"Just follow Bobby. Whatever sport he picks up will be the next big thing..."
National ski team alumni and sports retailer Peter Monod
Pick a sport. Any mountain sport. You know - skiing, snowboarding, rock climbing, offroad biking, backcountry touring. Whatever. Now cast your glance around Whistler. A lot of big-name stars in those sports, n'est ce pas ? A lot of young hounds trying to make their fortunes here.
Still, there's one Whistlerite who stands head and shoulders above everyone else. And he's a small guy at that. And old - 51, for goodness' sake. No matter. I don't think there's an athlete in this town that can match his skills. At least not in the mountains...
Say what? No, I'm not kidding. Bob Allison is unique. A former member of the national ski team, a ground-breaking rock climber and big-wave windsurfer, a pioneering snowboard coach and fully-certified mountain guide - not to mention father to two of Whistler's up-and-coming sport stars - Allison is a true force of nature. But don't ask him about his achievements. He's far too modest to ever blow his own horn.
In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to pick him out in a room-full of Whistler studs - especially if you were looking for somebody tough. Slight and balding, with a high-pitched voice just this side of squeaky, Allison looks more like an office-bound accountant than an outdoor superman. Put him in a sporting environment however - whether an indoor climbing wall or a steep-icy pitch with tons of exposure - and the situation changes dramatically. Suddenly the insignificant-looking accountant type disappears. In his place: a mountain-sports renaissance man.
The thing that fascinates me about Bob is not so much that he's so understated - which he is - but that he displays such a wide range of talents. Meaning? Most athletes who have a high pain threshold - and a big aerobic motor - stick to endorphin sports. You know, running, riding, Nordic skiing, that kind of thing. On the other hand, most of the risk-taking community - the adrenaline hounds - stick to gravity sports like downhill skiing and snowboarding.
Bob does both. And he does them both well. There are few jocks I know, in fact, who have excelled in such disparate sports as Allison has. His secret? Wait for it: hard work! "There's just no substitute," he insists. "You can have all the talent in the world - but it isn't going to work for you unless you develop the discipline to manage that talent."
He grew up in the mountains. Golden, to be exact. And back then - the mid 1960's that is - the isolated Interior BC town was a very small community. "It was a great place to grow up," says Allison. "There were so many opportunities for us - the mountains were literally in our backyard. But compared to city kids, I felt I was really missing on things."
His world suddenly changed when his parents enrolled him in the ski racing program at nearby Lake Louise. "I think I was around seven," recounts Alison. "My coach at the club was a guy called Mike Wiegele. And he was absolutely outstanding!" As you might expect, Bob is not overly dramatic. So when he starts using superlatives, pay attention!
"Wiegele played a huge role in my youth," he explains. "He was so passionate about skiing - so passionate about the mountains - that you couldn't help but be pulled along in his wake. He really wanted us to become great skiers. Heck, he'd even take us hiking on the Columbia Glacier in summertime just so we could get some off-season skiing in."
As inspiring as he was, Wiegele wasn't the only person motivating the youngster at the time. Call it luck or timing or kismet or fate. Whatever. But Bob's entry into the world of ski racing coincided with a powerful wave of young Calgary-based skiers who also called Lake Louise home. Guys with names like Ken Read and Chris Kent and families like the Rooneys and the Monods. "I spent a lot of time in Banff in those years," recounts Allison. "There was a whole gang of us kids. We really inspired each other."
By the time he reached his mid-teens, it was clear that this young Golden kid had talent. "I was red-hot at 16," he says. "I was skiing really well." He smiles. "But I still only weighed 130 pounds. I was battling gravity all the way."
Can you imagine being that small and that light? Racing against kids that are 50, 60, even 70 pounds heavier? I remember Bob well from that time. I was coaching in the United States in those days and the sight of that tiny little kid's body flying down a Nor Am downhill course, well, it made you worry a bit about that kid's future. Especially since he was such a beautiful skier! Fluid, but technically strong too. And fearless. Totally and unequivocally fearless.
Soon the word was out: this young Allison kid was the real deal. A true talent, The Canadian Alpine Team picked him up when he was only 17. That was back in 1976 - at a time when Canuck coaches were only interested in downhillers. So Bob became a downhiller. And got lost in the cracks of the system.
Allison is no whiner. In the four decades I've known him, I've rarely heard him complain - about anything. But talk about his years on the national team always brings a dark cloud. "There was no vision back then," he says of his four very painful years with the Canadian squad. "There was absolutely no long-term development plan for us. You had to put yourself out on edge all the time. If you survived, great. If you didn't, too bad... Unfortunately, my cards didn't all fall into place for me."
What he doesn't say is just how high a price his body had to pay for the team's cavalier management. A partial list of his injuries during that period offers loud testimony to that price. "I blew out both shoulders, both knees, broke my femur, my back, my ribs and suffered countless concussions," he says with a straight face. And then his tone changes. "I don't want to dwell on this thing - but in my opinion, the coaches who were responsible for us in those years destroyed a whole generation of athletes."
Next Week: Bob leaves ski racing and becomes a pro windsurfer, a rock-climbing star, a national team snowboard coach and, with his wife, Corinne, a Whistler entrepreneur.
A Note : I don't usually do shameless endorsements during election time. But in this case, I feel it's necessary. It's time for the Whistler community to give women a chance at municipal hall (given how deep in the crapper our recent all-male council has dropped us). Nancy Wilhelm-Morden has shown Whistlerites over the years what she can accomplish. I believe she'll make a very effective mayor.
Bob Allison's spouse, Corinne, is also running for office this month. She too has all the qualities required to do an excellent job as a member of our municipal council. I had the opportunity to speak with her a bit during my research on her husband's story. Here's how she sees their 25-year relationship:
"When I first met Bob at SFU, I was drawn to his passion for sport in the great outdoors. He inspired me to learn how to ski, cross-country and rock climb at the 'advanced' age of 25. And in return, I inspired him to take a semester of dance, my passion.
"What I soon discovered about Bob was his ability to inspire, not just me, but people of all ages and abilities in their pursuit of learning or perfecting their sport. Although he's a great technician as well, there's something special - almost magical - that happens when Bob is pushing you to be the best you can be.
"I treasure that and work hard to support Bob's outdoor pursuits as that is where he really shines. Like me, Bob has a business degree from SFU, but his focus is sport. My focus is more entrepreneurial. Which is why we've found ourselves in the business of sport and recreation in Whistler - over and over again! We take great pride when our members and clients tell us how they became inspired and have found a new passion. That is something to celebrate!
"As for our kids, together we've inspired them to explore their passions even when it isn't easy, like juggling the financials of expensive sports and responsibilities of school, chores and work. I think they are learning that tough work when fueled by passion has a higher threshold and the rewards are sweeter. Bottom line though - it has to be fun!
"Although living with my risk-taking family can be tough on the nerves I am comforted by the support of our professionals here: the doctors, nurses, dentists, physios, coaches and our friends, clients and businesses colleagues who have been there for me and my family over the years.
"I believe that the mind and body can only reach its true potential when the heart is inspired. I see how Whistler attracts inspired people who in turn want to share their passion. And I know that it is the joy of sharing that passion that keeps people living in Whistler - and it's what brings visitors back here year after year. It's not just about the infrastructure, it's what the people do with it!"
So there you go. Another no-nonsense gal with a very clear vision for Whistler in the 21 st century. Here's her website: http://www.corinneallison.ca . Check it out. It's worth it.