Seems like only yesterday… But no. A whole generation has passed —19 years to be exact — since a lone pilot from the decimated corps of Glenn Wurtele’s high-flying downhill squad managed to ski away from four past and future Olympic champions to carry the day on Whistler’s wild and woolly Dave Murray course.
And what a clutch performance that was. With best pal Brian Stemmle still in hospital recovering from a near-fatal crash in Kitzbuehel — and the knives already out for Wurtele and his coaches — Rob Boyd saved the season by becoming the first Canadian alpine skier to post an at-home World Cup victory.
He certainly didn’t do it the easy way. Behind the leaders most of the way down the hill, Boyd shifted into overdrive on the last few jumps and jags to win by just over a tenth of a second. How close was it? In a race that was won in a time of 2:10:03, the top 10 skiers were all within a second of each other.
More importantly, the very best from that era were in attendance. Mahrer, Zurbriggen, Hoeflenner, Mueller, Piccard, Girardelli, Ortlieb – the top-10 list read like a who’s-who of downhill royalty.
“It took me a while to come down from that particular high,” Body told me a few years later. “I think most high-performance athletes dream of doing well in front of their hometown crowd. And I was no different. To win in my backyard – fair and square against the best in the world – it was truly a dream come true for me.”
And for the community too. To this day, I can’t think of a bigger party at Whistler than the one the town held that night for their young hero. Confided a shell-shocked Boyd later that evening: “Wow…I’ve really done it this time, haven’t I…”
It was a different era of course. Ski racing was the only game in town back then, and downhill was king at Whistler. Still, Rob’s victory came at a time when the community was just beginning to forge an identity for itself. The place was coming of age; it needed bigger-than-life characters to go with its bigger-than-life story. And the local kid’s World Cup win – against long odds and in the face of serious adversity – perfectly mirrored the town’s own developmental narrative.
That’s why everyone — and I mean everyone — got involved in the party. Residents, weekenders, part-timers and near-timers: the whole of Whistler celebrated. Indeed, it’s still a popular après-ski story among those who were there that weekend. As in, “Do you remember that crazy World Cup when Boyd won and the whole town went crazy?”
Interesting how history has a way of looping around itself…
Come next week, Boyd could once again be celebrating World Cup podium performances in his backyard. And once again the timing couldn’t be better. But this time it’s all about the ladies. Led by B.C. racers Britt Janyk, Emily Brydon and Kelly VanderBeek, the Canadian speed team is showing the world exactly what it’s made of.
In fact, I’m not sure if the team’s 2008 podium streak isn’t unique in Canadian ski racing history…
Consider this: since the first downhill of the year, there hasn’t been a weekend of World Cup speed racing where one of those three wasn’t standing on a podium. Pretty consistent, I’d say. Pretty dang tough too. And that’s what makes next week so exciting.
All three are legitimate contenders for top spot now. All three approach races with winning in mind. And that’s a huge change from even a year ago…
“We’re not getting ‘lucky’ podiums anymore,” says coach Boyd, echoing some of the same philosophy as Canadian snowboard high performance director Jim Miller (see Alta States Jan. 3, 2008). “These are calculated. They’re expected now, not hoped for. The girls are increasingly confident in the coaches and the program. And the coaches are even more confident in the girls…
“In other words, we’ve become a really professional group,” adds Boyd, who is now in his third year with the Canadian women. “And I’m really impressed with the way each one is handling her success. They’re definitely not letting it get to their head.”
He grins. And the sparkle in his eyes betrays just how much fun he’s having with his charges.
“It’s a very exciting time for all of us,” he admits. “It’s been worth all the hard work.”
But that doesn’t mean it gets any easier. “What’s really great right now is that the girls are relaxed enough to get the most out of every race,” he explains. “ Even when they don’t do well — especially when they don’t do well — there’s a huge opportunity to learn. But you have to have a lot of confidence in yourself to focus on the lessons after a bad race. Still, I think that’s where the difference lies between a true champion and a wannabe. And I’m starting to see a real champion’s attitude on our team.”
Sounds great. But what are they doing different than other years? What’s suddenly brought them to a level of consistency that’s got their male counterparts on the Canadian Team gnashing their teeth in envy?
“I’ve been thinking about that since you brought it up a few weeks ago,” says Boyd. “And I was thinking back to my time on the national team and the confidence in ourselves that Glenn Wurtele (another B.C. boy, by the way) inspired.”
He laughs: “I remember national team camps up on the Whistler glacier where Glenn would set these huge jumps. I mean monstrous! And then he’d challenge us to see who could fly the furthest. You know, he was never afraid to push us beyond our comfort zone. He really tested us. But that’s what you have to if you want to be number one.”
In a ‘return to the future’ sort of scenario, Boyd brought his charges back to Whistler to train on the glacier this past summer. It was the first national team camp that Boyd ever organized from scratch. And he went right back to the source for his inspiration.
“I remembered Glacier Bowl as such a great place to train,” he says. “Lots of room, great pitch, good vertical. And nobody else to compete for space with. So I decided to apply a little Wurtelean thinking.”
Big jumps, tricky transitions, high speeds — “The girls were making turns down the t-bar track at 130kmp,” chuckles Boyd – the new May camp pushed the women to go places with their skiing that they’d never gone before. But they liked it. And that too was a revelation for the coaches.
“I could see these girls getting more comfortable with speed and air by the day,” he recalls, “which made us realize just how much they could take.”
And that camp has paid out dividends all season. “Just to watch Emily tucking through sections (during her super G win in St Moritz last week) where nobody else was tucking — and still making good turns — that, to me, was a direct result of what we worked on the glacier. And I’ve seen the same from Britt and Kelly all season.”
But that’s not the only difference from last year, says Rob. In typical Boyd style, he quickly shifts the spotlight to another innovator on the team.
“Our strength and conditioning coach this year, Matt Price, has just done a phenomenal job,” he says. “He’s brought a level of dedication and professionalism to his work that I’ve rarely seen before. And as far as getting the girls prepared, he’s totally nailed it!”
Price is an outside-the-box thinker, explains Boyd, but one who totally understand what’s going on inside the box. “What I love most about Matt,” he says, “is that he knows exactly what the competition is doing. But he’s not afraid to innovate. Basically, his attitude is: we don’t have to follow the Austrians or the French or the Americans, we can lead.” He smiles. “And he’s exceptionally good at what he does. He’s precise, to-the-point and brings a rigorous scientific approach that’s very welcome.”
From daily physical evaluation to regular psychological testing, from plotting small mood changes to red-flagging dramatic energy drops, Price has set up a very clear monitoring system that allow both athletes and coaches to fine-tune their preparation during the season in order to maximize performance on the days when it counts.
“ This year we’re prepared,” says Boyd. ”It doesn’t matter where. It doesn’t matter when. Come race day, we’re ready to go.”
Can’t wait to see what his gals can do on the new course…
Oh – and by the way: Happy 42nd Rob!
Rob’s notes: Ski Tech names are Pavel Zurek (does Kelly and Emily’s skis) and Stefano Macori (does Britt’s skis). They are definitely some unsung heroes of making these girls go fast!