Next month when Canadian racers pass through the gates at the top of the Olympic downhill course at Mount Allan, ghosts will be riding their skis with them. The Crazy Canucks are retired now, but the spirit that won them the name lives on. Drawing on their legacy, this year's Canadian skiers will take the biggest risks and, of course, face the greatest dangers among the Olympic downhillers.
In 1975-76, after four young Canadian daredevils—Ken Read, Dave Murray, Dave Irwin and Steve Podborski—broke the European stranglehold on the downhill, a Swiss journalist called them the Crazy Canucks, and the name stuck. In a sense the four were crazy. Each thought he was good enough to win a World Cup downhill, though no North American male had ever come close, and each took horrifying chances in a sport that punishes even small errors in big ways. That all of them lived long enough to retire in their mid-to late-20's is nothing short of miraculous.
Everybody loved the Crazy Canucks. In Europe, where rivalries among the five Alpine skiing nations—Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy and West Germany—are fierce, the Canadians were the second favorites wherever they went. They were young, friendly as a litter of cocker spaniel pups and so brave they took your breath away. The four blazed a trail for later non-European daredevils like Bill Johnson of the U.S., who won the Olympic downhill gold medal in Sarajevo in 1984.
From 1975 to '82 the Crazy Canucks together were the equal of the best of the European teams. They won 14 World Cup downhill races, and Podborski, the youngest of the group, also won the World Cup overall championship in '82 and got a bronze medal at the Lake Placid Olympics in "80.
January 27, 1988
That was quite an accomplishment considering that until the Crazy Canucks came along, the downhill was the last bastion of European chauvinism in men's Alpine skiing. In fact, at the moment of their arrival, it was the personal property of Austria's Franz Klammer. His closest rivals were Bernhard Russi of Switzerland and Herbert Plank of Italy.
The Canadian breakthrough came at Val d'Isère in the French Alps in the first event of the 1975-76 World Cup season. Klammer fell and was eliminated, and Ken Read, then 20 and fresh out of Calgary, beat Plank and Russi by more than half a second. That win made Read—whose mother. Dee, was the Canadian women's downhill and combined champion in 1948—the first North American and the first non-European-trained skier to win a men's World Cup downhill. What really rocked Europe, however, was that four Canadians finished among the top 10 in that race.
"They couldn't believe we could do it," says Podborski, who was 18 then and finished 10th. "They knew we couldn't ski better than the Europeans, and they knew we couldn't possibly have better equipment, so we had to be doing crazy things. And we were. We were learning, taking chances where nobody else would or could. A lot of the time we were wrong, but once in a while we were right, and we'd get that 10th of a second and we'd win. It was an adventure the whole way."
Two weeks later, when Irwin won the downhill at Schladming, Austria, it became apparent that the Crazy Canucks had some depth. Irwin, who grew up at his family's ski resort in Thunder Bay, Ont., had made the Canadian team on the basis of his slalom skiing. But when the coach, Scotty Henderson, decided in 1974 to emphasize the downhill, at the expense of the slalom and giant slalom, Irwin successfully switched events.
"The Canadian team didn't have enough money or enough coaches to have both slalom skiers and downhill skiers," says Irwin, now 33. "And the team wanted to get to the top quickly. It takes years to get to the top in slalom, but in downhill you can do it quickly."
Irwin's first World Cup victory was also his last. None of the Crazy Canucks took bigger chances or suffered more because of them than he did, and two weeks after his victory at Schladming, as he was on the verge of becoming one of the world's best down-hillers, Irwin took the first of four bad falls, at Wengen, Switzerland. Cartwheeling at more than 60 mph. he wound up with a broken rib, a badly cut face and, worst of all, a severe concussion, from which he has never fully recovered. "He ended up just getting battered from one end to the other," says Murray.
Murray, 34, is now director of skiing at Whistler Mountain in British Columbia, where he grew up. He started racing late—at 15—and was the only one of the Crazy Canucks who never won a World Cup downhill. "Murray was the most intellectual of the group," says Patrick Lang, a Swiss skiing writer. "In my opinion that was why he never won. He was a Crazy Canuck, but maybe he was not crazy enough. At Chamonix in 1978 he was winning the training runs by two seconds, but on race day he couldn't do it. Ken Read won."
"It's a very subtle sport," says Murray, the red hair that once flowed from under his racing helmet was now cut short. "The difference between first and second can be many different things. It can be a wind that blew in your face, or a wax, or you slid your tails just the slightest bit on a turn, or you stood up a little high."
Or you can be shaped wrong. Murray was more angular than his teammates, and his shoulders were a bit broader. The ideal downhiller is, like Irwin, pear-shaped, hugely muscled in the butt and thighs to better absorb the shocks of traversing the bumpy hillside at high speed, and, like Read, slight in the shoulders and upper arms to slice through the wall of onrushing air. "I have the theory that Ken's body is the most aerodynamic of all of ours," says Murray. "If you look at him, he has narrower shoulders and a really rounded back. That's what you need at speeds of, say, 70 or 80 miles per hour. He would slip through the air much more easily. I'd always be working to get my shoulders crunched in tight."
Read, now 32 and an Olympic skiing commentator for CBC, won five World Cup downhills between 1975 and '80. He won a sixth, at Morzine, France, in '79, but was later disqualified when his newfangled racing suit was ruled illegal because it didn't meet the FIS's permeability standard. "Ken's main attribute was that he was completely and overwhelmingly dedicated to the sport, and he would go absolutely nuts out on the course," says Murray. "And although technically I wouldn't put him in the same class with Steve Podborski, he made up for it in sheer bravado. I mean, everybody was trying his hardest, but somehow Ken would be able to just let it hang out."
When Read won at Schladming in December 1978, Charlie Kahr, the Austrian coach known as Downhill Charlie, said, "Ken Read skied faster than he could ski."
Read's best year was 1980, when he won back-to-back downhills at Kitzbühel and Wengen. He was a favorite going into the downhill at the Lake Placid Olympics, but 15 seconds into the race one of his skis came off. Podborski, however, earned the bronze, which made him the only Canadian Olympic medalist in a men's Alpine event.
Podborski, the most successful of the Canucks, grew up in Don Mills, a suburb of Toronto, where the highest hills are only 500 feet. "I should never have been a ski racer, especially not a downhiller," he says. Pod made his way through local and regional competitions and at 15 was invited to the national team's summer camp at Whistler Mountain. After winning a race or two there, he was invited to attend a team selection camp.
"I won all the downhills, did really well in the slalom and not too bad in the giant slalom, and they put me on the team," says Podborski. "It was a miracle. There I was, on the national team at 16. I was totally ignorant. When I first got to the World Cup races I didn't know why there were fences around the course. I'd never raced where they needed to keep people back."
After two top 10 finishes in his first World Cup season. Podborski wrecked a knee 10 days before the 1976 Olympics at Innsbruck. "Two of the four major ligaments were totally ruptured," he says. "The thing was, I'd never been hurt in my life. I was 18 years old, and I'd just blown the Olympics. They sent me home to get my knee operated on. and I got to the hospital on a Sunday. On Monday my parents, who didn't know I was hurt, arrived in Innsbruck to watch me ski. I'd blown it for them, too. It was devastating. I went into the depths of depression. One day I was alone with the dog, and I just lay in bed and stared at the ceiling. I made up my mind I would never again go over to Europe knowing I hadn't trained as much as I could."
Podborski's first victory was a tainted one. When Read was disqualified at Morzine because of his illegal racing suit, Podborski, who had finished second, was awarded the win. Finally, at St. Moritz in 1980, he won fair and square. He triumphed in three World Cup downhills that year and came close to winning the overall downhill championship. The next year he won three more downhills and did get the overall title. He retired in '84.
"The Crazy Canucks were a miracle," says Podborski, now 30. "It was like having a hockey team from Barbados winning the Stanley Cup. We started with absolutely nothing. We were really a rinky-dink little team—the mouse that roared. It was four guys that were together, doing things to beat the Europeans that nobody else could ever do. For instance, Kenny would be the second skier down, say, and I would be the 15th. He would come to a stop, rush over and call me on the radio to tell me how to do the course better, not only so I could beat the Europeans, but also to possibly beat him. As far as each of us was concerned, it was us against them, not me against the world."
The Crazy Canucks didn't just happen out of the blue. They had a prototype to work from: (Jungle) Jim Hunter, the son of a Saskatchewan dairy farmer. Hunter started out as a hockey player, but at age 12 changed course and, by dint of three years' hard labor and unbelievable gall, made the national ski team at 15. It was a few years before the Canucks joined him on the circuit.
"Jim was the best on the team when we came along," says Irwin. "He was incredibly strong. I remember watching him once at Mount Tremblant in Quebec. It was just before the race, and he did 100 one-arm push-ups. He was like that. He always had to show off. He loved attention. He remained a little separate from the team, but we learned a lot from him."
"The guy was an absolute maniac for training," says Podborski. "He would never ever back off. He won a giant slalom run at the '72 Olympics, but he fell on the second run. He just couldn't put two runs together. He couldn't quite win. That's one of the things about the sport—it's just not fair."
Todd Brooker wasn't actually a Crazy Canuck. He arrived on the scene a bit late to be a full member of the Crazies. But Brooker caught the spirit. He retired last March after three World Cup wins, nine knee operations and a final fall of Canuckian dimensions at Kitzbühel in 1987. "I learned to enjoy skiing the way they enjoyed skiing," says Brooker. "I don't really regret that I took a lot of falls, because that's the way I like to remember the downhill, as risky and challenging."
Brooker's fall at Kitzbühel was the kind people talk about for years. Back home in Canada. TV stations replayed it again and again for a week. "When you watch a downhiller skiing under control, it doesn't look that tough," says Murray. "But you see this person suddenly lose control at 85 or 90 miles per hour, and what can happen to him, and you realize that possibility is there every second of the way down the hill."
The era of the Crazy Canucks is over now, but the image fashioned for themselves by Read, Irwin, Murray and Podborski lives on in the downhillers who will race in Calgary—guys like Rob Boyd, Brian Stemmle and Felix Belczyk. "The Canadians know they better go fast or they don't deserve to have helmets on," says Andy Mill, a former downhiller on the-U.S. team. "They're proud of that image. They're proud of falling."