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Going Royal

Toulouse Spence and the heirs apparent

Titles are but nicknames, and every nickname is a title.

- Thomas Payne

I never really thought about his nickname. He was height-challenged. He enjoyed the company of women. Maybe he was an artist too. Whatever. Toulouse was Toulouse. He was like a Brazilian soccer star that way: a one-name guy. And it worked for him.

It still does. And way beyond Whistler's limits. Mention his name at the Krazy Kangaroo in St Anton or the Londoner in Kitzbuehel, and people will probably still nod in recognition. They might even point to a ratty old poster that may or may not still hang on the wall. "Yah," they will say of the naked young skiers posed there, "Das is the Kanata Team of 1973. A kift from Toulouss..."

Apocryphal? Maybe. But it's become part of ski racing lore. You see, during his stint with the Crazy Canucks, Toulouse unloaded his kooky Toad Hall posters on some of the hippest bars in the Alps. That his ski bum buddies became confounded with national team members over time, well, that too is part of the Toulouse legend.

But we were talking about his nickname. And yes, I did become curious about its roots. But I didn't know how to ask. Frankly, I was a little embarrassed about not knowing its exegesis. I assumed it was just one of those popular Toulouse stories that I'd missed.

Fortunately he brought it up himself. "Don't you want to hear how I got my nickname?" We were on our third or fourth conversation by this point and Toulouse was evidently feeling more comfortable with the storytelling process. "Well? Do you want to or not?" It's not that he was impatient, but...

"Of course," I said quickly. "I assume it's something that happened at Whist..."

He interrupted me. "Nope. Thunder Bay." He chuckled – Heh. Heh, Heh. "Do you want the long version or the short version?" I opted for the former. But I'm not sure I got the full story. See what you think:

"It was 1970," he starts. "And a bunch of us were skiing at our local hill, Loch Lomond." Terry Spence was 28 then, still working for IBM, still a buttoned-down young executive wannabe. His life-changing ski-trip to Europe was still a few weeks in the future. His Whistler adventures not even on the radar yet.

So yeah. Thunder Bay. Skiing with the gang. As was their custom, Terry and the boys continued their après-ski festivities at Port Arthur's New Ontario Bar. "We sat down and ordered beer," he continues. "And there was this woman on stage. And she called out that she needed a volunteer from the audience."

Hmm, I can see where this might lead. No matter. Spence continues: "I figured I had nothing to lose," he says. "I rose up from my chair and bravely offered her my services. So she tells me: 'Here's some paint and some brushes. I want you to decorate my torso while I strip.' So I told her: 'I don't need to use a brush. I could use my fingers.' But she wasn't amused. She said: 'Use the brush.'"

You're the boss, replied Spence, and took up paint and brush. "For the whole first act, I got to decorate her torso," he says. He stops. Can't hold back the laughter. "Well, you know me. I got right into it. Right into the painter part. You know, the whole artsy bit — holding up my thumb and admiring my work, that kind of stuff." And the crowd, he says, ate it up. "Yeah, I guess it must have looked pretty funny..."

His friends were still clapping by the time he got back to their table. "One of my buddies said: 'You looked just like Toulouse Lautrec painting dancers at the Moulin Rouge... just like him, only you were painting strippers at the New Ontario Bar.' And everybody agreed." Another long pause. "So the name stuck."

Right then. Another mystery solved. And his brush with royalty? Well, it was much more than a brush to be honest. And like so much in Toulouse's life it was all about being at the right place at the right time. "Greg Lee was originally supposed to be the go-to guy on that job," he reminds me. "I was just going to be his wing-man." See what I mean? When it comes to seizing opportunities, the guy has horseshoes up his... well, you get the idea.

He smiles. "You're right," he says. "I have been lucky." But it has to do with a lot more than luck. And the story of his transition from national team coach to ski-instructor-to-the-stars is a case in point. "It wasn't easy leaving the national team," he says of his departure in 1993. But he and his wife Ann had two kids now and a busy B&B to manage. He'd invested 14 good years in the Canadian downhill program. "It was time for me to stay home and get to know Whistler again," he says.

He ran the race department at Blackcomb for a while. "I worked for Steve Podborski during the winter of 1994," he says. "I put on ski races for people." But it wasn't a good fit. In fact, it wasn't until he joined the ski school the next year that he truly felt he'd found his place. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me," he insists. "It was so much fun. No more bamboo. No more setting up nets. No more digging out starts. All I had to do was take people skiing." He laughs. "And that was easy."

He says the job brought out the best in him. "I really blossomed there. As an individual and a ski instructor. I developed my own clientele... and just went for it."

The mid '90's was a time of unprecedented growth in the Whistler Valley. "Both Whistler and Blackcomb were going off," he remembers. "The economy was great, the village was bustling and, more importantly, people had money to spend!"

By the winter of 1998 (and the amalgamation of the two mountains) Toulouse Spence was a much-in-demand WB instructor with clients from Hong Kong to California. That's when his buddy Greg Lee came up with an offer he couldn't refuse.

"Greg was pretty tight with the Weston family," recounts Toulouse. "And the Westons were official hosts to Prince Charles and his sons during their 1998 trip to Canada. So when they went looking for somebody to guide the Royals at Whistler, Greg was the obvious choice. I was just there for backup..."

Ah, but royal politics are never simple. "Greg didn't work for the ski school," explains Toulouse. "And senior management at WB decided that it would be more appropriate for a certified ski instructor to do the job." So Lee was punted off the program and Spence was asked to take over. "There were other instructors with the Royals as well," he adds. Just not with Toulouse's chutzpah... or experience.

"What a trip," he says. "Just getting a handle on the proper protocol on how to address them was a handful." He stops talking; takes a quick breath. "You know," he resumes in a reflective tone. "For all the royal hoopla, and the security, and all the crazy etiquette they had to follow, well, they were just like you and me. Ordinary people. They just wanted to go skiing and have fun together."

It was Prince Charles, he adds, who most impressed him. "The European press portray him as such a stuffed shirt, you know. Bu he's not. I found him genial, affable — and totally approachable. On he hill, standing in the liftline, people would address him all the time; ask him all sorts of questions. And he was so patient with them. He's a real gentleman." He lets a beat go by. "And he really loves to ski. Aside from his rear-entry boots, he was a pretty good skier too..."

Toulouse turned 70 earlier this year. I know. Doesn't look a day over 50. Fit and strong and still a keen on skiing as he was 40 years ago when he first arrived here — though he admits back-to-back injuries these last two ski seasons have set him back some — Spence leads the kind of outdoor-focused life that most of us can only aspire to. He's a living, breathing illustration of a new, more grown-up Whistler.

Still, I can't help asking him what he thinks of the place now. "We're probably overbuilt," he says. "But otherwise, Whistler is adapting well to the changing times. As for living in this place — it was the mountains, the snow and the terrain that brought me here. But it was the people who kept me here." He sighs. "I could do with a warmer climate sometimes, sure. But Whistler's come such a long way.... "

And then he leaves me with an intriguing image: "When I look back, you know, and try to assess our role in the early years... well, to me, it's kinda like the grain of sand that gets in the oyster and creates a beautiful pearl. We were that grain of sand." He pauses to let the idea sink in. "Know what I mean? There was an atmosphere of fun here in those early years that still resonates with a lot of people. I think that's what made this place go. We wanted to share our fun with the world." A final chuckle — Heh. Heh. Heh. "And our great skiing of course..."