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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.
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.