatomy lab of some mad foot scientist. He shook Vic’s hand before Vic handed him his boots. “I had them done by [unnamed boot fitter],” Vic told him.

The man examined the liners for a few moments before pulling them from the shells and dropping them into the garbage. “Let’s just say he has his way of doing things,” he said, “and I have mine.”

I don’t want to put down your boot fitter. He or she is probably fine. But this is Jacques Thomas, owner of Le Feet Lab. Together with his daughter Jacqueline, Jacques has cemented a nearly religious following, earning the shop numerous awards and the loyalty of professional racers, freestylers and even entire foreign national teams. As impressive as Jacques’ reputation, however, is the circuitous path that led him to boot-fit royalty.

A few weeks after Vic’s visit, I pull into the shopping mall on a lazy weekday, parking in front of the empty video store. At the bottom of the stairs, I lock eyes with a poster of Spider Sabich as Jacqueline hands me a cup of coffee. An album of historic black-and-white photos of Winter Park sits between a pair of couches, and more posters line the wall, many signed by skiing’s luminaries (most of whom I can’t name, as their devotion to Le Feet’s ZipFit liners and foot beds violates their sponsorship contracts). A pair of race skis sits next to the door, which at one time were used to break the world speed record. They are signed, “To Jacques,” and still look fast.

Jacques’ own tale appears in a photo album sitting in the shop’s footlocker. The album is filled with glory shots from his adventures around the world. There are a lot of photos.

Born in Paris in 1945 during the last gasp of World War II, Jacques trained with the French Air Force to become a mechanical aeronautical technician. But when superiors found out he was color-blind, he was no longer allowed to fly or work on planes. Instead, he was transferred to Tignes to serve as a military ski instructor.

Before long, Jacques was a nationally certified instructor, and in 1969 he moved to the United States, where he got a job coaching a race team in Woodstock, VT—and from which the US Ski Team chose three of its racers.

But bigger mountains were calling, and in 1971 he headed west to Mammoth Mountain, CA. Through the ’70s, Jacques worked for both Look Bindings as a technical advisor to the US Ski Team, and for Rossignol, for which he set up an international junior program.

The Rossignol position proved fruitful. The company brought Jacques on as technical advisor for the French national team for both the FIS World Cup circuit and the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Then, in 1977 and ’78, Jacques worked as head coach for the Rossignol team, where he coached four world champions.

In the summer Jacques would escape to the Mediterranean, traveling to Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Israel and Yugoslavia. He also ran a big-game fishing school out of a boat he owned; for a time, he held the record for largest fish caught in the Mediterranean, a 734-pound red tuna.

Then, in 1979, Jacques settled down in Winter Park. He opened his first shop, Le Ski Lab, which eventually spread to four locations. Jacques was married in 1985, and had two daughters—Erica and Jacqueline—shortly thereafter. Life was busy for the Thomas family.

Jacques’ boot-fitting mastery truly began when he partnered with orthopedic surgeon Dr. Biff Kramer in 1986, a meeting that soon led him to Tania Wolanski, a mechanical and materials engineer. The result was an orthopedic foot bed with enough street cred to support the best athletes, and enough book knowledge to be covered by orthopedic prescriptions.

By 1998, Jacques decided to downsize to a single location and focus strictly on boot fitting. Le Ski Lab morphed into Le Feet Lab, and now, almost two decades later, I’m talking with Jacqueline about the upcoming mountain bike season as I wait for Jacques to work his magic—the same magic about which Vic had been raving for weeks.

Because Jacques has his way of doing things, and it’s almost always right.

This article originally appeared in The Ski Journal Volume 11 Issue 2.


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