Skiing went through some dark days in the mid-’80s. The Crazy Canucks’ domination of alpine racing was over; the fun-loving, hot-dogging movement of the ’70s had given way to FIS-sanctioned freestyle, a sport which placed equal stock in moguls, aerials and “acro-skiing”—an event where dudes would dance along to music; and the extreme-ski movement pioneered by Eric Pehota, Trevor Petersen, Scot Schmidt and Glen Plake was still a few years off.
Luckily, skiing still had two things going for it. The 1984 movie Hot Dog proved hitting the slopes was less about furry boots and mulled cider than speed, hot-tubbing and irresponsible sex. The second was balls-to-the-wall Canadian downhiller Rob Boyd.
Boyd careened down steep European courses with names that sounded like spicy wieners, keeping a nation glued to CBC on many a grey Saturday afternoon. He gave us hope. He was polite and considerate. But when he won his first World Cup downhill at the tender age of 20, in Val Gardena, Italy, he showed a hint of no-nonsense cowboy attitude that captured our attention.
After that, “Kid Canada” really started to shake things up. Over his 12 years on the national team, Boyd posted 29 Top 10 finishes with six podiums, including two more World Cup downhill wins. The most memorable was in Whistler in 1989, where he made history as the first Canadian male to win a downhill in our home and native land. They remain the most electric and exciting two minutes Whistler has ever seen, which, in that town, says a lot.
After retiring in 1997, Boyd embarked on a mission of constant personal reinvention. He raced the pro circuit for a while, filmed a few movie segments, competed in big-mountain freeskiing, helped launch and run the Whistler freeride team, and competed in some of the first X Games skiercross events. He is now coach of Canada’s women’s national alpine team and is married with two sons—Dylan and Evan.
With the World Cup returning to Whistler this season after over a decade’s absence and the 2010 Olympics looming, SKIER caught up with Boyd in his former hometown of Vernon, BC.
Your childhood mountain, Tillicum, isn’t far from here, and your family used to run the ski hill there. What was it like growing up on skis?
Fantastic. I used to follow my sister, Sue, around doing [freestyle] Wong-bangers and tip-rolls. I built my own jumps and practised 360s, then got into flips. I learned how to crash.
What about racing?
I was a fanatic. Some older guys who raced Nor-Am trained at Tillicum. We had nice, hard, man-made snow, so it was good for training, and I foreran some courses for them. Mostly I remember Molson Molstar races under the lights with hay bales for jumps. I loved night-skiing and attribute some of my success to racing without lighting—it made for good eyes. When you have three senses responsible for balance and you take one away, the other two work overtime.
When did you move to Whistler?
In 1982, after we lost Tillicum. After some bad snow years the bank thought they could get more for the lifts than the area, so they forced the selling of the parts. In the end, it was less than what we’d been offered for the whole place. We had to sell our house, too, and that’s what precipitated my dad getting a job in Whistler.
By age 16 you were on the junior team, and the national downhill team by 19. What was it like being a kid on the World Cup circuit?
A thrill. Because I was somewhat naïve and enjoyed going fast, when I got to the World Cup it seemed easy. I was like, “This is it?” I was welcomed by some of the big names—Peter Mueller, Pirmin Zubriggen—guys I’d seen on TV. A few guys were bitter that a young kid was coming in and doing better, but that’s the nature of any sport—there’s always a young hotshot. I also enjoyed the new countries and cultures and languages.
Now you coach young hotshots. What’s different from back then?
The main difference is that lots of the kids now need to come from an affluent family and have traveled a lot already.
How has ski racing’s popularity changed?
Racing was more popular back then as far as support and volunteers. There weren’t as many other sports to grab people’s attention. Racing has an older fan base now. Young kids are all into freeskiing and snowboarding. Think of the World Cups in Whistler back in those years—everyone came out. We’ll see how it goes now.
When new school came along, you joined the freeskiing revolution.
It captured my attention because all those things were what I enjoyed doing as a skier. We used to make our own skiercross in Tillicum through the trees with bumps and dips and drops. And everyone likes skiing big mountain and powder. You see it in a movie and you want to do it. Because of my racing success, I figured my abilities in pow would be OK. Heck, I was retired. If I could get a few free rides and make some money, I wanted to go for it, keep the ski-guy career going. For skiercross it was the same. I always loved air and absorbing it in downhills.
How is skiercross different than racing alone?
The dynamic of having three other guys out there is interesting. Competitors weren’t always considerate and were quick to bump each other. Especially in the early days, when there was a lot more incidental contact. A lot of guys around me blew knees and had bad crashes, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go at it with the same level of aggression.
What do you think about skiercross making it into the Olympics?
It was a bit of a surprise that it got in so quick. I can see why: it’s spectator-friendly, and there’s more action than downhill. It’s easy to see who’s winning, and there’s the thrill of crashes and passes. Safety has come a long way too; crashes aren’t as dangerous as they used to be. I think there needed to be more structure—development programs and factory or national teams.
Has the freesking and jibbing thing taken fans away from racing?
The racing crowd is still there. Freeskiing, jibbing [and] big mountain have created their own fans, not stolen from racing. The younger demographic—the X Games crowd and thrill-seekers—probably give more respect to someone who simply enjoys the freedom of skiing. Maybe those types don’t look to racing because of its rules, but how does that demographic view not just racing but the whole Olympics? Would they rather watch the X Games or the Olympics—Dan Treadway or Sarah Burke or Erik Guay? That would tell a lot. But the success of the men’s racing team this year is capturing the attention of more people. There’s a whole new group of winners to cheer for. And I think the women aren’t far behind them.
“I won the World Cup, and all I got was this stupid bear trophy.” Morrison photo.
Technically speaking, is racing the hardest ski discipline?
That’s a gimme. Many of the best big-mountain guys have race backgrounds. It would be an interesting challenge to have a fun invitational comp to put the argument to rest. Get two skiercross athletes, two national team racers and two freeskiers. Each would do all the disciplines—a six-man skiercross, like the old days, a GS, a Super G and a freeskiing comp. I’d like to see Treadway and Hugo Harrisson, skiercross athletes Stan Hare and Brian Bennett, and Manny Osbourne and Mike Janyk from the national team. It would be a fantastic comp.
The 2010 Olympics are approaching, and both our national teams look strong. You’re coaching the women’s team. Is the Canadian government’s Own the Podium program having an effect?
It has helped. It’s a fantastic initiative, but to access funding you have to be producing. It puts more pressure on everyone to get results—coaches, athletes, everyone. Here, if you don’t get results, you won’t get funding to help get more results. In Europe, the Austrians, Swiss and Italians get more base support from private and federal resources because racing is so much bigger, and racers are more widely accepted and idolized by a younger demographic.
Are you excited about the Olympics coming to Whistler?
Yes and no. Yes, for the home-soil advantage and, for me, a course I know so well. And no, because there can be a lot more distractions, a lot of pressure and expectations from media and yourself. But I think we all learned a lot in Torino about how to prepare for these Olympics.
The World Cup is returning to Whistler after many years’ absence. Thoughts?
Yes! Both men and women will be racing in February, and I’m pretty excited. The girls will be on a new and different course than the men, but I’ve walked it a few times and offered some input into design. We’ll also have the national championships on that course before the World Cup, so the ladies should have a good feel for it.
Are the Olympics much different from World Cup competition?
World Cup is tougher. There’s a larger competitive field—up to 10 athletes per nation race versus only four per nation in the Olympics. And with several World Cups per discipline over the season, the points accumulation shows better consistency. The Olympics are a one-shot deal that rarely sees the favourite come out on top. On the other hand, Olympics have a lot of special challenges, too.
Does that make the Olympics more fun?
No. World Cup is definitely more fun as there’s less pressure, media and much less security to deal with. In World Cup you get into a routine and know what to expect, whereas Olympics have a lot of special rules and there’s risk of losing the routine with all the extra distractions. But, then, that’s the challenge of coach and athlete—prepare for all the extras that go with an Olympics and dealing with them better than the competition.
You were once considered a bad boy in ski racing. There’s printed evidence of you driving a motorbike with a topless girl on the back and sometimes hanging with a tough crowd. How do you feel about the vices of youth now that you’re coaching younger skiers?
As the saying goes, You can’t put a square peg into a round hole. I was on a bit of a wild campaign: crazy downhiller that didn’t like to have to wear a suit and tie, did things his way, adrenaline-junkie type of image. I guess I convinced myself that since I’d won some races, I could do it again. Problem was that I didn’t have the right leadership or mentor to keep me on the right track. It ended up biting me in the ass a couple times. First by losing an important contract, and second by not buckling down and doing the work I should have done to get back to the top. Another saying is, Success breeds complacency. It’s easy to get caught up in the limelight and think you’ve got it made. Problem is, as soon as one goal is achieved, another higher, tougher goal needs to be set immediately—to keep the momentum going in the right direction. I’ve learned from my mistakes and will be sure to work with the appropriate athletes at key times.
You play guitar and have a sweet record collection. What role did music play in your life when you were racing and competing?
I grew up in a musical family, sang in the church choir, played trombone in school, then picked up the guitar at 16, inspired by a few teammates on the BC ski team. Together we had some pretty funny jams to [Bob] Dylan, Neil Young, The Byrds, [Eric] Clapton… you name it, we butchered it. When I made the national team,
I traveled with a guitar and had a pretty good blues influence in my repertoire. I had my own musical taste compared to the rest of my teammates, much of it playable on the guitar. As a coach, I’m OK with music for younger racers. A lot of World Cup racers inspect courses with headphones and tunes. I just don’t like athletes with cellphones when it comes to work time on the hill. There’s nothing worse than a good speech broken by bleep, bleep or somebody tapping a text during a meeting.
What gets you stoked to go up the hill these days?
For most of my winter it’s the task of encouraging and empowering the national team ladies. To show them the line or tell them how it should be skied if you want to be the best. It can be incredibly rewarding when an athlete gets a good result and comes directly to you and says something like, “Thanks for your input today. It made the difference.” When I’m home, I still get stoked on a good pow day. I plan my route and runs to get to my favourite spots before others shred it up. And if [my wife] Sherry and I can get a babysitter and do it together, I’m even more stoked.
Other than winning the downhill in Whistler, what’s your fondest racing memory?
I credit this to my coach at the time, Glen Wurtele, the guy who first spotted my talent. He convinced the people at the national team office to send a few guys to Åre, Sweden, at the end of the ’86 season. It hadn’t been a spectacular year, and his job was kind of on the line. There were two downhills, and in the first inspection I remember looking at the course and saying to my start coach, “Shoot me now. I’m dead. This is tough.” It was steep and bumpy. The first race I came 32nd, but in the second I came sixth. It felt like I’d skied the same, but everyone was excited at the bottom. “You were sixth!” someone yelled. It was my second Top 10. The reward of getting a result and returning the favour for Glen felt really good.
None that I should make public.