Getting to meet people and hearing about their lives – that’s one of the main differences between skiing in North America and skiing in Europe. On chairlifts, in mountain restaurants or apres-ski bars – in Europe it’s often a curt nod and no more, but in Canada or America you strike up conversations.
Thus on my latest trip to Whistler, with British operator Crystal Ski Holidays, I found myself chatting to a legend of Canadian skiing, Terry ‘Toulouse’ Spence, who by chance became one of the driving forces behind the success of the Crazy Canucks more than 30 years ago. And some fascinating tales he’s got about the time when Canada ruled the roost on the World Cup downhill circuit.
Toulouse (hang on, I’ll tell you about that in a minute) told me he pitched up in Whistler 45 years ago – he came for a weekend’s skiing, fell in love with the place, as so many do, and was soon back here for good. But for Toulouse it soon got a whole lot more serious than simply being a ski bum. He was studying massage and the then head coach of the Canada downhill squad, John Ritchie, asked him to try out for a position with the national ski team.
‘He had an opening since he fired the masseur they had in Europe because the guy kept smashing up cars,’ said Toulouse. ‘He’d get drunk and then take one of the team cars and smack it up.’
That’s when Toulouse began a long stint as masseur to some of the best World Cup downhillers of the day – Ken Read, Dave Murray, Dave Irwin, Steve Podborski and Jim Hunter (nicknamed Jungle Jim and considered to be the original Crazy Canuck), who earned themselves a reputation for rapid and seemingly reckless racing. Another nickname given them by sports journalists was Kamikaze Canadians.
‘The thing was they were all probably better known in Europe than North America because they challenged the European racers on their own hills on the World Cup circuit at a level previously unseen,’ said Toulouse.
‘I went down to a training camp in Copper Mountain, Colorado, did the massage for the team, both men and women, and got the job. It involved, as well as the massage, being the start coach – relaying the information to them that the coaches are sending up the course on the radio, warming up their muscles, giving them any last minute bits of advice and making sure they are in the right frame of mind… being the last voice they hear before they start the race.
‘I did the job for 15 years. Dave Murray encouraged me to progress with coaching and I got up to my Level III coach badge.’
Toulouse, who by all accounts attained legendary status on the circuit for his full-on partying as well as for his magic hands, motivational skills and pearls of wisdom, described one of the greatest moments in his career with the Crazy Canucks. ‘That was Ken Read in 1980,’ he said. ‘The first time we won at Kitzbuhel – it was unbelievable. Usually it was a European racer who won there and it was the first time for a Canadian.
‘It’s the No 1 downhill race in the world and always will be, and when Ken won it, we just went bananas. We won four years in a row after that – first Ken, then Steve Podborski won two years in a row, and then Todd Brooker won the next year. It was the biggest event of the year for ski racing. And if you were with the Canadian team you couldn’t buy a drink in the Londoner Pub in Kitzbuhel in those days – they gave them to you.
‘The next day Ken went in the combined, and I had to go up to the start – and boy did I ever feel bad! It was just awful. My head felt like I had hammers pounding in it. And here I am hiking up to the start, because the lift didn’t go all the way to the start at Kitzbuhel, and I’m hiking up there with Ken thinking, maybe he’ll be merciful and go out in the first run so I can go home and get some sleep!’
At 73, Toulouse still spends a great deal of his winter out on the fabulous slopes of Whistler – with the occasional European trip thrown in, especially to his favourite Alpine resort of St Anton am Arlberg.
And how did Terry become known as Toulouse? ‘That came from a little artwork I did,’ he said. ‘We’d been skiing and were in a bar where there was a dancer – well, a stripper – and part of her act was to get somebody up on stage to paint her with Day-Glo body paints while she stripped. And I volunteered.
‘I had on a downhill suit, with the top pulled down and tied around my waist, and a nylon windshirt underneath that had flowers on it, so I looked like a painter. So my friend said, ah, you’re just like Toulouse-Lautrec, who painted the women in the Moulin Rouge. And it stuck.’
Meanwhile, Whistler has been in great late-season shape – snow may be thin on the lower slopes, but all is good higher up and the World Ski and Snowboard Festival is in full swing. Whistler Mountain is scheduled to be open until May 18, so some great spring skiing is in prospect.
Rob travelled to Whistler with Crystal Ski Holidays (020 8939 0726). Crystal offer a week’s stay at the Whistler Village Condos from £885 per person (based on four sharing), including scheduled flights with British Airways with free ski carriage from Heathrow to Vancouver and transfers, departing on 13 January 2016. Connecting flights are available from all major UK airports.