An assault on an alpine preserve

Matthew Fisher March 1 1982

An assault on an alpine preserve

Matthew Fisher March 1 1982

An assault on an alpine preserve


Matthew Fisher

Alpine Europe has been hosting ski races for more than half a century and for almost as long the sons and daughters of its postcardperfect valleys have been winning them. However, in the past decade the technical events, the slalom and giant slalom, have become the domain of a quiet Swede, Ingemar Stenmark, and twins from the state of Washington, Phil and Steve Mahre. Only one discipline remained an alpine preserve—the sport’s greatest spectacle, the downhill. Not any more.

Through the 1970s the best the rest of the world could manage in more than 180 World Cup and World Championship downhills was a dozen victories. Yet more than half of those wins had gone to one country—Canada—and in the Alps it was clear where the challenge of the ’80s lay.

Starting with Steve Podborski’s victory in the sunshine of jet-set St. Moritz on Dec. 21, 1980, Canadian men and women have won 10 World Cup and World Championship downhills. The Austrian downhill machine with its ski schools and factories and its multimillion-dollar race program has won eight. The equally well-heeled Swiss have won seven. No other country has won more than three times.

Canada’s downhill assault peaked three weeks ago at the women’s World Championships at Haus, Austria, when a shy young woman from British Columbia’s rugged interior, Gerry Sorensen, came through first. Laurie Graham, from the flatlands of southern Ontario, was third, and Dianne Lehodey of Calgary was fifth. As Graham, in her unmistakable Canadian, said: “We

really showed them, eh?” Then a week later at Garmisch, West Germany, Podborski won his third World Cup downhill of the season, stretching his lead in the standings to 22 points. A non-alpine racer has never won the downhill title, but as the circuit swings into Whistler, B.C., this week, Podborski is poised for the final break with ski-racing tradition.

Racing at home is not something the Canadians are used to. In Podborski’s eight years on the World Cup tour, Canada has only hosted one race (two years ago at Lake Louise, where he was fourth). The women have never raced a downhill at home. In fact, for more than 50 years almost everything has been stacked against the Canadians. “We live in Canada and fly to Europe all the time to try and beat people at their own game,” explains Podborski. “You come to a race and they’ve got more videos, more section timers and what seems like 1,000 coaches. All the factories are

in Europe and we have to beg, borrow and steal sometimes to get properly equipped.”

How is it then, that Canada, without any home advantage and with one of the smallest and least costly race programs, has been producing so many winners in a sport that the Austrians and Swiss have for so long regarded as their own? The coach of the Canadian women’s team, Currie Chapman, has a theory. “We may be mentally tougher. It stems from a feeling I think Canadians have that you have to suffer through pain a little more than the other person. Look at the men’s team. There is Podborski with a weak knee and a broken shoulder, but he never complains about it. I think we have a different approach to danger and pain.”

No strangers to danger or pain, Podborski and Read are the last of the “Crazy Canucks,” a moniker coined by a French journalist in the mid-’70s to describe or perhaps even to explain the arrival of the Canadian downhill team in Europe.

Until then Canadian men had always been in the considerable shadow of individual women stars like 1958 world downhill champion Lucile Wheeler of Gray Rocks, Que., Ottawa’s 1960 Olympic champion, Anne Heggtveit, and 1968 Olympic champion Nancy Greene of Rossland, B.C., who won the first two

World Cup overall titles in 1967 and 1968. But suddenly, in 1975, the men were a team to be reckoned with. Ken Read won at Val d’Isère and a week later Dave Irwin was first at a World Cup downhill at Schladming, Austria.

An easygoing British Columbian, Dave Murray, a veteran from Saskatchewan,

Jim Hunter, and a fresh-faced 18-yearold Podborski from Don Mills, Ont., completed the team.

Their trademark was death-defying aggression on downhill pistes, and the Europeans loved it. Recalling those early years Podborski says: “Canada chose to start concentrating on downhill because it was the easiest way to the top. You can get better start numbers more quickly because there aren’t many people who like to run it. It’s very scary.” Jungle Jim Hunter was the team’s first leader. “Eventually we overtook him,” says team leader Podborski. “First Ken was faster and then Ir [Irwin] and Mur [Murray]. Then Ken again. We pushed each other to the top.”

Read, who has won six races in the past six seasons, adds, “The Canadian team was lucky in that it got together at the same time a bunch of individuals with the same amount of ability.”

Hunter retired in 1977, Irwin suffered a string of terrifying crashes on the slopes, and Murray was never able to move up from several excellent secondplace finishes. By the end of the decade Read and Podborski were obviously the best of the Crazy Canucks.

Theirs is an odd but enduring friendship despite occasional suggestions to the contrary in the European press. To watch them in the starting gate is to understand a little of what makes them what they are. Read is quiet and disciplined, almost going into a trance. Podborski is all jokes and laughter and seems to crave a few last-second distractions from the task at hand.

Once they leave the starting gate, atop some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, a paradox is quickly revealed. The supposedly disciplined Read maintains much of that old Crazy Canuck style, slicing windmill fashion down any mountain, in a way that reminds many of Austria’s ’70s golden boy,

Franz Klammer. Podborski bolts from the gate, emerging as one of the new wave of smooth, technically precise downhill racers, his aggressiveness concealed in gracefully carved turns.

At the finish both revert to their prerace personalities. Podborski works the press with a huge grin and self-deprecating remarks. The more cautious Read carefully weighs his thoughts before providing the definitive intellectual analysis of the race.

Money is one of the few things the two racers do not like to discuss. As amateurs everything received goes through trust funds administered by the Canadian Ski Association. It is said that every World Cup downhill victory is worth at least $50,000, and Podborski is often called “a millionaire in blue jeans.”

But it is not for the money that they race, nor for the greater glory of their country. “I do it for myself and for nothing else,” Podborski declares. “I started skiing because I like it and that is the only reason to continue doing this ridiculous sport.” Now with six victories in 14 months Podborski has taken a final step and moved into a class of his own. Only Austria’s Harti Weirather can be viewed as a consistent rival. “It has been a slow climb to the top,” Read says of his friend. “Now he is the one to beat.”

One thing that has troubled the racers, including Irwin and Murray who will retire at the end of the season, is that there are no heirs apparent for the last of the Crazy Canucks. Perhaps Todd Brooker, 22, a tall, handsome racer from Paris, Ont., who has scored a series of bottom-end first-seed results

this winter and a second in the World Championship combined downhill, can put something together. But after him there is no one. There are no five young men champing at the bit as there were in 1975.

“We’ve put together a program that worked for those guys,” says John Ritchie, who became national team coach in 1977. “For five years we’ve been competitive with the greatest downhill nation there is [Austria], and we aren’t an alpine nation. But perhaps our program is tailored to the needs of the guys at the top. It may not be working for the younger guys.”

Podborski thinks much the same way. “It is true that there aren’t a lot of good young downhill racers, but we are working hard to correct that. We had a group of guys become good at the same time in the mid’70s. Now young guys come along and maybe they don’t get the same chance because we are so far ahead of them. They come over to Europe and see guys come howling by at 80 miles per hour.

Just seeing that can blow a lot of people away. Perhaps they imagine that they’ll never be there. I know that when I started it was outside my comprehension. I never dreamed I’d do as well as I’m doing now.”

A more immediate

question surrounds the future of Podborski and Read. Will they continue to race? After his third poor result in a row in the last race in Europe (a 20th) Read muttered that it was perhaps “My last race in Europe.” A more typical and less emotional response to the question came later. “There are still some things to prove to myself. One goal, after injuring my knee last season, was to get back into the world’s elite. I’ve achieved that with three thirds this winter but not to my complete satisfaction.” To prepare for this season Read endured a particularly long and arduous training regimen. “Now I must ask myself if, after a summer with a normal training pattern, can I do better, better than I have done this season.” If the answer is no, Read will probably start studying law full time.

“Ski racing is too ephemeral to look very far ahead,” says Podborski in response to the same question. “This is my eighth year on the World Cup and that is a long time at any job with a lot of pressure and total involvement. It is a difficult life and I can’t say I like it, but so far the racing has been a lot of fun. I get a real kick out of it. In the

spring I’ll look at this question and think about what this sport still holds for me.”

Their assistant downhill coach, Heinz Rappeler, is one of the many who hope they will continue to race. “Ren is 26 and Steve is 24,” he says. “Those are the very best years for a downhill racer.”

While Read and Podborski may be the last of the great Canadian male racers for some time, Gerry Sorensen is only the first in what promises to be a new generation of world-class Canadian women skiers. They could control the downhill for years.

Unlike her alpine opponents and most of her teammates, Sorensen was not raised in a skiing family. The new women’s world champion did not even

begin to ski until she was 10 and confesses to not having taken the sport seriously until she was 19. Now she does little else but gear herself up for racing. Sorensen has been blessed with what every downhill racer dreams of, an ability to ride a flat ski. “A lot of people seem to have trouble with it,” she admits. “It j ust came naturally. I’m a good glider and I don’t think about it.”

Her downhill signature is a high tuck that coaches have tried to alter for several years. “As soon as you see it you want to change it,” says coach Chapman. “But the results of her wind tunnel tests show that it doesn’t create that much extra drag.” Race fans notice her high awkward tuck, but close observers like Dr. Andrew Pipe of Ottawa, who spends considerable time with the women’s team in Europe, have been most impressed with her mental preparation. “She has an inner strength. She can focus her thoughts on a race and not be distracted in any way by extraneous things. The ability to summon up this psychological strength is part of the

makeup of almost all champion athletes.”

Sorensen also displays no fear at all and claims to enjoy high-speed bumps that make many racers nervous. Chapman considers his late-blooming prodigy to be among the easiest of skiers to coach. “She just does everything you ask her to do,” he says. “If you want her to jump at 80 miles an hour, she’ll jump for you at 80 miles an hour. She can accept these sort of instructions by radio at the last minute and execute them perfectly.”

Pushing Sorensen is a gallery of young racers. The effervescent Graham is the most obvious of them and not only because of her personality. The 21-yearold World Championship bronze medalist is the most technically smooth of the Canadian women and seemingly the most at ease in Europe. Others are the oft-injured but now greatly improved Dianne Lehodey; Shanne Leavitt of Calgary, who has a special affinity for hard snow; and Europa Cup champion Diana Haight of Fruitvale, B.C., who, like so many of the Canadians before her, is just now recovering from x knee surgery.

> Chapman’s cheerful I little band makes do on a * budget of $200,000 a I £ year. According to goals Ijset in 1979 the team is

right on target with its two World Championship downhill medals, but Chapman has much higher ambitions. “By 1984, and especially by 1988 when the Olympics are in Calgary, we need to be as good in slalom and giant slalom as we are now in the downhill.”

The men’s team is pointed in the same direction. Should this happen, the Europeans could be slightly less friendly to the Canadians. Until now the Europeans have viewed the Canadians as something of a curiosity. If a Swiss couldn’t win he would cheer for a Canadian. So would an Austrian if one of his skiers wasn’t first. And the feeling is shared by the public, as reflected by Podborski’s mailbag. Only one in 10 fan letters comes from a Canadian admirer. Swiss writers head the list, followed by Austrians, West Germans and Scandinavians.

But as racers prepared for this week’s downhill at Whistler, the skiers and fans from alpine Europe had much to ponder aside from Podborski possibly clinching the World Cup crown. Skiing medals no longer belong exclusively to sons and daughters from the Alps. Canada is claiming it’s share.