Opinion » Alta States

Speed Warrior – Tom Pro and the Vertical Imperative



'Life is like a ten-speed bicycle. Most of us have gears we never use.'

- Charles M. Schultz (creator of Peanuts)

Everyone likes to get a little frightened. For some, it's the buzz they get from watching a horror flic through splayed fingers. For others it's the rush they get from being dropped off a bridge on the end of a bungee cord.

And then there are those — relatively few in number — who willingly put themselves in high-risk situations where the outcome is entirely dependent on their kinetic abilities and panic-management skills. Those — to further Schultz's simile (see above quote) — who actually have to use those extra life gears most humans ignore.

If you know Tom Pro — even a little bit — you know where I'm going with this. He has (as my friend Tamara McKinnney terms it) the notorious "crooked gene". He loves to go fast. Particularly down a mountain — on skis, on a bike... whatever.

And "panic" is simply not part of his lexicon. Ratchet up the tension — raise the stakes to new heights — and Pro simply adjusts to the new conditions and keeps on choogling. And the tougher things get, the calmer Tom becomes. I mean, this is a guy who knows just the right joke to tell to ease the pressure of a tense moment. Who can make a newcomer feel like he's a long-lost buddy within minutes of meeting him. Which makes him a particularly effective coach and teacher.

Still, at the core of Pro's identity is this grand love — this unbound passion — for speeding down the hill on two boards. "I can't explain it in words," he says, "but there's something about skiing — about the mountains and the snow — that speaks directly to my heart." He stops. Chuckles a bit self-consciously. "And it's always been there, you know."

It was evident from the moment he set tracks on Grouse Mountain that this young outsider had special talents. Picture it: skinny-assed Euro kid suddenly thrust into late-1960s West Coast ski culture. Still learning English, still adjusting to North American mores, still a little bit in shock at his family's escape from behind the Iron Curtain. It was definitely a gamble. Joining the Tyee Ski Club could have been disastrous for the newcomer. Instead Tom thrived there.

Sure, he was a bit of a daredevil. What young, up-and-coming speed ace isn't? More importantly, the kid could ski. And he was, seemingly, fearless. It was only a matter of time, most observers figured, before he'd be knocking at the Canadian Downhill Team's door.

Yet when the time came, that door didn't open. No matter. The 20-year-old Pro wasn't done. He still wanted to race. Still wanted to test his skills on the world's fastest tracks. "In those days," he explains, "you could apply to the national team for what was called a 'FIS license', which allowed you to race in European events as an individual. So me and my buddy Dave Lambert decided to go for it." He stops. Takes a long breath. Laughs. "It was a lot of fun, you know. We lived in this VW van we'd bought at the beginning of the season. But it was so full of gear you had to move the ski bags out at night to make enough room to sleep. I can tell you, we put some serious miles on that truck. Lambert was a slalomer, you know, and I raced the downhills, so we pretty much criss-crossed the Alps all that winter..."