While Kerrin Lee-Gartner was preparing for her gold-medal downhill ski race at the Winter Olympics last week, she received a fax mes-
sage from Nancy Greene. “She just said to ski well and good luck,” LeeGartner said later. “It was real special.” Such a message would have been special for any woman skiing for Canada: ever since Greene won gold and silver medals at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, she has been the patron saint of Canadian women skiers. But for Lee-Gartner, it had even more significance. She grew up in Rossland, B.C., just two doors from where Nancy Greene lived. And although Lee-Gartner was just one year old when Greene had her moment in the Olympic spotlight, she still acknowledges a debt. “Her influence on skiing,” she said, “went right through the community.”
It was there, on the slopes of nearby Red Mountain, a small West Kootenay resort in south-central British Columbia, that Lee-Gartner had her first tentative taste of skiing at the age of 3.
She competed in the local Nancy Greene beginners league, then quickly graduated to more senior competition. And she found Red Mountain an ideal place to develop her skills. “It’s a hidden secret in Canada,” she said.
“It’s not close to any big city, so when you’re skiing there as a child you don’t have the crowds you would have in a big resort. And you can have any kind of skiing you want—flats, steeps, moguls, powder.” By the time she was 18, she had qualified for Canada’s national C team—two levels below the top—and skied her first world championship race in February, 1985.
Injuries: Lee-Gartner already had her sights set on big-time success. But she had to overcome serious injuries that might well have deterred a lessdetermined athlete. In early 1986, she crashed during a World Cup race at Val d’Isère, France. Her right ski struck a rock, and the ligaments of her right knee were badly tom. It took surgery and eight months of daily physiotherapy to repair the damage,
and she returned to World Cup competition the following season. In February, 1989, Lee-Gartner’s luck failed her again. During another World Cup race in Colorado, she miscalculated a bump and broke her knee, requiring more surgery. But on the weekend, as the 25-year-old athlete savored the feeling of being an Olympic champion, she had a
message for other athletes who have to overcome obstacles to make it to the top: “It’s worth it, it’s worth every sacrifice you have to make.”
Lee-Gartner’s parents—Terry, an engineer, and Jane, a nurse—who now live in Tsawwassen, B.C., got the report of her approaching victory
from a friend in Switzerland, who was watching the event on five TV; their daughter, the friend said, was leading after 12 racers. That was 2:30 a.m. West Coast time. Confirmation of her victory did not come for another 30 minutes, a period Terry Lee described as “the longest two years of my life.” On the morning after in Calgary, in the quiet neighborhood where LeeGartner now lives, her next-door neighbor, Ernie Hunter, said: “We’re on a real high. She’s a very unaffected, friendly neighbor—there’s no pomp about her.”
‘Talent’: At Red Mountain, staff and regulars lingered in the chalet’s cafeteria to exchange anecdotes about their new heroine. “I think you can tell early on if a kid has the talent to go all the way,” said Thomas Johnston, a teacher and ski coach at Rossland High School. “That was certainly the case with Kerrin.” Michael Delich, the coach who spotted the youngster at Red Mountain in 1975 and got her involved with racing, said that LeeGartner was always pushing herself— first to keep up with her older sister, Kelli, and later in racing, beginning with her first downhill on Red Mountain’s War Eagle run when she was 8. Her Olympic triumph, added Delich, was well deserved. “She has consistently been in the Top 10 on the World Cup circuit for the last two years,” he said. “Today, she had the luck, and she had a good start number. Kerrin knew that she could win, and today she did.” Ken Read, another Canadian skiing hero, was at the finish line when LeeGartner grabbed her gold. “This sends a strong message to all the world that we Canucks don’t just come to the Olympics to participate,” Read declared. “We come to win.”
After winning big, Lee-Gartner, whose hobbies include golf and soccer, will face some personal decisions. Three years ago, she married Max Gartner, a onetime professional soccer player in his native Austria who went on to become coach of the Canadian women’s Alpine skiing team; Kerrin Lee met him when she joined the team. After the race, she said that she planned to take a vacation with her husband and think about the future. Max Gartner, 33, appeared to have
some plans for that. Receiving congratulations for his wife’s victory, he said: “I’m trying to talk her into having babies. I’m sure old enough for it. But it would be unfair if she thought that she hadn’t yet done what she could do. Maybe now she’s done it.” What Lee-Gartner did in the French
Alps last week was both unexpected and inspiring, a golden triumph for the young woman from Nancy Greene’s town.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.