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Kathy Podborski: Keeping the home fires

It’s been over 10 years since the accident. But even now, her voice changes perceptibly when she talks about it. “I made a conscious choice not to die,” says Kathy Podborski of her ordeal-by-avalanche during a helicopter-skiing trip in B.C.

It’s been over 10 years since the accident. But even now, her voice changes perceptibly when she talks about it. “I made a conscious choice not to die,” says Kathy Podborski of her ordeal-by-avalanche during a helicopter-skiing trip in B.C.’s Cariboo Mountains. “My kids were still so young then -- 4 and 6. There was no way someone else was going to raise them.” She pauses. Takes a deep breath. “I knew the group had seen me go. I knew they’d find me eventually. So I decided to just stay calm and wait for my rescue.”

Indeed. Buried under the snow for a mind-bending 18 minutes while her husband Steve and the rest of her skiing group frantically searched for her, Kathy emerged from her frozen tomb “nearly dead”, as she says. “Remember the movie the Princess Bride? Well, I was just like that. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t act. When I was coming to, I could hear people calling me, but it was so far away that I couldn’t really relate to it…”

Our discussion wasn’t supposed to be about avalanche survival. After all, with someone as interesting and as forthcoming as Kathy Podborski, there’s a whole slough of topics to address. Former schoolteacher, flight attendant, Whistler fundraiser extraordinaire -- and spouse to Canada’s most successful male ski racer in history --Kathy has to be one of the most positive-minded people I know in Sea to Sky country.

Still, having both shared near-death avalanche experiences, we couldn’t help but compare notes. “I’ve never dreamt about it,” she says. “Never had a nightmare or anything like that. But it’s not like we buried the subject away or anything. We’ve always felt free to talk about it among ourselves.”

She doesn’t dwell on her recovery. Doesn’t dwell on the pain and agony of having to teach her body to function all over again. “Basically my body shut down completely while I was under the snow,” she explains. “The experts call it Mammalian Dive Syndrome. And it’s the only way they can account for my survival.” But her comeback was far from straightforward. “It took a long time,” she admits. “Everything had stopped. And getting those systems started again was quite a process.”

Another smile. “You know -- I’m utterly grateful to be alive,” she says in that near-breathless, I-have-a-million-things-to-say way that is so uniquely hers. “That incident totally rekindled my commitment to the joys of living. It re-affirmed my connection to family and friends. And that’s more important to me than anything else in the world…”

She comes by her feelings honestly. The third child of six, Kathy grew up in an active Calgary family. Skiing, competitive swimming and various outdoor sports-- they were all part of the mix when she was growing up. “My parents, along with the Monods (another legendary Banff skiing family), actually started the Sunshine Village Ski Club in the early 1970s. I never raced, but my younger twin brothers, Bob and John, became quite good and competed for Canada at the Europa Cup level.”

It was through her brothers -- and friend Ken Read -- that she first got to know Steve. “We met at the Calgary Stampede in 1981,” she recounts. “And we pretty much hit it off from the moment we met.” But though the connection was strong, both realized they were on different life paths at the time.

Meanwhile, Kathy went from a seven-year school teaching stint in Montreal -- “I was there for the Olympics in ’76,” she says, “and it was a life-changing experience” -- to a job as an airline hostess, based out of Calgary. When the Games came to Alberta in 1988, she found herself residing in yet another Canadian Olympic city. “Strange, isn’t it? And now with Whistler hosting the Games, it’s three-for-three.” She laughs. “Not too many Canadians can claim that…”

It was during the Calgary Games that the flame of romance between Steve and Kathy finally flared. Six months later they were married and living in Toronto. “Steve’s never been really attracted by the rock-star lifestyle,” she says. “Still, I had to ask myself whether I’d be comfortable living with someone with his kind of celebrity status.” She stops talking. Sighs. “You know, most young married couples will go out for dinner to discuss issues. But when we were living in Toronto, I realized we couldn’t do that. Even though you might not always notice it, people are watching your every move. Your public life is really not your own.”

Could that be part of the reason they moved to Whistler in 1993? “Not really,” she says. “By then, we’d both decided that we wanted to live at a ski resort. And Whistler at the time was expanding and it offered some interesting possibilities. Both Steve and I had always liked it here — and it was a heck of a lot warmer than Banff. Besides, it looked like a great place to bring up our kids… and we wanted to settle in somewhere before they started school.”

Nonetheless, there were doubts. “Steve said: ‘What if we don’t like it there.’ And I said: ‘We’ll just move back.’” When they eventually found a house in the Tapley’s Farm neighbourhood, Kathy took it as a sign. “I mean, how tough can life be when you’re living on Easy Street?”

The transition from Toronto to Whistler took a little adjustment in the beginning. “When we first moved here,” she says, “there were fewer than 3,500 full-time residents in Whistler. I felt like we were living in a fishbowl at first. But then I soon realized just how supportive the people were here. It was like being part of a huge extended family.”

It’s a Whistler trait, adds Kathy, that isn’t celebrated nearly enough. “Because most people have moved to Whistler from somewhere else, few have extended families within the community. So they create their own chosen extended families. And that has resulted in a really close-knit town. When something goes wrong — a death in the family, an illness, whatever — Whistlerites are quick to come together and offer help.”

Although it’s not sexy or cool (or even politically correct in some circles), Kathy totally embraced her role as stay-at-home mom in Whistler. “Because Steve travelled so much for his work, we decided that I would be the ‘at-home’ parent,” she explains. “And I was totally OK with it.”

No matter what activity Ben (now 18) or Maddi (16) chose to pursue, mum was onboard, often helping behind-the-scenes with no intention of getting publicity or attention for her volunteer work. Whether it was serving on the gymnastic committee or helping out at ski club races or putting in endless hours at her kids’ schools, Kathy was there. And the word got around fast. Need someone to help with fundraising for the new Whistler library? Ask Kathy Podborski. She’s always good at convincing people to donate money and services to a good cause…

She laughs when I tease her about her reputation as one of the fundraising “go-to-gals” in the valley. “Whistler is a very volunteer-driven town,” she says. “And it reminds me a lot of Calgary that way. So I feel totally comfortable getting involved. Besides, if people like me don’t step up, who will?”

And she doesn’t just limit her volunteer work to sports and education. A member of the board of directors for the Kelty Patrick Dennehy Foundation, she is quick to remind me that depression-related suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers. “It’s a silent epidemic in our communities,” she says. “And it’s devastating to those who are touched by it. It’s kind of like cancer in the 1950s. You don’t talk about it. You don’t acknowledge it. You just bury it.” The foundation, she tells me, is all about fostering education, research and public awareness on that issue. “You can’t change things if you hide behind ignorance,” she says.

Which brings us to another topic she feels strongly about. “Whistler is an incredible community,” she says. “And Whistlerites are unbelievably passionate about their town. But it does have its challenges. This is a place where a lot of people come and go. But unless you’re going to stay and get involved in local issues, you have to be careful about how you complain. I mean, the full name of Whistler is the Resort Municipality of Whistler: it was conceived and built to host the world. So if you don’t like living in a tourist town, maybe you should consider moving to a quieter place...”

It’s a subject that both she and Steve heartily agree on. “Look — it’s very easy to criticize,” she says. “Anybody can do it. But complaints are not valid unless you can also come up with viable solutions. Sitting on the sidelines and whining about issues just doesn’t cut it.”

A pause. Another disarming Kathy smile. “It’s simple. If something bugs you, get involved. Don’t just stand there complaining — do something about it. After all, we’re still a very small community and we can use all the help we can get…”