ALPINE SKIING

A WOMAN OF STEEL

At 27, Canadian downhill champion Laurie Graham has one last chance to win Olympic gold

Brian D. Johnson February 2 1988
ALPINE SKIING

A WOMAN OF STEEL

At 27, Canadian downhill champion Laurie Graham has one last chance to win Olympic gold

Brian D. Johnson February 2 1988

A WOMAN OF STEEL

ALPINE SKIING

At 27, Canadian downhill champion Laurie Graham has one last chance to win Olympic gold

The lone figure running on the black cinder track is beginning to sweat. She does an energetic high-step, with knees knifing above her waist. She walks slowly back, then does it again, faster. Then again, faster still. Now she is doing full-out sprints, bolting from a crouch and pumping hard for 100 m. Catching her breath, she walks onto the grass to do some stretching exercises. She peels off powder-blue track pants to reveal metallic-grey spandex tights. Her legs do not look like a sprinter’s legs. The calves are too slender and small compared with the thighs, which are long and thick and smoothly muscled. They are the legs of a skier: Canadian downhill champion Laurie Graham. On a fall day at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, Graham is pushing her body through a rigorous training program. “Listen to this,” she says, as she does some deep knee bends. With each bend, you can hear a soft crunching noise, like the sound of Velcro being torn apart. Put a hand on her knee as it flexes and there is a grinding friction, as if the insides were rusted. “It’s a roughening of the kneecap,” explains Graham with a shrug. “My knees are just worn out. They’re not weak and they don’t hurt. But they swell up, and I have to ice them every day after I train.”

After a decade of rattling down the world’s mountains at speeds of up to 130 km/h, it is not surprising that Graham’s knees have begun to show some wear. At 27, she is one of the oldest competitors on the World Cup circuit, where her nickname is “Granny Graham.” But she remains a formidable contender. As North America’s top-ranked downhill skier, she has won six World Cup races during her career. Graham, who was named Canada’s female athlete of the year for 1986, is Canada’s most successful skier since Nancy Greene, who won a gold medal in 1968.

Graham placed third in last season’s World Cup downhill standings, with Switzerland’s Maria Walliser and Michela Figini ranked in the first and second positions. But her familiarity with the steep pitches of Calgary’s Mount Allan, where she has raced more frequently than her European competitors, gives her an edge. And her fearless disposition has equipped her to handle the high stakes of Olympic competition. Says former downhill champion Ken Read: “In any race, Laurie’s a threat to win. When the chips are down, she rises to the occasion. She may be getting older, but there hasn’t been any decline in her talent.”

A decade ago Canada’s male skiers dominated the sports pages. But in recent years the women, led by Graham, have stolen the spotlight. Internationally, women’s alpine skiing is now regarded as one of the most glamorous Olympic sports. Like comic-book heroines, its sleek-costumed competitors seem to embody superhuman extremes of danger and beauty, flash and style. Europe’s top women skiers are major stars, pursued by paparazzi and generous corporate sponsors. In North America, where skiers have a lower profile, Graham can walk the streets with relative anonymity. But she has done a thorough job of exploiting her status. Each time she bolts from the starting gate in a World Cup race, McDonald’s golden arches are clearly visible on her helmet. Her image-blue-eyed and wholesome-has graced TV commercials for products ranging from McDonald’s breakfasts to McCain’s orange juice. Her other sponsors include the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Labatts, Kodak and various ski manufacturers. “Now I’m trying to get more into fashion and cosmetic endorsements,” says Graham. “You can be feminine and athletic as well.”

Graham projects a snow-fresh image of small-

town innocence. She still lives with her parents in the Ontario village of Inglewood, close to Collingwood’s hills, where she first took up skiing at 5. But her business sense is as sharp as the steel edges on her Blizzard skis. The bestmarketed female athlete in Canada, she earns roughly $300,000 a year from commercial endorsements, which is kept in a trust fund so that she can retain her amateur status. “Laurie is very bubbly on the outside,” says her agent, Glen Calkins, “but is very conscientious on the inside about the direction her career is taking.”

After 10 years on the circuit Graham has come to regard racing more as a job than a thrill, and she is seeking the best possible severance. So far, her marketability has been closely tied to her continuing success as a racer. Her equipment manufacturers often award her bonuses for her victories, with further rewards for overall standing in World Cup and Olympic competition. But shrewd athletes can cruise on their reputations long after their racing days are over. The trick is to pick the right moment to quit. Graham has wanted to retire for several years, but she has stuck to the slopes, waiting for her market value to mature. Says Graham: “The monetary rewards of a medal are unlimited. You have so much more clout in the marketplace. It’s like having a degree behind your name.”

Graham, who dropped out of Grade 12 to become a full-time racer, is anxious to secure a payoff for her achievement-a product of perseverance as much as refined technique. Like most Canadian skiers, she lacks the

finesse of her rigorously schooled European competitors. But in the tradition of Read and Steve Podborski, who became known as the Crazy Canucks for their aggressive approach, she has learned to compensate with raw nerve. And in a downhill race, unlike slalom, raw nerve is a valuable asset. “Laurie is very strong physically,” says Currie Chapman, head coach of the women’s alpine ski team, “but her greatest strength is her mind. She can handle pressure very well.”

For Graham, racing is a feat of absolute concentration. “You’re in control right from the start,” she says. “You can hear the crowd just at first. It’s almost like they push you down the hill. After that, you don’t see them or hear them. You might hear yourself breathing, grunting. Everything is in slow motion, suspended. If you make a mistake, it might mean just two-tenths of a second, but time is so elongated you can scramble to catch up. It’s like a tape running. The program is in your head from the three or four training runs you’ve had. Then, in the race, you let your body do the work.”

In the nine years that Chapman has coached Graham, he has come to recognize a familiar pattern: she takes far greater risks in a race than in training. “She will talk very openly about not liking this bump or that corner,” says Chapman, “but on race day she will go full out. To think of coming down a hill at 100 km/h and then for one race increasing to 130 km/h is incredible. It takes incredi-

ble mental toughness.” Indeed, despite the perils of her sport, Graham seems immune to what Read calls “the fear factor.” Read says that female racers tend to be more open about their fears, but he adds that Graham is often unwilling to commiserate with her teammates. “She’s very singular of mind,” he says. “On race day she just blocks out the rest of the world. She has her own game plan.” Downhill skiing requires a certain measure of faith, and Graham admits to a strong spiritual streak. She draws inspiration from the works of Christian author Catherine Marshall. “I don’t want to be seen as a Biblebelting Christian,” she says, “and I don’t pray, ‘Please let me win.’ ” But she does rely on something called the “Prayer of Relinquishment” found in Marshall’s book Adventures in Prayer. “It means if you want something really badly,” she explains, “you have to let go of it. Then amazing things happen. When you get your will and God’s working toward the same purpose, then you’ll get places.”

Laurie Graham was born and raised in Inglewood (population 450), a village built on the farmland that her Scottish ancestors first cleared in 1840. The youngest of four children, Graham recalls that she was “very protected-I was the cute little one.” Her mother, Marty, is the daughter of a Presbyterian minister; her father, Martin, owns two glass-fibre processing plants in Inglewood. Marty says: “Laurie is like me in her outgoingness, but the

determination and stick-to-itness are all her dad’s. The attitude of ‘how you play the game’ was always stressed in our family.”

Graham learned to play hard at an early age. Her parents’ home sits on the crest of a hill overlooking Inglewood, and Marty remembers Laurie hurtling straight down the steep, shrub-pocked hill on her first pair of skis. “Laurie was fearless,” says her mother. “She had a natural competitive streak. I think it’s because the last child in the family is always trying to keep up.”

Joining her siblings at the exclusive Osier Bluff Ski Club in Collingwood, where her father is a charter member, Graham progressed quickly. She began racing at age 10, and by 13 she performed well enough to make the Southern Ontario Division Team. In 1977, when she was 17, Graham was asked to join the National Alpine Ski Team. She was a successful student at the prestigious University of Toronto Schools, and her parents had hoped to see her graduate. But Graham wanted to ski, and they supported her choice.

Says Marty: “It’s not fair to give your kids opportunities if you’re not going to let them take them as far as they are able to.”

In joining the national team, Graham waved goodbye to a normal adolescence of dates and homework.

Ahead was a nomadic and highly disciplined life on the international ski circuit. She spends summers lifting weights, cycling and running at her parents’ home, which also has tennis courts and a pool. The rest of the time she trains with the team or races on the World Cup circuit, which involves four months of constant travel. “You get used to the lifestyle,” says Graham,

“but it’s still hard. You train for a few days, race on weekends and then move on. There is nothing glamorous about it.” Occasionally she rebels. One evening Graham sat drinking beer in a pub after her curfew had expired, with Chapman looking on. “Currie just sat there glaring at me,” Graham recalls. “He didn’t approach me to discuss it. He just fined me $100.”

For a while, it appeared that Graham’s independent nature could derail her skiing career. In 1978, the year Chapman became the team’s head coach, Graham won the junior and senior Canadian championships and was beginning her assault on the World Cup circuit. But she had also become romantically involved with one of her coaches: he was retiring from the team and asked her to leave with him. “I knew from the start that she was going to be good,” says Chapman. “But we had to sort out her personal life a bit. She hadn’t really made the commitment to racing.” Graham ended the relationship and made a vow of fidelity to her sport.

With Chapman acting as coach, confidant and big brother, she began to carve out an international reputation. In 1982 she won a bronze medal at the world championships in

Austria, then scored her first World Cup victory at Mont Tremblant, Que., the following year. But in 1984 Graham’s career slumped and she again toyed with retirement. “I was aware that I had been in the press for eight years,” she recalls, “always coming in the top 10, always promising. But I felt that I hadn’t won the World Cup and wasn’t going to be the best.”

Meanwhile, a new romance with a Californian offered an alternative to racing. In 1984 Graham, who was returning from California, greeted Chapman at the Vancouver airport in

tears. She told him she was quitting and wanted no argument. Later that day, on a fivehour drive to a training site, they had a heartto-heart talk. Chapman pointed out that retiring after a weak year would be an unwise business decision. He also agreed to let her drop out of giant slalom events, allowing her to concentrate on downhill and super giant slalom, which involve fewer turns and higher speeds. She decided to give it one more try.

In the past three seasons Graham has regained her form. Although an accident late in the 1986 season ruined her bid for the World Cup title, she finished third in World Cup standings. The crash happened in Banff when she miscalculated a turn near the top of an icy course, hit a gate and flew backward into a snow fence at more than 100 km/h. Miraculously, she was unhurt. Since then, the racer has given up the California friend and adopted a new discipline. “My long-distance relationships haven’t worked,” she says. “I can’t seem to give men what they need in terms of feeling loved, because when I’m gone, I’m gone.”

Recently, however, Graham found a new boyfriend who could serve as an ally rather than an obstacle in her career: Clarke Flynn, who is training to be a driver on Canada’s bobsleigh team. Talking about him in tones of unquestioning devotion, Graham says Flynn “is my main consultant, coach and motivator.” Her sprint exercises, which he devised, have put her in better physical condition than ever before. Because he is also an athlete, Flynn understands her need for independence. “We both know that you have to be a little selfish,” says Graham. “When race season arrives, you have to withdraw from the other person.”

At the Calgary Games, there will be no time for distractions: the stakes are too high. As years of training culminate in a brief headlong flight down Mount Allan, the mind must be as streamlined as the body. But when her racing days are over, Graham will face the even tougher course of a new career. Her horizons have expanded considerably since she was a young teenager. Then, she recalls, “I wanted to be a really efficient secretary for a big businessman, because I liked being on the go and getting things done and crossing things off lists. Now, I think I can be the boss-I’d like to be involved in the business world.”

Being a championship athlete tends to raise expectations. But a decade of racing does not automatically qualify an athlete for success in the outside world. With help from her agent, Graham has been grooming herself for the task. “Our goal,” explains Calkins, “is to take Laurie from being an alpine ski racer to a marketable personality.” In her latest commercial venture, she is not just flogging another product; she herself is the main attraction. Graham stars in an elaborate $100,000 audiovisual production, The Winning Spirit, which compares athletic triumph to corporate success. Calkins customizes the elaborate show for corporate sales conferences, charging the corporation up to $25,000. But for all the enthusiasm that Graham brings to promotional work, her ambitions remain unfocused. She talks vaguely about a future in public relations, while Calkins suggests she might become a TV commentator, or lend her name to a line of ski wear.

For the past decade Graham has lived in a world regimented by curfews and stopwatches, a sheltered existence where clothes, equipment, accommodations and even cars are provided by sponsors. Regardless of how she fares at the Olympics, she will soon be poised at a new starting gate, with the uncharted course of a second career lying ahead of her. “She’s good-looking, intelligent and articulate,” says Read. “She could go a long way.” Laurie Graham has shown that she can go fast; now she has to prove that she can go far.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

DANIELLE KEEFLER