Opinion » Alta States

Alta states

Willy Raine: A pure passion for the mountains

by

comment

I can still remember my first real conversation with Willy Raine. It was 1992, on the eve of the Winter Olympics in France, and the young slalom ace and I were sharing a ride to Val D’Isere where the rest of the Canadian Ski Team were already in residence. Probably the last athlete to be named to our Olympic Team that year (in any sport), Raine had managed to qualify for the Games in his first ever World Cup race — a difficult, icy slalom held only a few weeks before in Slovenia. It was a clutch performance, no doubt about it. But the 22 year old certainly wasn’t crowing about his accomplishments.

“It’s funny that way,” he told me. “When you first come over to Europe, you think you’re pretty good at this ski racing thing. And then you end up at some back alley ski hill in Austria and get your ass handed to you on a plate. That’s when you realize just how big the sport is over here. Either it totally defeats you, or it motivates you to go after it…”

True enough. And it was obvious to me that Willy hadn’t quite decided yet which way his career was going to go. Still, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the historical links that tied this quiet young man to the French Alps...

You see, to those of us who grew up around ski racing, the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble were the Nancy Greene Games. Winner of gold and silver medals there despite a horrible crash mere days before the Opening Ceremonies, the legendary Rossland dynamo — called Tiger for her take-no-prisoners approach to racing (and life) — was virtually unbeatable that season. She would retire that spring after earning her second consecutive overall World Cup title. But Olympic medals and crystal globes were not the only things that came in twos for the hard-charging B.C. athlete. For two years later (after marrying CAST program director Al Raine), she would give birth to twins, Willy and his brother Charlie.

And now here was her grown son, following in her footsteps (or ski tracks). So what did Willy think about attending the Games in the same country where his mother had been so honoured 24 years ago? Did he feel this was part of his destiny? Did he feel any extra pressure? “Not at all,” he said. And he was just as frank on the subject of his mother. “You know,” he added, “I never appreciated just how good a ski racer my mother was until I got to this level. She was just my mom. But now I realize just how exceptional an athlete she really was.”

And that was that. He didn’t say whether her skiing prowess intimidated him or motivated him. Didn’t say he was proud of it or embarrassed by it. It was a point of fact. Nothing more, nothing less. And I realized then, too, just how much he was like his father that way. Smile. Answer the questions. But always keep your cards close to your chest…

As it turned out, the 1992 Games would be one of the highlights in Willy’s all-too-short ski racing career. With a national team vision firmly focused on the speed events, Canadian technical skiers like Willy were hard-pressed to find the support and funds to further their careers during those years. Frustrated at his lack of progress, Raine retired from active ski racing a few seasons later. But ski racing never left his soul…

Today, at 37, Willy is still the quiet, thoughtful guy he was back in 1992. A resident of Whistler for most of his life — and now married to former freestyle skiing star Kennedy Ryan — he’s been the Head Coach for the K1 group (11-12 years old) at the Whistler Mountain Ski Club for years. And he’s loved it. But now he’s ready for a whole new challenge.

Recently named to the newly created post of Technical Director, Raine’s responsibilities will be to oversee all the club’s on-snow activities next year. “It will be my job,” he says,” to create learning environments on the hill where the kids are assimilating new skills and new ideas in the most progressive fashion possible.” He pauses. Checks to see if I’m following him. “Do you know what I mean? Being on the ski hill with the kids is awesome. And I love every minute of it. But I’m also fascinated with the challenge of creating a great overall program — a template for success at all levels.”

Raine isn’t one of those coaches who sees racing as an activity divorced from life. To him, it’s all connected. “I see ski racing as a means, not an end,” he says. “Ultimately, our aim at the club is to create ski champions. And I’m totally onboard with that. But I also see an opportunity here to create strong values — life skills that each of our kids (whether champions or not) can apply to their everyday lives. Discipline. Vision. Goal-setting. Knowing how to work with others. Learning how to win. Learning how to lose. These are skills that come in mighty handy when you enter your adult years.”

He says one of the biggest motivators for him is seeing the blaze of passion in a young athlete’s eyes. “There is something very special about working with young people who have a passion for their chosen activity,” he explains. “And that’s because that passion can be adapted to other pursuits. Ultimately, it makes for a more positive outlook on life.”

But it also takes a strong and confident coach to nurture that outlook. “At the races, you want so much for every kid to succeed. But you have to learn how to stand back and let them fly on their own…” Another pause. Another glance to see if I’m following him. “Win or lose — you’re grounding them either way,” he continues. “It’s a unique relationship — and a very powerful one…”

Adds Raine: “I love it when I run into kids — well, they’re not kids anymore, they’re in their 20s — and all they want to talk about is their time at the club and how much it enriched their lives. That’s when you know that you haven’t been wasting your time.”

Raine believes that the first step in this process is instilling a deep and abiding love for skiing in general. “For me, the free skiing flame burns stronger and stronger,” he says. And then he laughs. “Honestly, I’m more passionate about skiing today than I’ve ever been! It doesn’t matter whether I’ve worked 14 days straight or just come back from a long road trip. On a powder day, I’m first in line at the lifts.”

Forget Technical Director. Sounds to me like his new title should be Director of Soul. He laughs when I mention it. “But you have a point,” he says. “I really want to teach our kids to love the mountains. To love skiing in all its different dimensions.”

Why? Because, he says, it’s something that stays with you for the rest of your life. “I remember my first year as a coach at Blackcomb,” he explains. “They had the 15cm rule. If it snowed more than 15cm training was cancelled. But instead of free skiing, most of the kids would go home. I was shocked!” Another burst of laughter. “You see, my fondest memories of my years on the circuit aren’t of being on a race course somewhere. They’re of the days when the race was cancelled and we went free skiing…”

Raine admits that ski coaching is not widely perceived as a “real” profession in Canada. But he maintains that perception doesn’t matter to him one bit. “It’s simple — I see myself as a professional ski coach,” he says. “Some people would say: ‘Big deal’ and dismiss it out of hand. But I see it as a very important job. After all, we play a vital role in the lives of these kids.”

Could it be that he feels secure in his job because he’s a second-generation coach (one of very, very few in Canada)? “If I look at my father’s life, I realize that I’ve followed closely in his footsteps,” he says. “It hasn’t been conscious. I haven’t purposely followed his lead. We just happen to share the same passions. And to answer your question — I guess yes, his example has been a very positive influence on my life.”

So there you have it. Passionate, funny, articulate — and totally committed to his profession — Willy Raine is sure to raise the performance bar at the WMSC in his new role as Soul, er, Technical Director. And given his name and genealogy, that’s to be expected. But will he be there for long? “I’m not going anywhere anytime soon,” he says. “This is my home. I like it here. Sure, Whistler is more like a big city than I would prefer.” He stops. Smiles one last time. “But all you have to do is put your pack on, get to the top of the mountain, hike over a few ridges — and now look around. Chances are, you’ll be the only one there…”