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Rob Boyd's big win remembered

Powder laps, a tribute to a teammate, Dwight Yoakam's boots and other memories, 25 years later

For Rob Boyd, it doesn't take much for the memories of his World Cup downhill win in Whistler to come flooding back. That's partly because people still constantly remind him of the 1989 triumph.

"It comes up all the time," said Boyd. "At least weekly, if not more often."

And why not? Boyd's victory was not only the first by a Canadian man on home snow, but also the centrepiece of a tremendous moment in the resort's history.

Quite simply, anyone who was in Whistler on Feb. 25, 1989, has a memory — or at least a blurred one — of Boyd's win.

"It's kind of funny," laughed Boyd. "I could probably line about three-quarters of the course with people who said they were there, saying, 'Oh yeah, I was up there at Coach's Corner,' or 'I was hanging from a tree at Fallaway,' or 'I was at the finish.'"

And Boyd was back there himself to mark the 25th anniversary of his victory when it passed last week. Whistler Blackcomb (WB) groomed up the old downhill course last Tuesday and made it its Run of the Day, while Boyd strapped on an old pair of his 223-centimetre Fischers from the late 1980s and re-lived the moment with family and friends.

"A lot of the staff here were here then or remember the day, so it was a good excuse to swap some stories and have a great day on the mountain," said Peter "YP" Young, WB's events manager and the assistant chief of course the day Boyd won.

"It was a great day of skiing."

Boyd remembers great skiing on Whistler on the morning of his win 25 years ago, too. He even found time for a pre-race powder lap.

Clicked into his downhill skis after the morning course inspection, a 23-year-old Boyd spotted some untracked snow while riding up on the Red Chair.

"I looked over at the top of Franz's Meadow, and there was a little chute there that hadn't been skied. And I said, 'Wow, I think I'm gonna go ski that,'" recalled Boyd. "I skied over to (the old) Peak Chair, got off at midway and traversed along the ridge there, found my lines and down through the powder I went, face shots (and everything). Then, I got back to the top, got ready for my run, and did what I did.

"The rest is history, as they say."

***

The 1988-89 season hadn't been a memorable one for the Canadian alpine team when the World Cup circuit arrived in Whistler. Boyd had got back on the podium at Val Gardena, Italy, after winning there each of the two seasons before, but that was the team's only top-three finish in a downhill to that point. The Canadians were also reeling from Brian Stemmle's horrible, life-threatening crash in Austria just weeks before.

"We'd had a mediocre season leading up to that point," said Glenn Wurtele, head coach of the Canadian team at the time. "We'd had a tough year with Brian and his accident at Kitzb├╝hel."

But hopes were high that Boyd could play the hometown hero. Wurtele said the Whistler course was one that suited Boyd's strengths, and the tougher the course, the more Boyd's chances seemed to be bolstered.

"In the more difficult downhills in the world, he'd be one of the guys you'd be betting on to be on the podium," said Wurtele. "Whistler was one of those — a tough course with a lot of stuff going on."

And Boyd himself knew he had the ability to master it. He won the first training run and looked poised to challenge the Austrian and Swiss squads that were dominating the circuit, and had found plenty of success in North America in seasons past.

"I'd been skiing really well up to that point," said Boyd. "I knew that I had a pretty good chance."

Boyd wore bib No. 9 on race day, and didn't think he got off to a great start.

"I was behind a little bit... and then there was the little mistake over the Fallaway with my leg up in the air," said Boyd, thinking back on a famous photo of him on course. "I remember thinking, 'Ooh, that was a mistake, I'd better really go for it now.' So I held my tuck a little longer into the turns down below and everywhere I could; tried to carry and make speed.

"Certainly, where I won it was in the bottom section."

When Boyd's leading time of two minutes, 10.03 seconds flashed up on the board as he reached the line, pandemonium ensued at the Creekside base.

"I was down in the writers' corral right by the finish line, and when Rob came across with the winning time, of course the place went absolutely nuts," said longtime Whistler ski writer Doug Sack, sports editor of the Whistler Question at the time.

There's a clip on YouTube of the moment Boyd reached the finish. Even as that grainy video plays, the crowd noise in the background is deafening. But Boyd had a message to deliver.

"If you watch the footage of me in the finish, I come through, I'm cheering, my hands are in the air, I take my skis off and hold 'em up, and then the camera's right there in the finish," he said. "I call it over and say, 'Hey Stemmle, that's for you!'"

Boyd said the dedication to Stemmle, who was lying in a Toronto hospital bed, was a spur-of-the-moment thing, but his injured teammate was one of the first things that came to mind.

"Brian and I had been friendly rivals, teammates, roommates, training partners for many years on the national team... We'd had a lot of ups and downs together," said Boyd. "I was just thinking about the poor guy in hospital."

***

As Sack remembers it, the finish-area jubilation was followed by a tense moment, when victory looked like it was slipping through Boyd's fingers. Coming up behind him, Swiss star Peter Mueller, who had won the second training session, was putting down a blistering run of his own.

"Mueller — who was the Darth Vader of the World Cup, everybody hated Peter Mueller — he's coming down the goddamn mountain and they're flashing intervals up on the board and he's beating (Boyd)," said Sack. "Everyone at the finish line just got deathly quiet watching these intervals, going, 'Oh no... Peter Mueller's going to snatch the race.'

"I don't remember where the last one was — somewhere up around the Timing Flats — and nobody knew until Mueller crossed the finish line that Rob won. "Mueller came across the finish line, was (behind) Rob, and another big, huge cheer went up. Mueller thought he won the race because the cheer was so big."

Mueller wound up sixth, while Swiss teammates Daniel Mahrer and Pirmin Zurbriggen claimed second and third.

Boyd had just made history as the first Canadian man to win at home, something the Crazy Canucks before him were never able to do.

"Rob being the first Canadian to win at home in Canada, of course, was huge, especially at Whistler, where there was a really knowledgeable crowd of spectators who followed ski racing," said Wurtele. "It was fantastic to see that."

One of those Crazy Canucks was there in the finish taking it all in, as Dave Murray watched from the stands, holding two-month-old daughter Julia. It was the last downhill held in Canada before Murray died.

"Winning in your hometown with so many friends and fans right there cheering you on, was a very special moment," said Boyd. "And, of course, being the first Canadian male to win on home soil, that added to the specialness of it."

***

Ticket sales for the World Cup Celebration Dinner and Dance were not going well. The $125-a-head fundraiser for the Canadian team and Dave Murray Foundation at the Whistler Conference Centre was to feature performances by Colin James and Smokey Robinson on the night of the downhill. That morning, less than one-quarter of the tickets had been sold.

Boyd estimated that organizer Bruce Goldsmid, now the CEO of B.C. Alpine, was likely to lose thousands on the event. That is, until Boyd stood atop the podium.

"When Rob won the downhill, the whole thing sold out and everybody went crazy," said Wurtele.

In the hours that followed his victory, all 1,800 tickets to the bash were quickly snapped up. Boyd remembered running into a relieved Goldsmid at the party.

"I was telling him that night, 'I'm the happiest guy in the world,' and he said, 'I'm the second-happiest,'" laughed Boyd.

Suddenly, an event that looked like it would be a flop turned into one of the most memorable nights in the resort's short history.

"Boyd's win, up until that point, was certainly the biggest party Whistler had ever seen," said Sack. "It went on for three days. I was so hungover I couldn't even remember what my occupation was when it came time to write my column on Tuesday."

There were a number of silent auction items up for grabs at the conference centre that night, and perhaps the most coveted were a pair of lizard-skin cowboy boots that had belonged to country crooner Dwight Yoakam. Boyd had tried them on early in the evening and they fit like a glass slipper, but he wasn't willing to shell out the money needed to post the highest bid. Wurtele, however, said he "ended up getting totally carried away with it all," and placed a winning bid of $500, then handed the boots to Boyd.

"(Wurtele) presented them to me on stage that night," recalled Boyd. "So I kicked off my dress shoes, put those on and tried to spin some moves in 'em."

According to Boyd, it was one of many gracious gestures Wurtele made towards him over the years. They lived across the street from each other in Vernon when Boyd was a teen, and Boyd said Wurtele helped outfit him with racing gear — "a few things that fell out of the B.C. Team van" — early in his career.

"He's a very kind and generous man," said Boyd, who had Wurtele as a coach on the provincial squad before the two both moved up to the national team.

"I spent a lot of money on those boots," said Wurtele. "I wonder if he's still got them?"

He does.

"I have 'em here," Boyd chuckled.

So for at least one night, after the third and final World Cup win of his career, Rob Boyd was a Canadian Cowboy, long before that term was ever applied to a ski racer.

***

When he thinks back on his World Cup career, which lasted from 1985 to 1997, Boyd will always consider his Whistler win as a key moment alongside his back-to-back victories at Val Gardena.

"The first win at Val Gardena was a big surprise; a big thing (to be) the first Canadian to win there, too," he said. "But as a ski racer's career goes, the first win is a huge one, and winning at home is equally as big, if not more, probably because of the spin-off and lasting effects, whether it be the stories or notoriety for years afterwards."

Today, Boyd is the athletic director of the Whistler Mountain Ski Club. The clubhouse, a stone's throw from the finish line of that 1989 race, sits on a street that bears his name — Rob Boyd Way.

The generation of youth ski racers he helps raise now wasn't around when he produced the hometown triumph a quarter-century ago, but Boyd recognizes that his Whistler win had a hand in inspiring the skiers who are representing Canada at the World Cup level today.

"Manny (Osborne-Paradis) talks about the poster of me he used to have in his bedroom," said Boyd. "Many of the guys have stories of them having a poster, or watching a race, or the legacy of the Crazy Canucks and those who followed in their footsteps.

"They're all part of the fabric that inspires and motivates the racers we have today."