Owen Owens was a skier through and through right until the very end.
Remembered by son-in-law John Rea, the Whistler Blackcomb mainstay was preparing for another ski season when he passed away on Oct. 7 at age 93.
"It was what he was going to do forever," Rea said, noting that as recently as two weeks ago, Owens remained active after skiing over 60 days last season.
Rea, whose involvement in ski racing has ranged from heading up the Whistler Cup and BC Alpine to sitting on the Alpine Canada board, began skiing in Whistler in 1971, just a year after his future father-in-law. Rea described Owens as his "ski buddy" for well over three decades, and quickly noticed Owens' commitment to the sport.
"The first time we really skied was in the spring of 1980. We were going up the old Red Chair at lunchtime. Out from his backpack came his sandwich and a large bottle of 7-Up and I learned right then that lunch was going to be on the chair," said Rea, who is married to Owens' daughter, Nancy.
Owens, who competed in the legendary Peak to Valley Race for over 30 years, completed the 180-gate, five-kilometre-long course in eight minutes and 38 seconds this year.
Rea said he and his family have received numerous emails from well-wishers, including one from Whistler Blackcomb executive Bob Dufour that he received permission to share. "I always considered Owen to simply be there and never really thought this day would come," Rea read from Dufour's email. "The Peak to Valley will certainly not be the same without him. I was always amazed at the times he would get, especially over the last number of years."
One common thread from those who have reached out is that Owens served as an inspiration for skiing well into his 90s. It was something Owens was always conscious of. "I like to mention the age as an encouragement for people to think 'you can do this,'" Owens told Pique after the 2017 Peak to Valley Race. "You can go on and you can get better. It's just fun to keep going."
Rea said Owens was always well recognized by Whistler Blackcomb, receiving a jacket and nametag describing him as a 'Super Senior' for his 90th birthday. But the admiration from staff was evident all over the mountain, explained Rea, recalling a serious accident Rea had in the spring of 2017 that left him in a wheelchair for three months.
"As we were waiting for the ski patroller, Owen laid down beside me to try to comfort me," he recalled. Staff didn't know who was injured upon arrival. "When the patrollers arrived, they all know Owen, and what they told me later is they were devastated," because they feared it was Owens who was injured.
Over the years, Rea was invited to join Owens' group, the EMOPs, or Early Morning Old People, to meet at the Blackcomb base, as they sought to be the first up each time out.
"He had his morning routine into his 94th year. He did his morning exercises, made my breakfast, made my sandwich, put my skis on the porch, walked to the car and cleared the snow off, drove down to the cabin just as I rolled out and poured myself into the car," Rea said. "He was always about getting there early."
Rea stressed that Owens loved skiing with his family, especially his grandchildren, and though he was the veteran, as a lifelong learner, he sought their input as to how to further improve his form. Rea said that Owens balanced his love of skiing with a sense of seriousness around it.
Owens grew up racing during high school and for McGill University in Montreal and worked for mining company Cominco. He was transferred to Vancouver in 1970 and soon bought one of the two flat-roofed cabins that overlooked the Creekside Gondola. He would come up with wife Alison on the weekend.
"They'd arrive on the Friday night and have to dig out to get into the cabin. (Sometimes) when they arrived at the cabin, the water line was frozen, so Owen went down to the creek and hauled the water line up and into the one-room cabin," Rea said.
Owens would regularly travel for work as Cominco's head of exploration, often to where there were local slopes to descend.
Rea noted Owens' commitment to the sport included essentially memorizing reviews of the coming season's new equipment-he used to purchase a new set every winter and provide advice to others- as well as to encourage Rea and family to cancel their weekend plans in favour of skiing nearly every winter weekend.
"I'm not exaggerating, at least five times every single winter, he'd say 'I think today was the best ever,'" Rea said. "He would always say 'Nothing like the feel of a little gravity under your foot.'"
A service to celebrate Owens' life is scheduled for Oct. 25.