"Keep your dreams alive. Remember all things are possible for those who believe."
– Olympic Champion Gail Devers
Some people are watchers. Some people are talkers. And some people are doers. Whistler's Terry 'Toulouse' Spence is all three. He's a leprechaun. A trickster. A silver-haired elf. And he has the tales to prove it.
I mean, this is the guy who came up with the outlandish idea of printing a commemorative poster of an evicted community of skiing hippies... posing naked. And then made sure the image was distributed to some of the most iconic watering holes in the skiing universe. That was nearly 40 years ago. Funny, eh? That tatty Toad Hall Poster has probably done more to burnish Whistler's reputation as an exciting, edgy, youthful ski town than any of the high-priced ad campaigns conceived since. As I said, he's quite the trickster.
But no amount of tricks could alter the dire straits Toulouse found himself navigating in the mid 1970s. For with the dispersal of the Toad Hall community also came the realization that peace, love and ski bumming might be a fun philosophy, but it was lousy at covering off the bills. Especially now that he had to pay rent. Whistler was a tough place to make a living in those days. Sure, you could sling beers at the Boot Pub if you were desperate. Or you could spend your summers in the bush tree planting or on the ocean fishing commercially. But as for anything meaningful or sustainable in the valley, it was hard scrabbling.
"I lived at Garibaldi with Brian Allen for a while," recounts Toulouse. "You remember that place, don't you? It was right on the Cheakamus River. It was beautiful there..."
And then he changes the subject. For just a breath, his voice grows sombre. "Strange now, when I think of those years. Strange to think that the two bookend guys on the Toad Hall poster — René Paquet at one end and Chris Speedie at the other — are no longer here with us. It makes you think..."
The moment passes. We move on to the next chapter. "And it's a pretty amazing one," chuckles Toulouse. Indeed. It almost defies the imagination. Judge for yourself.
The time had come, he tells me, to leave Whistler. It was a hard call. But he felt he had no choice. "Brian Allen had moved to North Van and was working in a wood-working shop there. He got me a job in another shop nearby." But Toulouse wasn't all that taken with the work. Instead, he decided to study massage.
Say what? Yep, massage. And he got pretty good at it. "I studied in Vancouver, in California — in a whole variety of institutions in fact." By the spring of 1978, Spence had a pretty good handle on his new profession. Still, he was pretty surprised to get the call from the head coach of the men's national ski team.
"I guess it was in June that John Ritchie contacted me," he recalls. Turned out the Canadian Team's masseur was not working out. And they needed a replacement immediately. "So he asked me if I could come to their on-snow camp in Colorado. And I said sure." Toulouse was 36 years old.
Let me quickly interrupt here. For those too young (or too old) to remember, this was at the height of the Crazy Canuck craze. With dash and verve — and a generous dusting of courage — the young Canadian skiers had captured the collective heart of the world's downhill-viewing public. And they were far from finished with their ground-breaking performances. Now back to the story.
"I didn't know at the time just how much that call would change my life," continues Toulouse. He laughs. "I just went to the camp and did whatever I could to help out."
The team also had a physiotherapist there. But the coaches knew they only had enough in their race season budget for one of them — either the physiotherapist would travel to the World Cup events with the downhillers... or the masseur would. It was up to the athletes. They would choose whom they wanted on the bus.
"The skiers must have liked my work," he says. "Because they went for the masseur." He laughs again. "I didn't have a clue what I was getting myself into. I thought this ski racing thing would be easy..."
Other than a short stint in the mid '60s as a race-crew volunteer at Ontario's Osler Bluffs Ski Club — "I worked the start shack," grins Spence. "Funny how things turn out, eh? — Alpine Canada's new masseur had virtually no experience in the sport. And no way of putting his team's results in perspective.
"Ken Read won the first World Cup downhill I ever attended with the team," he says. And laughs. "Dave Murray was second. And I just figured that was normal. Easy, right? It happens all the time." When the Canucks won the next race too, Spence figured he had it nailed. "It was such an exciting time," he remembers. "We were such a hit in Europe."
And then reality bit back. And suddenly Toulouse realized just how hard this downhill ski racing really was. "People don't have a clue," he says. "They can't even begin to imagine the work, the hours, the sweat, the tears — all the sacrifices a racer needs to make — to reach that kind of performance level. The miles they ski. The weights they lift. The hours they spend honing their craft. It's very humbling..."
But it was a lot of fun too. "I was living a Peter Pan existence," he says. "It totally kept me young." What he doesn't say is how much his role grew within the team. Far away from home and forced to spend countless hours together, the Canucks needed a coaching staff with good chemistry. And Toulouse provided some of the social glue to keep things together. Calm and funny and easy-going — even at the most stressful of times — he acted as a kind of emotional bridge between the racers and the coaches. No surprise then, to see him soon "promoted" to the very ticklish job of start coach (without, of course, letting his masseur duties lapse). "It was a different era," he says. "The skiers knew each other — there was a real social atmosphere at the start then." And it continued off the snow too. "We'd organize these hockey games, and all the other teams would want to play. It was so much fun."
Some highlights from those years:
"The 1980 Olympics, for sure. And the bittersweet emotions of that race. When Kenny [Read] lost his ski on the second gate we were devastated; when Pod [Steve Podborski], the baby on the team, came back to win the bronze, well, it was like he'd saved the day."
And then, of course, there was the team's four wins in a row in Kitzbuehel. "For a while you couldn't buy a drink there if you wore a Canadian uniform. Everyone was your friend. It was crazy..."
Perhaps, though, it's this next highlight that says the most about Toulouse's time with the White Circus. "We were in Kitzbuehel. And I was walking up the little hill up to the start. You know the one." He pauses. Takes a long breath. Grins. "I was walking with three skiers — Pod, Kenny and Franz Klammer. And those three skiers finished the day one-two-three." He stops talking again. Laughs at the memory. "That was so surreal to me. Just to be among the three fastest skiers in the world. What an amazing thing."
Spence's stint with the national team was a long one — it lasted from 1978 to 1993. Well, not quite. He took the 1989 season off to see if he could re-integrate into normal Whistler life again. "I got married in 1988," he says. "And the World Cup circuit is not often kind to newlyweds. So I figured I'd stay home, help my new wife with her B&B and see if I could start a little business of my own." But when his old friend Glen Wurtele was appointed head coach of the team the next year, Toulouse just couldn't refuse his call.
"So I put in another four seasons," he says with a barely-suppressed grin. But he knew it couldn't last. "I was a dad now," he says. "I couldn't afford to be away from my kids for all those months." So Toulouse re-invented himself again. And became one of the most popular — and successful — ski instructors around.
Ah, but that's for next week. "Not so fast," injects Toulouse. "I just want to say what an important role Dave Murray played in all of this. He was the one who recommended me to Ritchie and the national team in the first place. And I know he had a big influence in convincing his teammates to go with the masseur." He sighs. There's more too, he says. "It was Mur who convinced me to get my coaching levels. That way I was able to work at the summer camps and the Murray Camps — and ultimately become a ski instructor. So you see, I owe a lot to that man."
Next Week: the salesman-cum-hippy-cum-coach takes on the Royal Family
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