"Home is where the heart is"
It's not like he was a stranger or anything. The place had worked its fascination on him since he'd discovered it as a teen-aged racer in the late 1960s. The mountains, the snow — the people, the culture, the endless list of potential adventures — Whistler boasted everything he most cherished in life. But it wasn't yet his home. He was too busy gallivanting around the world for that.
Besides, Pro was having the ride of his life racing those monster-long boards of his straight down the hill for fame and... well, if not for fortune, then for a heck of a good time. Settling down came when you got old, thought the speedskier, there'd be lots of time for that later...
But that was in 1988. And back then Pro was busy creating the perfect single-guy, pro-athlete dude lifestyle. You know, Harley Davidson in the garage, frequent flyer cards in his wallet and a travel-bag that never gets unpacked (except for laundry day of course). And it suited him — given his particular talents, going fast for a living seemed like a natural fit. No wonder he was always smiling.
And then he blew his knee out while forerunning a World Cup downhill. "And that was that," says Tom. The timing couldn't have been worse. And for some, the injury would have been a devastating blow. But Pro seems to have taken it in stride. "Sure, it was disappointing. But for me, it was clear. Time to grow up and get a real job."
Well, sort of a real job. His old racing buddy, Dave Murray, was the director of skiing at Whistler Mountain. And he needed coaches for the booming adult racing program he'd recently launched. "Mur had mentioned it to me before," says Pro, "so after my knee injury I approached him about it..." He stops. Takes a deep breath. "And in true Murray fashion he just said: 'Get your Level II instructors and let's go!'" He smiles. "So that's how the whole Whistler thing began."
But there's more. "I haven't thought about this in a while," he continues, "but once I started coaching at the Murray camps, Dave started really working on me. 'You should move up to Whistler full-time,' he'd say, 'you'll like it here...' And he just wouldn't let it go."
He shrugs. Laughs. "Fitting, eh. Mur gave me the job that got me to Whistler, and then he talked me into becoming a full-time resident here."
More laughter. "A few things happened in-between though," he admits. Like marrying his long-time sweetheart — Claire Thornthwaite — in 1989. But the real shift came with the birth of their first child. That's when everything changed.
"It happened all in one day," asserts Tom. "That was May 14th, 1991. On the same day our son was born, I sold my Harley, sold our North Van house and bought a home for us in Whistler."
Say what? "It's true," he says. "I started thinking about raising a family — and what kind of environment I wanted my kids to grow up in." A pause. "So I asked myself: 'If I were a kid, where would I want to grow up?'" He laughs. "The answer was pretty evident. Whistler won hands-down. And even if we had to sacrifice a few things to move up here, it was worth it."
But selling the Harley? "It wasn't really that bad," he says. And laughs. "My father-in-law offered to help me out so I could keep it. But I said no. It was time to move on..."
Tom has never been afraid of hard work. He spent four summers — from '88-92 — crewing on commercial fishing boats off the West Coast of BC. "I started on a Haida boat," he says. "And then I moved to Mitch Ponak's seiner Argent Fisher. That was a great crew – everyone on the boat was a skier."
And it was good money too. But being away from home all summer didn't really fit with being a new dad. "So I looked around for something local, and ended up taking a job operating Glen Lynskey's lumber mill," he says. And smiles nostalgically. "I was Tom Sawyer for ten years. That was the best summer job I ever had..."
But his winter job wasn't so bad either. Turns out, Pro really liked teaching skiing to adults... and adults really liked being coached by Pro. He never got too complicated, or overly-technical with his charges. Never got too carried away with his own words. An adherent of the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle, Pro demystified ski racing for a whole generation of born-again Alberto-Tombas. He made it fun. Accessible. Social even. And people responded in kind.
By the winter of 1996, Pro had risen through the Dave Murray Camp ranks until he was managing the whole shebang himself. "I was program supervisor from '96 until 2007," he tells me proudly. "We had a great team in those years. And some truly outstanding campers. It was a lot of fun..."
Like many Whistlerites, Pro came to Whistler for the skiing... and stayed for the biking. A lifelong aficionado of two-wheeled adventures, he quickly became enthralled to the unique pleasures of all-terrain cycling in Sea to Sky country. Soon he was as proficient on his bike as he was on his skis. And another door opened.
In 2001 the bike park manager job at Whistler-Blackcomb became vacant. Tom applied for the job... and got it. "Rob McSkimming was the general manager of the bike park," he explains, "and he knew how passionate I was about the sport." He pauses. Smiles. "And given my work with the Dave Murray camps, he also knew that I wasn't a rookie in the Whistler Blackcomb (WB) way of doing things."
So they struck up a deal. Tom agreed to supervise a team of bike park builders and WB agreed to give him a free reign in managing his team. And it worked beyond everybody's wildest dreams. "You have to remember," he says, "that very few people ever believed the bike-park thing would work back then. But we proved them wrong. We were successful — and that's because our 'formula' came from the heart. We really believed in what we were doing. That, and our understanding of the ski business made for a very potent combo."
And, oh by the way, he adds, they built a pretty cool bike park. "It was a real team effort," says Pro. "Everybody pulled their weight."
It didn't take long for the world to pick up on the team's success. "I started noticing that I was spending a lot of my time showing foreigners around the park," says Pro. "That's when I began to realize that there was nobody else out there doing what we were doing. So we started talking about it amongst ourselves. 'We should start a consulting company,' somebody said. 'Yeah', said another, 'we should show the world how to build a bike park.'" He laughs. "And that, pretty much, is how Gravity Logic was launched."
And he laughs some more. "It's amazing to think now how little we knew about trail building before we left Whistler. I mean, you have to leave your backyard to discover these things. And we discovered so much..." He's still laughing. "Like, for example, just how challenging trail-building is in other places around the word." He stops to catch his breath. "Funny too how things turn out. We're now considered experts on working with the US Forest Service. I barely knew what the Forest Service did ten years ago..."
Back up a bit. So Gravity Logic was launched in 2005 as a new WB venture. But didn't it hit rough waters quite early? "For sure," says Pro. "When Fortress bought Intrawest in 2006, they soon realized that Gravity Logic made less profit than their smallest coffee shop. So they decided to get rid of it. That's when I said: 'I'll buy it!' There were four of us involved in the company at the time: me and Dave Kelly, and two WB guys, Jeremy Roche and Rob McSkimming. But Rob and Jeremy had dream job with WB and couldn't be involved in both companies. So Dave and I — and new partner Rob Cocquyt — bought Gravity Logic for ourselves."
It's been pedal-to-the-metal ever since. "We've got so much work it's ridiculous," Pro tells me. "We've done projects in the Ukraine, Russia, China, Britain, Austria, Sweden and the US." And they're still not done with Whistler. "We built the new Top-Of-The-World trail," he explains. "And that was important. Thanks to WB, we learned everything here... and on their nickel too. So yeah, we still like being involved in local projects. I mean, it's our backyard, you know...we want it to be leading edge."
So you see? The Slovakian guy I met in the Tatras Mountains on that mysterious, smoky night was right. That Tom Pro fella, he's a great Wheestler man. And fun. Very much fun... for sure!
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