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Alta States

Stand up and be counted - a tribute to Greg Lee

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" Life is NOT a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming - 'WOW! WHAT A RIDE!'"

Greg Lee speaking at friend Ralph Jensen's memorial quoting Mark Frost.

Bigger-than-life. A character. A wild man. A throwback. An enormously talented athlete. A trickster. A funster.  A big-hearted outlaw. A motivator. An entertainer. A Whistler personality.

Call him what you want, the inimitable Greg Lee was thoroughly, completely, absolutely in love with life. No apologies. No excuses. Not even a 'what if' every now and then. 'Damn the torpedoes' was his modus operandi. Full speed ahead was his only speed.

Laugh, or cry or gasp in surprise. Shake your head or weep for your loss. When the former (and always) Whistlerite collapsed on the deck of Ontario's Craigleith ski club two Saturday's ago  (he would succumb to the massive stroke that felled him two days later), the Canadian Snoweater community lost one of its most committed champions. And he was only - gasp! - 58...

But don't feel sorry for him. He never did. In an email to old friend Shelley Adams last fall, he described himself thusly: "Two artificial knees. Two fake hips. And, a heart that's been broken too many times to care about anymore. I live in my Cadillac - NFA! No Fixed address!!!! Well... not really...." And you could almost hear the raucous guffaw erupting at the end of that sentence. The guy was incorrigible! So much in love with life - so enthused by the moment - that he pushed the envelope at every opportunity.

And I've received countless tales from friends and colleagues to attest to that fact. But before we get into those stories, let me offer a little anecdote of my own. I think it reveals much about the man.

The year was 1975 and I had left Whistler to take a job in the US as a ski coach. For those who weren't around back then, the '70s was a period of huge growth for the sport. Competitive ski programs were popping up everywhere. And young wannabe coaches like me were in huge demand.

But while the World Cup circuit was expanding fast in Europe, the newfangled dual pro-format racing style was becoming all the rage in America  - and I really mean rage. There was an 'A' circuit for the international big-wigs (with a big budget to go with it), and a 'B' circuit for us lesser mortals.

I can't remember all the details, but as I recall I'd taken a couple of weeks off coaching and had found (very) modest success racing on the ' tour - then sponsored by Peugeot. In a moment of unbridled optimism, I decided to invest my humble winnings and take a shot at the WPS 'A' tour. That's where I met Greg. Well, to be honest, I saw Greg long before we met...

You couldn't miss the guy. He had more advertising plastered on his ski suit than anybody else on the damn hill. And he definitely looked the role. With his red headband and blow-dried blond hair, his wrap-around sunglasses, allover tan, twinkling blue eyes and dazzling smile, the guy was a walking advertisement for the ski-racer lifestyle. I figured he had to be one of the top skiers around...

I was wrong. After we both failed to qualify for the main event - Greg, as I remember, crashing out of the course in one of his legendary yard sales - I found myself nursing a beer next to him at the bar. While I was feeling pretty low about losing my entry fee ($150!), Greg looked, and acted, like he'd just won a million bucks. By the second or third (or maybe sixth) beer, we were bosom buddies.

"So how come we never see you on the 'B' circuit?" I wanted to know. No answer. So I persisted: "It's pretty cheap to enter. And its got some really good racing too."

Greg looked at me for a long time. Shook his head in mock dismay. Then he burst out laughing. "Dude," he said, humour flicking through every words, "that's exactly the point. There's no money in it." Then he nudged his head even closer to mine. "Look at my life," he said in his most conspiratorial tone. "Whaddya see?" And just in case I hadn't figured it out: "All the girls I want, great lodging, wonderful eats and totally crazy parties. And I get all these goodies whether I qualify or not...."

And then he laughed and laughed and laughed. "I've gotta be one of the best-paid skiers on the Tour," he told me. "I have more sponsors than even the top Euros do. So tell me: why would I ever want to jeopardize that by racing for pennies on your circuit?" A beat. Two beats. His face broke into the biggest grin I'd ever seen. "It's simple economics, baby..."And then the changed the subject.

That, my friends, was vintage Greg Lee...

Baby Beast. Pigman. Sumo. Sleeping Horse. Greg had more nicknames that anyone I know. And each one was earned. "Greg was one of my all-time best friends," remembers Chris Shackleton. "We met when we were in our teens in Blueberry Bowl on Grouse Mountain. He introduced himself to me as "The Baby Beast" because his brother, Damien, whom we all knew, was known as "The Beast." Olle Larson was there too and remembers it well..."

Rumours abound about the Lee's Toronto household and Greg's early years there. This is what former national team skier Edith Rosza was told about that era: "As I understand it," she says, "Greg had several siblings and I think his father raised them himself. If they were quarrelling, dad would clear out the living room of furniture, and they would have a full-on fight. The deal was that as long as his Dad could beat them all, he was still the boss of the house. Now that's simple and practical parenting!"

Apocryphal? Maybe. But life was never boring when you were around Greg. "He was one year ahead of me at Milneford Jr. High School 1966-68," remembers Dr John Cowdrey. "Even back then he was larger than life and someone I aspired to emulate. The four things I recall about Greg: Teaching me how to jump out the second floor window at school to escape class, his beautiful sister, his patience in teaching me some of the ropes of skiing at the Don Valley Ski Centre, and his genuine warmth in a brief meeting a couple of years ago."

Clearly Greg had a joie-de-vivre that was infectious. And few who spent time in his company over the years were immune to his charms. "Greg, Glen Lynskey, Shelley Sorensen, Roger Moxley and I lived together in West Vancouver when we were in our 20s," writes Shelly Adams from Nelson. "Of course each day was hilarious. Greg would often start the day with Bruce Springsteen playing Thunder Road (and he'd point at me and turn down the music at the point where Bruce sings 'you ain't a beauty, but hey you're alright!) and that was somehow a compliment and I knew it. He'd also be wearing a pink downhill suit and cowboy boots while scrambling his dozen eggs for breakfast claiming he could see his stomach better in a downhill suit while eating... He wore that same outfit when he and I went to see the Village People live one night because he loved that one song 'Young man, I was once in your shoes....'"

But when the lights went on, Sumo's party just kept rolling along. "We drove home in his Cadillac," says Shelley, "with him still wearing that pink suit and honking the horn the whole way home to the tune of "Young Man...!!!"

That too was Greg...

And of course, there's the Toni Sailer Summer Camp stories. A bi-coastal traveller for much of his last years - with his beloved twin sons living in Whistler, and his life partner residing in Toronto - Sumo nonetheless stored a big part of his heart high up in the Whistler/Blackcomb alpine. And a surprisingly large number of the tributes that found their way to me this week were from coaches and campers who had worked with him on the glacier during one of those many summers.

There was nobody like him, says World Ski and Snowboard Festival founder Doug Perry. And nothing could stop him once he got an idea in his head. "Ahhhh Sumo...," Doug writes, "we coached side by side like brothers for nearly a decade at the Dave Murray Summer Ski Camps. One of my fondest memories of Greg was getting landlocked with him at the Tantalus Lodge because Hwy 99 was getting paved between the Village and Creekside. So Greg decided to load up his ol' Cadillac convertible with a cooler full of ice, tequila and cold ones and proceeded to drive the Great White Shark down the Valley Trail to town. You wouldn't think a vintage Caddy would fit down the Valley Trail, but let me assure you it does. It just grazes the trees. Of course we were intercepted by the Heat, but nothing stuck of course, this was Greg Lee...."

But there was a lot more to Greg, says Perry, than mere crazy capers. "Another thing I will never forget," says Perry, "was his memory. Out of 120 campers bussed in to camp each week. Sumo would know the 90 returning kids by name and city as they stepped off the bus. I'm not kidding. Like Dave Murray, he had a gift for remembering people by name. He made them feel special. He might have lived liked Hunter S. from 10 p.m. till 6 a.m., but he treated those campers like gold.

"And of course," he concludes, "he earned his nickname Sleeping Horse for falling asleep on the (temporary) T-bar on Glacier Bowl..."

Mark 'Skip' Taylor met Greg when he was a 12-year-old wannabe at the Toni Sailer Summer Camp. "By the time I was 16," he recalls, "I was asked to be a salter and gopher in the glacier... and Sumo became my favourite coach to work for because he was so much fun to be around."

The next summer, Taylor was invited to stay for the "Adult Camps" for the first time - but needed to find a place to stay. "So Greg said I could room with him and Floyd Wilkie (a ski-dogging legend)," he remembers. And admits: "They were definitely a couple of twisted guys to have as mentors (it was the first time my lips touched tequila... and getting to my bunk was a very entertaining walk by the open lofted bedrooms)."

But seriously - "the camaraderie, laughs, practical jokes, endless ribbing, and mock-talent shows made the 18-hours of work each day seem like a pleasure," adds Taylor. "And a lot of that energy came from Sumo."

That passion for ski racing and coaching never left him. And stories abound about his personal touch and quirky coaching methods. Here's one by Masters racer, Rob Strahan: "One day he wanted me to get forward on my skis and I guess I was being a little thick and wasn't getting it," he recounts. "Well, it didn't take long for Sumo to call me out of the course. So I skied over and he picked up the front of both of my skis and raised them to his waist with me still strapped in. 'Now,' he said. 'Get forward! Feel the front of your boots.' It was all I could do to not fall backwards but I did manage to eventually get forward. And he said: 'Now feel that when you are skiing.' The penny dropped..."

As for his youthful tendency for big ski crashes, that hadn't changed much over the decades. "A couple of years ago," writes Canadian ski team alum Mike Robbins, "I was training with a group of local kids on the steep side of Rogers Run at Georgian Peaks Ski Club. The conditions were particularly icy and it was a real challenge to make it down the GS course, let alone ski anything like a proper line - very steep and like a skating rink."

He continues: "In those days Greg was coaching at the Peaks. As I was going back up the lift to Rogers, I suddenly caught sight of 'Sumo' charging over the rise on the GS course aggressively tackling the ice. He made it over the ridgeline and then plunged down the steeps. Something happened (I don't quite know what) but all of a sudden Greg was hurtling down through the course on his butt - a partial yard sale behind him. He put his skis back on, brushed himself off, smiled and then skied off down the hill like nothing had happened. The incredible part of the story was this occurred within a year or so of his double knee replacement..."

Greg Lee was definitely a one-off. Talented, untamed, fun to be around - he managed to inspire just about everyone he crossed paths with. For Sumo ALWAYS lived life like there was no tomorrow.

"Like the great Toni Sailer himself," says Alex Douglas, "Greg was one of the main pillars of Whistler's Summer Ski Camps. He started in the early '70s and was there until the end of Adult Camps in the early '90s. Summer camp life is different. It's not about friendship, work or family. It's living - loving - laughing - crying. Summer camp is all about living life to the absolute fullest - and Greg Lee got it. Whether it was a homesick 12 year old or a tequila party that needed a boost, Greg was there..."

Which, when you think about it, really set the guy apart from most others. Because when you pull away all the stunts and crazy behaviour, when you look deeper than the Cadillac and kooky clothes, what you find is a man with a very generous heart. And that, my friends, is rare these days.

"Sumo really made his closest friend in the days of the Whistler Glacier camps," concludes Mark Taylor. "And I can see him now with Toni Sailer, Dave Murray, Greg Athans and Ralph Jensen all hanging together on a perfect sunny summer day with the peaks rising out of a blanket of clouds. 'It's always sunny on top' we'd say to everyone on the grey days... even on the worst of the rainy days. That's why I can imagine Sumo saying to us all right now "Don't worry guys - It's Sunny on Top!"

Goodbye old Sumo. We'll miss ya lots...