Canada's Golden Girl


ANDREW PHILLIPS February 24 1992

Canada's Golden Girl


ANDREW PHILLIPS February 24 1992

Canada's Golden Girl



Athletes often talk about having dreams of winning the ultimate accolade in sports—an Olympic gold medal. For Kerrin LeeGartner, that dream was very vivid. “About a year and a half ago,” she re-

called last week, “I woke up and I’d had a dream in French where somebody was saying ‘medaille d’or, Kerrin Lee-Gartner, Canada.’ And I don’t even speak French.” On Saturday, high atop a mountain in the French Alps, LeeGartner’s dream came true in a way that was almost too perfect. She skied to victory in the women’s downhill event—the first time ever

for a Canadian—at the 16th Winter Games, beating American Hilary Lindh by a mere sixhundredths of a second. And at the bottom of the slope, Lee-Gartner seemed overwhelmed by her own achievement. “No way, man, is this happening,” she said with a grin as she raised a bouquet of flowers in celebration.

The gold was, first of all, an outstanding personal accomplishment for Lee-Gartner, a 25-year-old skier from Calgary who has battled through serious injuries to continue racing (page 39). Her previous best international performance was a third-place finish in a world cup race last season, and last week she had to beat out the top-rated woman skier, Austria’s Petra Kronberger, who placed fifth. But the medal—Canada’s first Winter Olympic gold since speed skater Gaétan Boucher won two races at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in 1984—was also a badly needed boost for the whole Canadian team.

Until Lee-Gartner’s victory, Canada’s first week at the Albertville Games had been largely a story of what-might-have-been. Top contenders for gold medals, including star figure skater Kurt Browning, fell short of expectations. Aside from Lee-Gartner’s gold, the brightest hope came from the Olympic hockey team, led by centre Eric Lindros and goalie Sean Burke, which swept its first four games to win a place in this week’s medal round. On Friday night, when the Canadians whipped Czechoslovakia 5-1, 40 Canadian athletes from other sports came out to cheer the team on.

‘Noodles’: Lee-Gartner also had to contend with one of the toughest women’s downhill courses on her way to the Olympic medal. The Roc de Fer (Iron Rock) run in the town of Méribel had claimed victims all week. Skier after skier crashed, often at a difficult jump that many of them nicknamed “Noodles” because it tied them in knots like spaghetti. But LeeGartner said that she was not intimidated by the run, which gives skiers no moment to relax on the way down. “The approach I took was all or nothing,” she said. “I knew it would be close, but I didn’t want to be close and end in sixth place. I wanted to be on the podium.”

For much of the week, the tumbles on the Roc de Fer seemed to come uncomfortably close to symbolizing this year’s Games. The Winter Olympics are traditionally promoted as a festival of grace and speed. But during the 16th Games atop the peaks and in the valleys of

the soaring Savoy mountains, the events at times resembled an Alpine demolition derby. Zipped into rubberized body suits or bedecked in spangled costumes, skiers and skaters stumbled, slipped, slid—and sometimes just plain crashed. There was Canadian skier Lucie LaRoche, who hurt both knees in a tumble down the women’s Alpine run and was knocked out of the Games before her first event. Such star figure skaters as Browning and American Christopher Bowman sprawled embarrassingly on the ice. But it was the world cup leader, Paul Accola of Switzerland, who provided the Games’ most poignant symbol. He spun around

and ended up crossing the finish line backwards in his downhill race—one of many illustrious victims of the precipitous course.

It was not the smoothest start to a Winter Olympics, which at the end of the first week was shaping up as a Teutonic battle between Austria and newly united Germany for first place in the medal stakes. They were followed closely by the somewhat dispirited Unified Team of Russians, Ukrainians and other former Soviet citizens. Next came the Norwegians, and then the host country, France, which was off to its best Winter Games start since 1968, when it hosted the Olympics in


Sliding: There were individual heroes from many countries. Bonnie Blair, the gutsy American speed skater, raced to two gold medals in the 500and 1,000-m events to add to the gold and bronze she won four years ago at the Calgary Winter Games. Norway’s Vegard Ulvang, nicknamed “the Viking,” was also a double gold winner in cross-country skiing, and grabbed a silver medal as well. And the Neuner sisters, Doris and Angelika, won gold and silver for Austria by sliding on their backs in skintight suits down the luge track at La Plagne.

Those who came to watch the Games at times also needed the endurance of Olympic athletes. They lined up to board the fleet of 2,000 buses that crawled for up to two hours along the network of switchback mountain roads connecting the 10 competition sites, perfuming the Alpine air with diesel fumes. When they got there, they lined up again to spend the equivalent of $2.50 for a tiny cup of coffee or $6 for a cheese sandwich, then lined up once more to be herded back on the buses by a legion of shivering police officers and security guards. As for the 2,200 athletes, they were kept away from both spectators and media in the official Olympic Village. Brides-les-Bain, a spa town that normally specializes in slimming treatments for overweight French and Swiss ladies, had a six-foot-high metal barrier erected down its main street to separate the athletes from everyone else.

But despite widespread grumbling over the military-style transport operation and overzealous security forces, organizers could take heart from the fact that the system had survived its first serious test. On Thursday, as much as 30 cm of snow fell on resorts highest in the mountains, but snowplows kept traffic moving, preventing a widely predicted paralysis. JeanClaude Killy, France’s skiing hero from the 1968 Games who is cochairman of the committee that organized the Albertville Games, was visi-

bly relieved as he toured the sites on Friday morning. And he did not sound sorry that the Games he had brought to his home town of Val d’Isère, site of the men’s downhill races, were halfway over.

“Organizing the Games once is a treat,” he said. “A second time would be suicide.”

The downhill course in Val d’Isère produced a major controversy. Designed by Switzerland’s former Olympic champion Bernhard Russi, the Face de Bellevarde run had even top downhillers tumbling all week. Such celebrated skiers as Luxembourg’s Marc Girardelli and Austria’s Hubert Strolz crashed out of contention, leaving relatively littleknown skiers to scoop up the medals. The women’s downhill run at Méribel, where Lee-Gartner triumphed on Saturday, was also designed by Russi and produced a rash of injuries among skiers who could not navigate its treacherous bumps and curves—including Canada’s LaRoche.

In fact, Lee-Gartner’s golden moment saved Canadians from a deep sense of disappointment over the Games’ first week. Figure skaters Eisler and Brasseur, considered gold-medal contenders, eked out a bronze after stumbling through their routines. Browning finished an excruciating sixth. Myriam Bedard, ranked second in the world in biathlon, finished just 12th in her 7.5-km race. Top-rated bobsled hopeful Chris Lori of Windsor,

Ont., did not even make it that far. He lost a run-off with the Canadian team’s two other sled pilots, Greg Haydenluck and Dennis Marineau, by a bare four one-hundredths of a second.

Devastated: That cost him the chance to compete in the two-man race, although he will have a chance for a spot in the four-man event this week. Lori was so devastated that he spent the next three nights sleeping at the main Olympic Village rather than staying with the other bobsledders in the resort of La Plagne, 40 km away.

“I just had to get away from it all,” said Lori, who has focused almost his entire adult life on becoming the world’s best bobsled pilot. “It was probably the worst day of my life.”

The people who put the Canadian team together were clearly delighted that Lee-Gartner’s triumph had diverted attention from shortcomings in other areas. But Walter Sieber, the Swiss-born Montrealer who is the team’s leader and chairman of the Canadian Olympic Association’s selec-

tion committee, said that the COA does not like simply to count medals. Instead, it prefers to concentrate on athletes who place in the top eight spots for their event—an achievement that is acknowledged with a special certificate from the International Olympic Committee.

“That really does recognize a very top international position,” said Sieber.

By that yardstick, Canada could claim 11 top-eight results at the Games’ midpoint. Aside

from the medal winners and Browning, they included such unheralded athletes as Susan Auch of Winnipeg, who placed sixth in the women’s 500-m speed skating race, as well as John Smart of Lions Bay, B.C., and Jean-Luc Brassard of Grande-Ile, Que., fifth and seventh in the new competition sport of mogul skiing. Other top placers were Michelle McKendry of Orangeville, Ont., sixth in women’s Alpine-combined skiing, and Steve Cyr of Valcartier, Que., who placed eighth in the men’s 10-km biathlon race.

Blaring: Hard-won as those placings were, nothing captured the imagination of Canadians like Lee-Gartner’s gold. For one thing, the cleanness and simplicity of the downhill is clearly more ap-

pealing to most casual spectators than the subtleties of the biathlon and luge—or of mogul skiing, in which skiers fly off mounds of snow to the accompaniment of blaring rock music. As well, in some sports Canadians fell short of even the modest goals that they had set for themselves. The three ski jumpers— Horst Bulau, Ron Richards and Kirk Allen— placed 42nd, 46th and 55th, respectively, in a field of 58 after failing to adopt the new V-style

of jumping with ski tips spread. And the men’s cross-country ski team placed between 25th and 64th in their races. “In some cases these kids just haven’t been able to complete at the level we know they are capable of,” said Sieber.

But despite such letdowns, Canadians did provide examples of remarkable courage. In a practice session on Monday, 21-year-old ice dancer Jacqueline Petr of Winnipeg slashed her left calf with the blade of her right skate. It took 22 stitches to close the wound. But four days later, she and her partner, Mark Janoschak, 23, went out for their first performance and managed to place 11th in a field of 19. Later, resting her injured leg on a bag of ice to prevent swelling, Petr described how she had wondered all day whether she could skate through the pain. “I thought there was no way I could get through it,” she said. “But it’s only when something like this happens that you find out what you are made of.” This week, members of the Canadian hockey team will find out what they are made of as they try to match Lee-Gartner’s gold—and raise even higher the level of national pride that she inspired.