Sports

Four horsemen on the downhill staircase

Andy Shaw December 25 1978
Sports

Four horsemen on the downhill staircase

Andy Shaw December 25 1978

Four horsemen on the downhill staircase

Sports

Andy Shaw

They’re known in the European press as the “Canadian Kamikazes” or “Crazy Canucks.” After the first World Cup ski race of the year, they’re the kings of the mountain.

In Schladming, Austria, the second weekend of December, the Canadian Men’s downhill ski team pulled off its long-planned blitzkrieg of European rivals. Calgary’s Ken Read won the race; Dave Murray of Abbotsford, B.C., was second; Dave Irwin of Thunder Bay, Ontario, was seventh; and Steve Podborski of Toronto was ninth. Four Canadians in the top 10 seemed to confirm the prerace claim of Andrzej Kozbial, bossman of the Canadian Ski Association’s $650,000-a-year Alpine program: “Right now, the Canadians are the best downhill team in the world.”

Whether the inaugural race would be run at all was in doubt until the last minute. The traditional showcase season-opener in Val d’Isère, France, had been cancelled the previous week due to lack of snow. The race was switched to the Alpine valley town of 4,000 after promises of good conditions. Before the race, tons of snow, with liberal amounts of mud, had to be scraped from the surrounding meadows and trucked to the 3,600-metre course. Freezing temperatures during training kept the greyish mixture favorably hard for the Canadians’ assault. In four timed practice runs, Read was the fastest twice but couldn’t make believers of the Austrian press corps. Headlines dubbed him the “Training Run World Champion” for his history of fast practices not lived up to on race day.

But after 24 hours of rain, another

hour’s delay at the start on a course shortened by 800 metres, Read was the third man out of the starting gate. As the times flashed on the scoreboard, it was quickly clear that the red-suited Canadians had come to conquer while the mighty Austrians (whose countrymen booed them at the finish line) would manage only one in the top 10.

“The snow was a little grippier than in training,” said Read as he stood clutching grit-covered skis at the bottom, “but I ran the course pretty much the same way as I had all week.” His time was one minute, 32.11 seconds, just .06 seconds faster than Murray.

The first Canadian one-two World Cup finish was late last year at Chamonix, France, with Read and Murray again in tandem. Their coup was given one sentence in the 120-page fact book put out by the World Cup organizers, who explained that the Canadians had won because the other racers relaxed too much after the World Championships. That attitude and the readily discernible feeling on the circuit that the Canadians don’t really belong with the great Austrian, Swiss and Italian racers account in part for the Canadians’ motivation to beat the Europeans.

They still can’t match the sophistication of teams like the Austrians. With the entire country’s tourist and ski manufacturing industries behind them, the Austrians can afford such luxuries as a squad of thermometer-toting coaches to take snow temperatures minutes before the race to ensure proper waxing, and then fly the skis to the starting line by helicopter.

The Canadian Ski Association’s Alpine Development Program, launched after Nancy Greene’s retirement in

1968, brings up to 40 skiers to Europe each winter. In 10 years, it has made Canada competitive.

Read, 23, the free-spirited Murray, 25, the natural athlete Podborski, 21, a completely recovered Irwin, 24, and an evidently rejuvenated Kathy Kreiner, 21, are the chief assets of the CSA program. Financed largely by the federal government’s Game Plan agency, it first started to pay dividends in 1975. Read and Irwin won downhill races for Canada’s first-ever World Cup victories by male skiers and later that season, at

Innsbruck, Kreiner won her Olympic gold in the giant slalom. Their performance last year gave Canada more skiers than ever before in this year’s first seed. It is this first-to-go group of 15 that wins most races.

Within the first seed Read is ranked eighth, Murray 15th. A steadily improving Podborski leads the second seed in 16th place, but will likely move up.

Irwin, returning after two seasons of head and leg injuries, is ranked 62nd even though he was once ranked No. 2 in the world. But he vows, “I’ll be in the first seed by the New Year.” The International Ski Federation revises its rankings Jan. 1. On that date, judging

by the Schladming results, Canadians may outnumber the once vaunted Austrians who now have six first-seed skiers.

If that happens, much credit will be due to Andrzej Kozbial. Under the nononsense former Polish racer, the Canadian ski team finally seems to have its act together. Problems of the pastoutdated gear, poor technicians, insufficient training, uncommunicative coaches—have either been licked or eliminated by Kozbial. The upshot is that the national men’s team now has those four horsemen downhillers and its first potential slalom specialist of world calibre, Peter Monod of Banff.

For the women, there are Kreiner and two promising downhillers in Loni Klettl of Jasper and Laurie Graham of Toronto. “For these people this year, we’re trying to create an atmosphere that will prepare them for the 1980 Olympics. This is the dress rehearsal year,” says Kozbial, who has insisted racers specialize in their best events, World Cup rules irritatingly to the contrary.

“It is such an artificial thing,” he says of this year’s new scoring system, which will only award the over-all World Cup title to skiers who compete in all three Alpine events—slalom, giant slalom and downhill. “They changed the rules because Ingemar Stenmark was winning so much and public interest was falling off.” Stenmark, a slalom specialist from Sweden, has won the World Cup for the past three years.

Read, named last week co-winner of the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s outstanding athlete of 1978, is one skier who is happy to remain what he is—a downhiller. “Ken has very clear goals. He wants to be another Franz Klammer,” says Kozbial. Klammer, who was felled by the flu and did not race at Schladming, is the reigning Olympic and World Cup downhill champion. Read has the physical skills to handle the more than 100-kilometre-per-hour downhill speeds that piston the legs and promise serious injuries for mistimed turns, but it is his mind that is his true strength. “Ken is uncanny,” says teammate Podborski. “We all remember the various courses. But Ken can tell you

everyone’s time on those courses—for the past five years.”

Men’s Head Coach John Ritchie feels physical conditioning is giving the Canadians the edge this season. “We changed their dry land training with some help from fitness experts back home. When we tested them this fall against their previous records, they were more fit than they’d ever been.”

Before the tests, the condition of Podborski and Irwin was a worry. Podborski, considered by the coaches to have the best technical skills of all the Canadians, had been improving steadily last season. His seventh place finish at the World Championships in January at Garmisch was the best of the team. Then, in May, he went to a team training camp in Colorado at Copper Mountain. “We were sleeping at 10,000 feet and skiing at 12,000. I got something called altitude sickness. It can kill you and I was getting there.” Following a spell in hospital at Denver, Podborski had recovered enough by midsummer to be back at his off-season hobby of bicycle racing.

Many thought Irwin’s career was finished following a freak injury suffered at an Austrian training camp last fall. “I hit someone on the hill and my leg was badly hurt. It was a large, massive blow to the thigh. All the blood and scar tissue started turning into calcium. It bonded my leg and I couldn’t bend it at all.” Deciding against an operation, he cross-country skied in the winter and just let the leg heal itself. The heavily muscled Irwin proved his recovery complete with his seventh at Schladming, despite a starting position of 39th. Back in 1976, Irwin was vying with Franz Klammer for No. 1 ranking in the world until a fall on the awesome downhill in Wengen, Switzerland, ended his season with a severe concussion. At the bottom of the Schladming course, Irwin peered from behind fogged-up spectacles and said, “I’m very happy.” Irwin fell in a training run at Val Gardena, Italy, last week, suffering a concussion, arm, hand and knee injuries. He won’t race again until January, at the earliest.

Irwin skies on the wilder side of the hell-bent-for-finish-line style that his team-mates share. It is a style that has earned the team wide renown in Europe and was once described by British ski writer John Samuels as a “series of linked recoveries.”

One skier whose style doesn’t fit that mould is Kathy Kreiner. At her best, she is a rhythmical, fluid skier with a knack for holding the best line. But last year she was not at her best. Kreiner quit Europe before the race season ended, barely hanging on to 15th and last place in the top seed of her giant slalom speciality. “Last season was the worst year I have had in my career,” says the national team member for the past eight years. “People thought I was going to retire but I never considered quitting.” In her first World Cup outing this season, a downhill in Piancavallo, Italy, Kreiner placed a respectable 11th.

New women’s Head Coach Currie Chapman of Nelson, B.C., a former racer for Canada, hopes his charges will develop along the same lines as the men. “We’ve got four or five good potential

downhillers with us now, so that’s what we’re going to work on.”

The two most promising are sophomores Loni Klettl, 19, of Jasper, and Laurie Graham, 18, of Toronto. As athletic types they are ski poles apart. Klettl, long and lively, is the girls’ team jester but more importantly to Chapman, “Loni is a naturally talented skier, a good slider who carries her speed well.”

The compact Graham matches Klettl’s zest for the ski-racing life but lacks about five inches of her height; “Laurie is a dedicated, hard-working girl,” says Chapman. “Before she even made the national team she was over here in Europe training on her own.”

Chapman feels today’s racer is a better breed than when he and men’s coach Ritchie competed for Canada. “Back then, when we made the national team, we’d reached our goal. I didn’t really have it in my heart that I could ever win on the European circuit. But these kids are different. They look at making the national team as the beginning of a new ladder. You can work with that kind of attitude.”

To get around during the four-month World Cup season, racers and coaches alike pack themselves into Volkswagen buses, competing for space with boots, skis and slalom poles. Last year the Ateam members, like Read and Podborski, drove their own cars—supplied by a ski manufacturer. One day while journalists picked their way nervously down into Val d’Isère on ice-glazed roads, the Canadian pair shot by on the outside. “When you are a downhill racer, you have to get used to speed,” Podborski said later.

Perhaps because their daily lives are filled with such extremes, the Canadian skiers generally prefer the warm, woody glow of family hotels like Schladming’s Schütterhof for nighttime relaxation. “They shun the resort disco scene like the plague,” said team masseur Terry Spence of Vancouver. It’s not that A-team skiers like Read and Murray can’t afford the $9-a-bottle beer prices in Val d’Isère’s boîtes. Both receive normal government Game Plan allowances plus up to an estimated $20,000 a year from the ski manufacturers who supply their gear. (The money is set aside in trust to protect their amateur status.)

Yet a typical evening would find Read at the team hotel scanning the International Herald Tribune for news on international monetary rates at which he is considered something of an expert. Podborski, who wears the only sign of eccentricity on the team—a diamond stud in his left ear—would be speedreading his way through his favorite literature. Murray would be out running and Irwin quizzing the masseur on the body’s pressure points. “It is hard to believe, but a big night out for these guys is finding a restaurant that serves interesting food,” says Spence.

That lifestyle has spawned a remarkable team spirit for what is essentially an individual sport. “With such a large group of good people, we are always watching each other, trading ideas, and that can only help,” says Read.

Schladming proved that it’s working and that even the Austrians are beatable. Yet nowhere would the Canadians like to beat the Europeans again than at Whistler Mountain, B.C., when the World Cup returns to Canada after a two-year absence with the men’s downhill March 9. As coach Ritchie says, “We would really like to blow the doors off them there.” But it may be anticlimactic, because in Schladming, the Canadians knocked the house down.