Life in the fast track

Canada’s Steve Podborski is on top of the ski world and taking it in stride

Matthew Fisher February 16 1981

Life in the fast track

Canada’s Steve Podborski is on top of the ski world and taking it in stride

Matthew Fisher February 16 1981

Life in the fast track

Canada’s Steve Podborski is on top of the ski world and taking it in stride


Matthew Fisher

Steve Podborski, the best downhill racer in the world, looked out at the downhill course at Schladming, Austria, Saturday. The 23-year-old Torontonian had won the race there last year and was favored to win again, a victory that would make him the first non-European to ever capture the World Cup men’s downhill crown. But what Podborski saw was rain.

After two days of heavy snowfall had softened the icy course, the rain came in torrents. Saturday morning found about 40,000 Austrians and tourists huddled in the downpour as organizers of the second-last World Cup downhill race of the season debated postponement. Finally the jury decided to hold off until Sunday. “We’ll just have to go back to the hotel and reorganize,” said John Ritchie, the Canadian team coach.

Though Sunday dawned bright and the women were able to race on the course at nearby Haus, (see box, page 36) the rain had made the men’s course

unsafe. “It’s too bad,” said Austrian television commentator Heinz Proelier, “Podborski would have won for sure.” The cancellation left Podborski tied in points with Austria’s Harti Weirather, but technically ahead because of his three victories to Weirather’s two. As

the World Cup race committee debated whether to restage the race in conjunction with the downhill finale in early March in Aspen, Colo.; move it to Lake Louise, Alta., Laax, Switzerland, or Anchorage, Alaska, Podborski and the national team flew home to wait.

“This week has probably been the most tension-filled of Steve’s life, but he doesn’t show it,” says team masseur and confidant Terry Spence, who also acts as a coach at each race start, passing on last-second tidbits received by walkie-talkie from coaches on the course. “Steve just listens to the coaches until he is ready to go,” Spence says, “and then, wham, you just know he’s going to step on the loud pedal.”

At first sight it looks a little ridiculous—a grown man wearing skintight yellow pyjamas, standing at the top of a bitterly cold mountain on two 223-cmlong pieces of plastic. But when Podborski explodes into action, he suddenly becomes much more, hurtling down steep pitches—ones that even the best pleasure skiers only dare sideslip—at speeds of up to 140 km per hour. Steer-

ing around hairpin turns onto fall-away sidehill traverses, Podborski sometimes has to lean in at a 45° angle to maintain his balance. If he crashes, only one-sixteenth of an inch of woven plastic is between him and the ice, a tree or a rock. The only part of the body that is protected is his head, encased in a hard black plastic sheath, with little more foam rubber inside than you would find in a hockey player’s helmet.

Podborski is one of the glamor boys of alpine skiing, one of the fearless breed apart, the downhill racers. To speak with them can be a chilling experience. “The only thing I want to do when I’m going fast is go faster,” says Podborski.

“You don’t think, there is no thought process required in ski racing. You react like an animal. At the finish you can

At St Anton: missing the rocks by a hair

turn on to the real world again, and start talking again. During a race you see only the things that are the absolute necessities to maintain life. You only see what you’re doing as you move, just like in a car. It’s like being scared silly except that it’s a controlled thing. After having had a few big wipeouts, I think I can handle any pain that comes along, so there is not much to fear.”

Ken Read, who was in the hunt for the World Cup title right up to the final race last season, remarked two years ago that Podborski might one day be the best of the Canadians. While his team-mates seemed to have reached a plateau in the late 1970s (see box,) Podborski continued to improve by hundredths of a second every season. His ski career began at the age of 2xk when his mother took him to a nowdefunct golf course in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills. Steve skied down what little hill there was, cradled between his mother’s legs.

In 1974, after success in club and divisional races in Canada, the national team invited Podborski to a ski camp in

South America where, as he puts it, “Others decided that I should be a downhill racer.”

In 1979 at Morzine, France, Podborski came second but won his first race when Read was disqualified for wearing an illegal suit. Last winter Podborski won at Schladming, only to have the result annulled because fog and rain, similar to last weekend’s, made it impossible for later racers (with no chance to win) to navigate the course. Podborski also recorded the best first intermediate times at Val d’Isère, Pra Loup and Kitzbühel before crashing. The Austrian journalists took to calling it Der Pechvogel der Kanadier (the incredible bad luck of the Canadian). But he finished the year with promise, a bronze medal at the Olympics and a fourth at a World

Cup race in Lake Louise, Alta.

This winter he is the only racer to have finished in the top 15 in all of the eight downhills of the 10 that make up the World Cup. In fact, he’s only once been worse than third. “The difference between now and seven or eight years ago is incredible,” says the Canadian team’s greybeard, 27-year-old Dave Murray. “I always thought Steve had the best natural ability of any racer on the World Cup.”

Hans Huber, a journalist for the Vienna daily Die Presse, does not feel the oft-used nickname “Crazy Canuck” describes Podborski’s racing style. “This term was often used at the beginning of the Canadian era in downhill racing,” Huber says. “He’s a fine skier, who skis his own line, but he won’t take high risks. He’s got a very smooth style.”

This season’s successes have surprised even Podborski, who had been planning to use the year to build up to the world championships in 1982. Last May, while free skiing at Hintertux, Austria, Podborski tore an anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, the same knee that had been ripped apart in a crash at Kitzbühel in 1976. After the last accident Podborski was operated on in Toronto by Dr. John Kostuik. “This was a serious operation,” says Dr. Bernie Lalonde of Ottawa, who oversees the team’s medical program. “It was repaired and reconstructed using a band of tissue from the outside of the leg. Many people do not recover to a sufficient level to compete. Steve is the exception and he’s very fortunate. He doesn’t have a normal knee by your standards or mine, but it is probably as

recovered as it will ever be.” As another Ottawa doctor, Andy Pipe, who was with the team in December, says, “His competing speaks more of his mind than it does of his knee.”

On hard snow, or on days when he pushes himself in training, Podborski’s knee swells up. After last month’s victory on the rough Hahnenkamm Streif at Kitzbühel, the problem was particularly noticeable. The swelling stops him from doing any running in his dry-land program or joining any of the spontaneous soccer matches that the Europeans are forever organizing.

After reintroducing his knee to World Cup competition with two thirds and a 10th, Podborski won at St. Moritz just before Christmas, won again at Garmisch and then won ski racing’s Super Bowl, Kitzbühel.

When the defending downhill champion, Peter Mueller of Switzerland, fell at Wengen a week later, only three men remained to deprive the Englishspeaking world its first downhill champion: long shots Toni Buergler(who won at Wengen) and Austria’s Peter Wirnsberger, and the more consistent Harti Weirather. To win the title, all Podborski had to do was win one of the last three downhills. Weirather kept his chances alive by winning at St. Anton, Austria.

Podborski’s successes have thrust him into an international spotlight. With each victory came new requests for interviews with the shy, smiling Canadian. “If I did what everyone wants me to do I would never win,” he confided in Wengen as he rushed from entertaining a troupe of Swiss schoolgirls who had waited patiently for him for hours in the Hôtel Métropole lobby, to a video room for a CBS interview. But perhaps his most ardent pursuers are a pair of schoolgirls. Tina, from Austria, writes to him everywhere and telephones almost as frequently. Before he crashed at Garmisch, she had hounded Read. Neither racer has ever met her. Then there’s an enigmatic Swiss blonde who follows Podborski from race to race, camping out for hours in hotel lobbies to catch a glimpse of her hero.

At customs checkpoints, the guards often request one of Podborski’s postcards—supplied by his ski manufacturer-before waving him through. At ski resorts, his progress to the front of a lift line causes comments in any number of languages. “There he is. That’s him. Steve! Steve!” Podborski and, before him, Read, match Swedish slalom champion Ingemar Stenmark for appeal with the skiing public. Journalist Huber explains, “It’s because he is such a sympathetic guy. He’s always signing autographs. Mueller might be the most popular in Switzerland, Stenmark in Sweden, and Weirather in Austria, but for all the European countries it might well be Podborski. He is as big as Franz Klammer.”

With his fulsome grin, almost oriental eyes and his diamond earring (a legacy from a Toronto romance last year) Podborski appears like a bejewelled gypsy as he holds court in the finish area. While coach John Ritchie of Grand Forks, B.C., screens telephone calls and keeps the more persistent fans away from his star, Podborski tries to rest and read between races. A speed reader with a passion for science fiction, Podborski admits, his reading time has been drastically reduced in the past few weeks. “Some people have been quite obnoxious about getting to talk with me. I have to try to keep everything in perspective. I’m a ski racer and nothing should prevent me from preparing for my job, but there is no doubt I am in an unusual situation. I don’t expect a hockey player is phoned by a Canadian reporter he doesn’t know, expecting an interview at 10 at night, before a big game.” Watching the parade of journalists and fans with detached amusement, team-mate Murray says, “I’m sure Steve realizes he has gone

beyond skiing for the pure joy of it. He has certain obligations now. I don’t think it is affecting him adversely.” Sweden’s Stenmark continues to win almost all the slalom and giant slalom races and everyone admires his superb technique, but only a handful of people, many of them Scandinavian tourists holidaying in the Alps, come to watch him race. However, when a downhill race is scheduled, Alpine Europe comes to a halt, in much the way Canada does for a hockey match with the Soviet Union. And nowhere is downhill racing bigger than in Austria, the country that has dominated the sport for years. Heads roll at the various ski companies and on the national team when good results aren’t produced. It is surprising that Podborski, and before him Read, Dave Irwin and Dave Murray, can challenge Austria and other European nations when all the sport’s races, mon-

The manufacturers’ return on their investment is evident every time Podborski wins a race. Within seconds of crossing the finish line his skis are off, turned horizontally, and placed across the front of his body so the television cameras can’t miss the trade name. Later Podborski does a round of television interviews in his official team parka and official team cap. His goggles, bindings, poles and gloves—and their obvious brands—may also find their way into a camera shot. For his efforts on the hill and in the finish area, Podborski receives considerable financial rewards. While estimates of Stenmark’s yearly income go as high as $3 million, Podborski and Read earn much less. But they are still among the sport’s top earners. If Podborski wins the downhill crown this season, he will probably become the highest paid Canadian athlete in history, earning even

ey, and technical resources are not to be found in Canada. The Canadian Ski Association spends about $1 million a year on its race program (men and women)— less than half that available to the national teams from Italy, France, West Germany, Switzerland and the United States. The money available to the Austrians is impossible to calculate, so vast are their provincial programs.

A little more than half of the Canadian team’s money is provided by the federal government through Sport Canada. Of the rest, about half comes from donations from Canadian companies. Molson’s Brewery supports some training camps and World Cup races, whenever Canada is lucky enough to host one. Shell Canada sponsors the Canadian championships and General Motors sponsors the important Pontiac Cup series, where racers are first blooded. European ski manufacturers contribute several hundred thousand dollars through the national association’s ski pool. As well as supplying money, they also provide the equipment.

more than Marcel Dionne’s $650,000 a year.

Podborski has his eye on the world championships in Schladming in 1982 and has committed himself and his tender right knee to at least one more season of World Cup racing. For now, the pressure of winning, and pleasing the public and journalists in a sport where victory is almost always measured in hundredths of seconds, and where the difference between handling a difficult turn perfectly and torpedoing into a fence is measured in centimetres, seems to have no effect on Podborski’s personality. Coach Ritchie calls it accepting victory and superstardom, “in the Canadian tradition.”

Adds Dr. Lalonde: “I first met Steve when he joined the team seven years ago. The striking thing, the very nice thing about it, is that the only thing that has changed is that he has matured a bit. His attitude, his liveliness, his joie de vivre, that hasn’t changed. He’s the same old great guy who first arrived on the ski team.”