Opinion » Alta States

Alta States

Keeping the dream alive

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She’s the hardest working person he’s ever met says her former boss. And she never stands down from a challenge. Doesn’t matter what the odds are. Doesn’t matter who’s challenging her. When Sue Eckersley decides to get something done, it gets done — and done well. “She’s definitely a force to be reckoned with,” says former World Ski & Snowboard Festival czar Doug Perry. “In fact she’s the only person to whom I would consider handing the keys to the festival…”

Quite an endorsement for the rookie director of what is, arguably, Whistler’s most important annual event. And quite a step for a woman who was a WSSF volunteer not so long ago. But Sue Eckersley is not just any woman. Smart, disciplined, competitive — and very, very organized — the Toronto-born gal doesn’t seem to be particularly intimidated by her new role. Nor does she seem to take her prestigious new title too seriously.

“The unique beauty of the WSSF is that it is the culmination of countless visions,” she says. “It’s not about me…” And then she laughs. Easily and totally relaxed. “Look — I’m a doer. I’m not the kind of person to seek the spotlight. I see myself more as the festival caretaker. I’m the filter for all these great ideas. My job is to move things forward and ensure that all these visions are respected — and celebrated!”

And she’s still as enthralled by the festival as she ever was. Maybe even more. “For me, it’s a passion, not a job,” she explains. “Some people on the team are personally driven by the arts component of the WSSF. For others it’s the on-mountain events that turn them on. My passion is the whole community. It encompasses everything. I love to see the athletes in action, the artists, the musicians — I just love the three-ring circus aspect of the event. To watch Whistler go off like that for 10 days — that’s just incredibly cool to me.”

By her own account, Eckersley’s “how I ended up in Whistler” story is not unique. “People come her for a weekend, and end up staying for the rest of their lives,” she says with another chuckle. “The magic of Whistler really works wonders on us…”

Her original plan was to become a lawyer. But before that, she wanted to see the world a bit. “I decided to take some time off after graduating from Acadia University in Nova Scotia in 1993,” she recounts. “And I somehow fell into a job as a youth worker.” But it wasn’t just any youth worker job. Called Project Dare, it was an innovative new outdoor education program for young offenders. Their schoolroom: the great boreal forests that surround North Bay, Ontario. “I learned a lot about human behaviour in that context,” she says with a rueful grin. “And I learned a heck of a lot about myself too.”

The learning curve was steep, and the job was emotionally demanding, By the fall of 1999, she was ready for a sabbatical. Never one to choose the easy path, Sue somehow managed to get hired on a sailboat travelling from Mexico to Hawaii. “That was quite an adventure,” she says. The return trip landed her in Seattle. And though her thirst for sailing hadn’t yet been slaked — “I was planning to jump back on a boat that was travelling down the West Coast and through the Panama Canal” — she decided to visit a friend in Whistler. “And then I just found myself living here and looking for a job…”

Her first impressions: “I totally loved it,” says the born-again snowboarder. “I’ve always been into sports. I was already a skier — albeit a Southern Ontario skier — and I loved being outdoors in wintertime. So the mountains here really, certainly spoke to me. But it was more than that. To me, Whistler’s special charm is its unique combination of natural beauty and real people. And that combination totally seduced me.”

Slowly but surely, her plans began to change. “After only one season here, travel and law school seemed a whole lot less attractive to me. I found myself thinking that maybe I’d finally found the place where I wanted to settle down.”

Her first job was working as a ticket validator for Whistler-Blackcomb. But though she liked her job well enough, she was far more taken by her volunteer work with the WSSF. “It looked like such a great event that I went right into their offices and offered them my services,” she says. At first, they gave her something menial to do. But in typical Eckersley fashion, she quickly made herself indispensable. She still smiles at the memory. “After working with the team for three days, I said: ‘See you later — gotta go back to my real job now.’ And they said: ‘What do you mean? Aren’t you working for us?’”

The next year, she got a three-month contract with the WSSF team. The year after that, they upped it to five months. Soon she was Doug Perry’s designated go-to gal. “I’m a pretty straightforward person,” she explains. “I’m a realist. I look for solutions not problems. I can identify things that will work — and figure out how to get them to work.” Another smile. “I’m not all that familiar with the sentence ‘It can’t be done.’ I’m kind of like a terrier that way. Once I get hold of something I’m not going to let go until I figure out how to make it work.”

And so began a relationship that Perry still calls one of the most vital in festival history. “Sue is an amazing person to work with,” he maintains. “She can go for days without sleep — and she won’t stop until she reaches her goal. But what really sets her apart is that Sue is a woman of total integrity!”

It’s that sense of integrity, continues Perry, that will protect the festival vision. As Eckersley says herself: “The WSSSF Board didn’t have to hire me. There were other solutions out there — and I think that most of them would have been easier to manage. My job, as I see it, is to champion the festival’s original spirit as well as its role within the greater Whistler community. And I can get pretty stubborn about stuff like that. There’ll be disagreements — I’m sure — just like when Doug was here….”

That said, she also maintains that the working relationship between the various festival partners is entirely positive. “It’s in everyone’s best interest for this to be a successful event,” she says. “Particularly this year. I’ve got a lot of support from a lot of different sources. And that gives me confidence to move forward and get things done.”

Although it’s still too early in the season to talk about specific performances at this year’s WSSF, Sue is already hard at work tweaking the program so that it continues to be the edgy, groundbreaking festival that it was under Perry’s watch. “The WSSF has always been about growth, innovation and authenticity. And that means we have to question the status quo all the time. After all, there are always new and better ways to do things. It’s about taking risks. Riding the leading edge. And from my perspective, there’s no end point in sight on that front…”

Things may come. Things may go. But the festival will continue to celebrate mountain culture — under all its guises. “The festival is all about youth,” she says. “And by ‘youth’ I’m not talking about chronological age. I’m talking state of mind! One of Whistler’s most attractive characteristics is that it is a community of youthful-thinking people — no matter what their age might be. And that’s an attitude that the rest of the world could learn a lot from.”

As for specific new initiatives for the 2007 season, she leaves me with a tantalizing vision. “It’s kind of a tradition at the WSSF to come up with at least one new event every year,” she says. “So this year we’re decided to add theatre to the mix.” She pauses for a moment. Laughs again. “But it won’t be theatre like anybody has seen in the past. This will be a truly unique event.”

Only six months left. I can’t wait…