CANADA – For many of us, watching downhill skiers rocket down icy slopes at over 100 kilometres an hour wearing nothing but a helmet and spandex suit is an intense and exciting look at life on the edge.
Ahead of the Lake Louise Audi FIS World Cup races from this weekend and next, Alpine Canada officially kicked off its 100 years of ski racing history celebrations for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons; however, it could just as easily be a celebration of bringing families closer together.
“Skiing and racing were things that we did as a family,” said Canmore's Ken Read, best known as one of the Crazy Canucks.
Read’s mother Dee, was a competitive skier in the 1940s, and travelled by a train from Montreal to Banff to compete at Mt. Norquay. Read's sons, third generation racers Erik and Jeffrey, are world-class skiers carrying on the family tradition.
“The great thing about the sport is when you’re out on the mountain, you end up with a commonality that when people find out you’re a Canadian racer, or from Germany, Sweden … all these places, it suddenly creates a bond,” Read said.
For another local, Vania Grandi, Alpine Canada’s CEO and former national ski team member, her family arrived in Banff from Italy in 1975 when there was “no movie theatre and there was barely a grocery store” in the small mountain town.
There was, however, skiing, whenever big dumps dropped on the town.
Unbeknownst to the Grandis, their family name would become synonymous with Canadian skiing royalty.
“Growing up in Banff really gave me my passion for skiing,” Grandi said. “For me, it's a bit of a dream come true, and to be able to give back to this sport that gave me so much as a kid … it builds character and keeps kids and families closer together.”
Grandi was in Banff Alpine Racers’ first Quickies class in the ‘70s, an entry-level program, which had 10 kids signed up – including her future four-time Olympian brother, Thomas.
Leading the charge for Alpine Canada since 2018, and the first woman to do so, Grandi said the sport helps defines who Canadians are. And like she was influenced through sport as a new Canadian and young child, she’d like to see the sport grow during its centennial and thinks the Lake Louise event is the perfect platform for it.
“I’d like to be able to say how proud we are to have elevated the sport of ski racing, the value its brought to all kids and families establishes it as a sport of Canada’s history,” Grandi said.
“I’d love it to be much better known among new Canadians and new generations as something accessible to them.”
On Dec. 20, 1920, Canadian ski racing began under the Canadian Amateur Ski Association and held its first major Canadian race in 1932 near Montreal, Quebec, when a men’s team from McGill University took on the Oxford and Cambridge university teams from England.
Back in the day, alpine skiing was a lot less accessible. It was seen as more of an adult activity because without chairlifts, it was up to the skier to find their own way up the mountain.
#TBT to the 1940’s “Pony Express” in the days long before @sunshinevillage had the “Angel Express” Chair. Oh, how the horse power of ski lifts has changed! #ACA100 #CANskiteam pic.twitter.com/zBQMnZfKbC— Alpine Canada Alpin (@Alpine_Canada) September 26, 2019
Read said the sport changed with chairlifts and opened up to new demographics across the globe, ceasing its limitations on many.
“With lifts, that started in the late ‘40s into the ‘50s and made the sport widely available,” said Read. “There was a big spurt in interest in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
The newfound accessibility on the slopes also helped photographers and videographers capture the sport in a new light for the public.
In Banff, Alpine Canada staff photographer Malcolm Carmichael volunteered to shoot alpine racing as a way to get a free season pass at Sunshine Village 35 yeas ago.
In 1989, he started working for Alpine Canada after capturing a brilliant photo of a skier, which the national team used for promotion. He’s been documenting the team’s history since and estimates to have photographed 700-800 alpine racing events.
“I’ve been really lucky to be there, only a few feet from the sidelines,” Carmichael said. “Every day is different, every race is a challenge to get the best possible image.”
Over the years, Carmichael and fellow Alpine Canada photographer Roger Witney have captured many big name Canadian skiers on Banff hills – some being kids at the time. This "treasure chest of history" includes Olympic bronze medallists Jan Hudec and Karen Percy to the Grandis, and to local racers on the circuit now like Jeffrey Read, Erik Read, Trevor Philp and Carmichael's second-year FIS racing daughter, Emma.
A master of his craft, Carmichael said if he takes a bad photo of his teenage daughter while she's racing, he hears about it after.
“One of the really most interesting things is seeing the kids come up and watch them race,” Carmichael said. “It's great to see the kids work hard to get there.”
This weekend, a racer that’s seen a lot of the front of Carmichael’s lens is Jeffrey Read, who is competing at the FIS World Cup speed events in Lake Louise.
Erik, his older brother, won’t be there, but will be watching and cheering him on overseas.
Earlier this month in Austria, Erik had a career-best seventh place finish in giant slalom with family and friends watching in attendance.
“I thought it was pretty cool how Banff Alpine Racers and my parents were there at the race to share that awesome moment,” Erik said. “Now they get to see my brother and the team in Lake Louise.”
Canada’s impact on the world stage
Canada has won 17 Olympic medals (8 gold, 3 silver, 6 bronze) in alpine events starting when Lucile Wheeler won bronze in downhill in 1956 in Italy.
Nancy Greene became Canada’s first duel medallist in alpine events when in 1968 she won gold and silver in giant slalom and slalom.
Starting in 1976, Canada’s Paralympians have cashed in with 109 medals (25 gold, 37 silver, 47 bronze). Lana Spreeman won 13 medals over five Paralympic Games from 1980-94.
In world championships, Canada has won 27 medals (12 gold, 8 silver, 7 bronze). Jim Hunter and Steve Podborski, members of the Crazy Canucks, won bronze at the Olympics and world championships, respectively.
Along with Ken Read, Dave Murray and Dave Irwin, the Crazy Canucks made serious noise for Canada on the international scene. The nickname was given to the five racers who consistently challenged the elite European skiers with their risky and furious style of racing and innovative teamwork techniques during a time when information sharing was frowned upon in the ultra competitive environment.
As Read put it, after a Crazy Canuck reached the finish line, he’d then immediately jump on the radio to give information on the course to teammates that could mean the difference between first place and 10th place for them.
“Information sharing was not something you did,” Read said. “It was seen as very unusual that someone would come down … and share information with those at the top who might end up beating you, but maybe one time you’re the information supplier and the next time you’re the recipient of key bits of information.”
On the strength of the growing popularity of the Crazy Canucks, the first world cup downhill race was held in Lake Louise in 1980 after the scheduled race in France was cancelled. With international eyes watching, the Lake Louise team put together the event in a remarkable three weeks.
In the downhill race, Podborski finished fourth; Read came in eighth and Irwin finished in 12th.
Read added the success of this event gave a nudge that Canada needed in order to get confident about contending for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, with alpine races being held in the mountains.
“That was a pivotal moment, a transformational moment,” Read said. “There was confidence in the system at the time, and it was ‘Why not us?’ It was the beginning of the Calgary Olympic bid, which was not known as sport destination at all. It was ‘here’s an opportunity to make a mark.'’”
For 100 years, alpine skiing has made an impression on Canada, and Grandi hopes through family, the outdoors and its healthy culture, one of the nation's oldest sports will continue to grow.
“There are 2.5 million people who ski in Canada,” Grandi said. “It’s very holistic and touches everyone from young children to great grand parents.”