Legends of the gates
Ski racing has helped define Whistler
By Bob Barnett
The biggest moment in Whistler’s ski racing history came on Feb. 25, 1989 when hometown boy Rob Boyd crossed the finish line at Creekside to become the first Canadian male to win a World Cup ski race on Canadian snow.
Boyd survived a wild ride through the Fallaway section of the Whistler downhill to edge Swiss stars Daniel Mahrer and Pirmin Zurbriggen. As he slid to a stop in the finish corral he motioned to a television cameraman to come closer and then dedicated the victory to injured teammate Brian Stemmle.
The late Dave Murray, an original Crazy Canuck, was chairman of the 1989 World Cup races. Murray was among the thousands who celebrated Boyd’s triumph at the finish line. Later that afternoon an estimated 15,000 people packed Village Square for a formal awards presentation.
The World Cup hasn’t had the same profile since Boyd’s triumph, partly because the Canadian team had several less than stellar years through the ’90s and partly because World Cup races at Whistler were wiped out by bad weather three years in a row, from 1996 to 1998.
The number of festivals and events in Whistler and the rise of new, made-for-TV events which appeal to a new generation of skiers, boarders and sponsors has also diminished the status of World Cup ski races in North America. But ski racing and ski racers have played a significant role in Whistler’s history.
For many, ski racing is still the ultimate measure of skiing ability. By that standard, many of the all time greatest skiers have bolstered their careers at Whistler: Marc Girardelli, Katja Seizinger, Markus Wasmeier, Peter Mueller, Cindy Nelson and Ingemar Stenmark are among the legends of ski racing who won at Whistler. In fact, every major alpine nation, with the exception of France, has won a World Cup race at Whistler.
But ski racing started at Whistler long before the World Cup’s first visit to town in 1975. It began with the Whistler Mountain Ski Club, which was founded in 1968, two years after the mountain opened.
The club grew from a group of youngsters who began skiing gates under the direction of Joe Czismania. They entered their first race, on North Vancouver’s Mount Seymour, under the banner of the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association, an organization which was originally formed to try and bring the 1968 Olympics to Whistler.
In April of 1968 the newly formed Whistler Mountain Ski Club held its first functions: a dance featuring the Poppy Family in the cafeteria at the base of the mountain, and the first Garibaldi Spring Slalom, which drew 105 entries from as far away as Vernon and Mount Baker.
Most of the families involved in the early years of the ski club were from the Lower Mainland: the O’Sullivans, the McLennans, the Sakoloffs, the Toys, the Parsons and the Masseys, among others. Walter and Lucy Sakoloff and Bob and Lee Parsons were members of the Mount Seymour Ski Club before joining the Whistler club and brought with them knowledge of organizing ski races. That became invaluable when the new club hosted the 1969 Canadian championships. Those races established a number of standards for Whistler World Cup ski races that still exist today.
The downhill course itself was very similar to the track still used, with the exception of the Quicksilver Turns and Hot Air, which were added to the bottom of the course in recent years. Racers had to hike to the start area because there was no Orange Chair then and the final pitch before the finish of that first race is now covered with houses.
Sonny O’Sullivan, president of the ski club in 1969, was race chairman for several World Cup events in the 1990s.
"We were lucky we didn’t lose anybody," O’Sullivan says of the 1969 downhill. "The safety system was 60 bails of hay, 27 to build up the start, 30 to protect the timing eyes at the finish and three for people to sit on at the bottom of the Weasel.
"The budget for the whole thing was $28,000," O’Sullivan recalls, a far cry from the nearly $1 million it now costs to host the World Cup for a week.
Al Raine, who was head coach of the Canadian team at the time, remembers how rough the course was.
"The Mount Currie band provided a whole gang of people to shovel off the moguls. They worked for two or three weeks."
The only grooming equipment was a Tucker snowcat B.C. Hydro owned, and it was primarily used for transportation.
The race established Whistler’s reputation as having one of the toughest downhills in the world. Keith Shepherd was the only racer to complete the course in under three minutes, despite the fact RCMP clocked him and a few others at 85 mph through the Weasel.
And it wasn’t only the course that was tough. A rockslide closed the highway south of Squamish prior to the Canadian championships, so all competitors had to get to Whistler by train.
Laurie Kreiner won the women’s downhill, Sue Graves won the women’s GS and Judy Leinweber won the slalom, on the old T-bar hill at the base of the mountain. Peter Duncan won both the men’s technical events.
It was Bob Parsons who got the Mount Currie natives involved in the 1969 races, but Parsons’ real legacy to ski racing was twofold: he created the Weasel Workers and he helped introduce hundreds of youngsters — safely — to downhill ski racing.
Long before there were high-speed lifts, $100,000 grooming machines and shaped skis there were two events on Whistler Mountain that were guaranteed each year; a downhill race at Christmas and another at Easter. The races were run on the Back Bowl course, starting at the top of the T-bars and finishing at the bottom of the GS hill, a run early members of the Whistler Mountain Ski Club cut.
Parsons was the man who made the races work. Armed with a shovel and a voice that could instill fear in anyone, he pushed, prodded and cajoled about 100 kids and coaches into boot-packing, side-stepping and generally manicuring the slope until it was smooth and safe for downhill racing. Through thousands of training and race runs on the Back Bowl course, by mostly inexperienced racers, no one can remember a serious injury occurring.
When Parsons passed away in 1979 the Easter downhill was re-named the Bob Parsons Memorial Downhill. The first winner, in 1980, was his son Jim Parsons, who still works the downhill every spring. A few years ago, a third generation of the family got involved, when Hardy Leighton raced the Parsons Memorial for the first time.
Parsons also played a key role in the first scheduled World Cup downhill for Whistler, the 1975 Bank of Montreal International. The downhill was wiped out by poor weather, although men’s and women’s giant slaloms were held, but the inordinate amount of time Parsons’ course crew spent trying to get the steepest section of the course into shape gave rise to the name "Weasel Workers."
In recent years the Weasel Workers have worked at World Cup races in B.C., Alberta and the United States, as well as the 1996 World Alpine Ski Championships in Spain and the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.
The 1975 World Cup giant slaloms were won by American Cindy Nelson and Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark, who recorded the second of 46 GS victories in his 16-year career. Legend has it that Stenmark, who was the entire Swedish team at the time, broke an edge on his first run, but raced the second run with the damaged ski and still won. After collecting his medal he had to hitchhike back to Vancouver.
By 1979 the Crazy Canucks — Murray, Ken Read, Steve Podborski and Dave Irwin — had made Canada a World Cup power. Whistler was scheduled to hold the final downhill of the season but warm, wet weather again wreaked havoc on those plans.
However, the night before the race the skies cleared and the temperature dropped. Race day brought brilliant sunshine and a rock-hard course. In fact, the course was too hard.
Safety systems in 1979 still consisted primarily of hay bails and officials decided the clear, cold weather had made the course so fast it was no longer safe.
After an unofficial vote by first-seed racers went 11-4 against holding the race (only Read, Murray, Podborski and Austrian Uli Spiess voted in favour of racing), a "fun" giant slalom was held instead on the lower part of the course. Racers were paired up with Weasel Workers in a combined-time team event.
Read, however, still wanted to race downhill. He asked his Weasel Worker teammate if he would mind if they were disqualified. The Weasel said no, so Read blasted out of the start, ignored all the GS gates and headed straight down the course in a tuck position, sans helmet. The crowd, which had waited days for the fog and rain to clear and was just as frustrated as the Canadian racers, went wild.
The term "Euro-wienie", was born that day.
But the first racer out of the start for the GS may have been the most disappointed person on the mountain. Whistler’s Dave Murray was at the peak of his form. He had been third in the pre-Olympic downhill at Lake Placid the week before and was wrapping up the best season in his World Cup career. Racing on his home course he was stoked. Murray might have become the first Canadian male to win a World Cup race in Canada, a decade before Boyd achieved that honour. But it was not to be.
The GS race, and the demonstration by Read and other Canadians that a downhill could have been run, provided reason to celebrate in the valley that night. One group of Whistler Mountain employees celebrated at L’apres until closing, then decided to continue the party at The Ski Boot. Nobody had a car so they borrowed a Whistler Mountain snowcat and drove it the 5 km down the highway to The Boot. Not wanting to risk driving it back down the highway when they were finished their celebrations, they left the machine in the front yard of a White Gold residence — one belonging to Hugh Smythe, president of the new Blackcomb Mountain.
In 1982 Podborski and Austrian Harti Weirather were going head to head for the overall downhill title when the World Cup again came to Whistler. To showcase the new Whistler Village which had opened two years earlier, the course was redesigned. Instead of going through the Weasel and Fallaway and finishing at Creekside, the course followed a new run, Tokum, down the north side of the mountain.
Weirather immediately dismissed the course as too flat and seemed to give up the challenge. Swiss Peter Mueller, who was faster on the flats than anyone, seized the opportunity and won the race by more than a second. Podborski wound up second — which helped him win the overall title that year — and Irwin third.
By 1984 it was acknowledged the north side course was too flat and the race returned to Creekside. American Billy Johnson, a one-season wonder, won the race but it was more notable as Podborski’s final World Cup race, and the first World Cup appearance by Boyd. Podborski finished fifth, Boyd 55th.
Two years later, Mueller got into a dispute with Whistler Mountain officials over who had priority in a lift line. Mueller’s attitude didn’t ingratiate him to the mountain’s Rod MacLeod, so on race day when Mueller fell on the final, normally inconsequential jump after setting the fastest mid-way times all the way down the course, the bump was renamed Rod’s Revenge.
The World Cup races of ’82, ’84 and ’86 helped bring the new Whistler resort to world attention at the same time the Crazy Canucks were building a ski racing legacy. Ski racing was hot, it was part of the scene — as the huge crowds that gathered at Creekside for the races and the non-stop party in the valley the whole week of the event testified.
From the point of view of the fledgling resort, the early World Cup events were important because they unified the whole community, according to one former president of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce.
When Murray retired after the 1982 season to become director of skiing at Whistler Mountain, he took ski racing to the recreational skier through the Masters Group and the Dave Murray Camps. Murray was generous not only with the knowledge he’d gained about ski racing, but with material goods, too. At one of the ski club’s Back Bowl downhills he gave away his old downhill equipment to junior racers.
The World Cup was scheduled to return to Whistler in 1988 but poor weather again wiped out the event. Boyd scored his historic win in 1989 and races were successful in 1993, ’94 and ’95, including men’s and women’s downhills in 1994.
Early season World Cup races in 1996, ’97 and ’98 — all wiped out by weather — were the domain of the community-based W5 Foundation, rather than the Whistler Mountain Ski Club. But since 1993 the club’s biggest annual effort has been hosting the Air Canada Whistler Cup races, which attract the best juvenile skiers in the world to Whistler each spring.
Though it doesn’t generate as much attention as the World Cup, the Whistler Cup remains true to the Whistler Mountain Ski Club’s roots: introducing young skiers to the thrill of being the fastest down a mountain and the discipline required to achieve that goal.