Around the time she turned 50, Nancy Greene Raine suffered a serious knee injury during a celebrity ski event in California.
The damage, to her anterior cruciate ligament, was then, and remains today, a serious injury.
Soon after, back home in British Columbia, Greene Raine received a call from a friend imploring her to visit the Whistler ski club as soon as possible.
“Why?” Greene asked.
It seems Greene’s friend had ridden a chair lift with a young participant in Whistler’s version of the Nancy Greene Ski League. Greene’s friend asked if the youngster had met Nancy Greene, the World Cup and Olympic champion after whom that developmental program was named.
“Oh no!” the child said. “She’s dead!”
Greene Raine never found out who that child was, but the “first opportunity I got,” she said, “I went up to the club and talked to the kids and talked to the parents.”
Thus Nancy Greene Raine proved she wasn’t dead.
Today, approaching a 75th birthday on May 11, she remains a lively and immensely popular personality. She has spent the past nine years in Canada’s Senate, a post she will have to vacate leave upon her birthday, which brings her to Upper Chamber’s mandatory retirement age.
Yet it’s safe to assume her lofty profile owes much more to her accomplishments on ski slopes a full half-century ago than to her time in the Parliamentary precinct.
Canada Post didn’t feature Nancy Greene Raine among the half-dozen featured figures in its Women in Winter Sports stamp series because she introduced the Child Health Protection Act or because she and husband Al Raine had been longtime promoters of Western Canadian ski tourism, first at Whistler and later at Sun Peaks, B.C.
These kinds of things happen because most Canadians think of Nancy Greene Raine as the best female skier in the world during her heyday and still one of this country’s most successful athletes in any sport.
There have been multiple opportunities to reflect on that, and there will be more.
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the first of two consecutive World Cup overall titles; the second, obviously, is this year. February also features the 50th anniversary of Greene Raine’s Olympic silver and gold medals at Grenoble, France.
Closer to home, Greene Raine and her husband, Al, a former national team program director, will celebrate their golden wedding anniversary in 2019, one year before twin sons Willy and Charley turn 50.
“Al …” Greene Raine interjected during a recent telephone interview from the family’s B.C. home. “Did you realize next year’s our 50th anniversary? I’d forgotten about that one.”
OK, so time may have slowed some reflexes and faded a few memories, but it can’t erode recorded accomplishments, of which there are mountains and mountains associated with Nancy Greene Raine.
For one thing, her 13 World Cup race victories — all in 1967 and ’68 — are still the most by any Canadian alpine skier. For another, of a select circle of nine Canadians with Olympic alpine ski medals, only Greene Raine and Karen Percy, who earned a pair of bronze medals at Calgary’s 1988 Games, have two.
Coincidentally, when Ottawa’s Anne Heggtveit became the first Canadian to win alpine gold in women’s slalom at Squaw Valley, Calif., in 1960, her roommate was an Ottawa-born 16-year-old named Nancy Greene.
The teen skier placed 31st in that slalom event. She was also 26th in giant slalom and 22nd in downhill.
Four years later, in the 1964 Tokyo Winter Olympics, Greene upgraded all those results to 15th in slalom, 16th in giant slalom and seventh in downhill, but still no medals.
By 1968, Nancy Greene was a World Cup overall champion shouldering great expectations even though a pre-Olympic ankle injury caused angst, and there was disappointment when the Canadian hopeful finished 10th in the Feb. 10 downhill outside Grenoble, more than two seconds behind the winning time of Austria’s Olga Pall.
Greene finally earned her first Olympic medal, silver, in women’s slalom on Feb. 13. She had the fastest time on the second run, but a first-run deficit of 1.18 seconds was too much to overcome, so she finished 0.29 seconds behind France’s Marielle Goitschl.
Two days later, though, on Feb. 15, Greene blew them all away in giant slalom. The ninth athlete out of the start gate, she crossed the finish line in 1:51.97, an eye-spinning 2.64 seconds ahead of France’s Annie Famose. Bronze medallist Fernande Bochatay of Switzerland was nearly three seconds off Greene’s pace.
According to legend, Greene was so fast that she broke the timing device. In truth, the mechanism had been calibrated so anyone clocking outside a specified variance from the next closest time was checked manually before it was posted.
Either way, it was a performance for the ages, and it remains something to inspire Canadian skiers.
“I think that having had someone like her being so dominant, being from Canada, is really cool,” said Marie-Michèle Gagnon, a 28-year-old Quebecer who represented Canada in 2010 at Whistler and in 2014 at Sochi, but who will miss the 2018 Pyeongchang Games because of a knee injury. “It’s not in my lifetime, you know, but it shows it’s possible for us Canadians to be dominant in this sport.”
The Raines watch World Cup racing on television at every opportunity, and Greene Raine said she still enjoyed meeting current national team members, cognizant of how hard they worked “and how tough it is.”
“I really enjoyed the time when I was there,” she added. “It was a time of tremendous change. It went from leather, lace-up boots and wood skis to plastic boots and fiber-glass skis and went from a focus that was every two years for world championships and Olympics to where ski racing is big-time every year. The World Cup, of course, changed that. I just look at it now and marvel at what they do and how they ski … even the little kids.
“But, you know, the more it changes, the more it stays the same. The actual techniques that you use and what it takes to win hasn’t changed. The skis have changed, the equipment has changed, the courses are faster, the snow is harder, it’s better organized. So there’s lots of changes, but you still have to work harder and you have to do the work where nobody’s watching and you just have to get in there, in the gym, and do all the physical conditioning that’s required. It’s not glamorous at all, but those who do it, they get rewarded, and it takes a certain natural talent as well.
“One other thing it takes, and maybe that’s why it’s so interesting, is that it does take a passion for skiing. If you don’t love being out there on the mountain, if you don’t really love it, it’d be a tough life.”
Speaking of life, sometimes it throws us a curve, and so it did last year for Nancy Greene Raine.
A cough unrelated to a cold led to a checkup and chest X-ray that detected tumours in her lungs. A “very active” tumour was also found in her thyroid.
That was removed, and radioactive iodine was administered to destroy remaining thyroid cells. Fortunately, they had not spread to the lungs, where “a golf ball, ping-pong ball and eight or 10 marbles” turned out to be signs of non-Hodgkin mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT) lymphoma.
It was cancer, yes, but those cells contained a protein marker that could be targeted by a drug administered in four injected doses ending in mid-December. Greene Raine reported neither pain nor sickness from those treatments, and her son Willy, a 1992 Albertville Olympic Games alpine competitor and now Alpine Canada’s athletic director for ski-cross, posted video of “Nana” skiing with grandsons James and Kingston at Sun Peaks during the holiday season.
There was also a CT scan in mid-January, after which a radiologist friend assured Greene Raine there was “nothing to worry about.” A telephone consultation with an oncologist in Kelowna, B.C., last week also produced positive news.
“To quote her,” Greene Raine said before flying back to Ottawa to resume Senate duties, “The scans were very good. The tumours have shrunk significantly, and all that’s going to be required is monitoring: blood tests in three months. It looks like it has been dealt with.
“You never know. … There’s still something there. They don’t know if that’s just scar tissue or if that’s active, so they’ll just keep checking it. Nothing to worry about.”
Greene Raine said her own experience had given her a great opportunity to see first-hand how Canada’s health-care system works.
“I can tell you we have amazing people working in the system in terms of doctors and technicians and the nurses, but we need a better way of getting early diagnostics, and the system’s a bit dysfunctional. It’s not as efficient as it could be, which is hard on people when they have to continually go in between tests.”
Maybe Greene Raine can whittle away at that after she retires from the Senate.
Her “bucket list” includes sharing additional time with her grandsons and possibly travel to reconnect with people she and Al first encountered on the international ski circuit. There’s also a continuing contractual relationship with Nancy Greene Ski League, for which she approves all sponsors, and she wants to stay involved at Sun Peaks as director of skiing “as long as they’ll have me,” which of course would mean skiing as much as possible.
“I plan to stay active and healthy and engaged,” Greene Raine said. “It’s a chapter that will close, but there are lots of interesting things ahead.”
Ed Champagne has no doubt his good friend will succeed at retirement, too.
An Ottawa resident and also a Canadian Ski Hall of Fame inductee, Champagne began a two-decade career as national alpine ski team business manager, administrative director and director of public and athlete relations a year after Greene Raine retired from competition in 1968.
Greene Raine’s personality hasn’t changed since then, according to Champagne, and she has kept up “with all that’s going on in the ski world. … She’s still a going concern, even at 74, and she is highly respected across the country. Her knowledge and her interest and her love for the sport is well known.”
No doubt that passion will involve keeping an eye on the alpine ski action from South Korea.
The Canadian team named Jan. 29 totalls 14 athletes, including five hoping to become the first female Canadian to claim an Olympic alpine prize of any description since Kerrin Lee-Gartner’s gold in downhill at Albertville in 1992.
The women’s giant slalom race in South Korea is set for Feb. 12, three days shy of the 50th anniversary of Nancy Greene’s gold medal in France. The slalom is Feb. 14, followed by the downhill on Feb. 21, the recently added alpine-combined competition on Feb. 23 and the alpine team event on Feb. 24.
Men’s races are scheduled for other days.
“Sport is the ultimate reality game,” Greene Raine said. “There’s no hiding anything in sport, especially when it’s covered the way some of these sports are covered now. There’s no rehearsal, it just unfolds.
“I think that’s why so many people like to follow it, even though they might not be athletes themselves.”