“Press on your right foot when you wanna go left . . . and press on your left foot when you wanna go right.”
Such are the basics of skiing as taught to me by Olympic gold medalist Nancy Greene, though she gives proper credit where it’s due.
“A six-year-old taught me that principle,” she added. Dressed in a red ski jacket with poles planted in the snow, Nancy went on to tell me about the day she met three young boys—all brothers—skiing down a daunting black diamond run. While the first two appeared confident, the last little boy (age six) was “hanging on for dear life.”
Stopping and chatting with the youngest skier she found out that it was his first day on skis, ever. His two older brothers had dragged him to the top of the slope and sent him on his way. Halfway down the mountain, the six-year-old mastered the inverted right-left steering pattern. Nancy skied with him the rest of the way.
Nancy isn’t just one of the best skiers in the world. She’s also a wonderfully patient teacher. Never mind the official suffixes that follow her name (OC, OBD, OD), or how she won a gold medal for giant slalom in the 1968 World Olympics in Grenoble, or that she was Canada’s “Female Athlete of the Century”, or that today she serves as a member of the Canadian Senate. Here on the white slopes of Sun Peaks Resort, Nancy is director of skiing and she never stops doing her job.
“Roll your heels forward!” I watched her shout to an earnest skier as she whizzed past. Whenever someone took a tumble, she was instantly at their side, getting them back up on their feet and offering pointers, following up with encouragement. Every chance she could get, she taught, starting with me.
“Now just stop right there, Andrew. Already I can show you something you’re not doing.” I had barely skied away from the top of the chairlift when Nancy laid in with her gentle critique.
“You gotta ski on the balls of your feet. The whole balance is on the ball of the foot,” she went on to demonstrate the principle, then led me down our first run of the morning: Grannie Greene.
The easy-going run is named after Nancy’s mother, the first “Grannie Greene” and as Nancy explains, “it’s for grandmothers everywhere.” The rolling blue (intermediate) run cuts a path through the pine forest, with gentle transitions “for the grandmothers” and lots of more adventurous detours along the edge “for the grandkids.”
Nancy is a grandmother herself—the same age as my own mother—but I struggled to keep up with her incredible speed down the mountain. She was still watching me though, as if she had eyes in the back of her head. When we boarded the chairlift back up to the top, she flipped right into teacher mode, correcting my faults one by one.
Nancy insists that skiing is simple. According to her, there are only three essentials to remember when skiing:
1) Shift body weight from one foot to the other.
2) Ski with the ball of your foot, press down to accelerate.
3) Slant the edge of your skis to skid; this is how you create arcs in the snow.
At the top of the run, Nancy showed me each principle than made me follow suit. After less than an hour, I already felt my technique and ability had improved.
Nancy thought so too, speaking words of encouragement before declaring me ready to tackle some of Sun Peak’s more challenging black runs.
I descended the first slope without falling—an accomplishment for me—but Nancy knew I could do better. She lifted one ski pole in the air and waved it towards the snowy mountain panorama all around us.
“Don’t look down at your feet!” she cried.
“Where should I look?” I asked.
“Look everywhere,” instructed Nancy, like a Zen priest, still waving her pole back and forth, as if she were painting British Columbia into my view.
But then she stopped to reconsider.
“No, that’s not right. Don’t look—just see. See everything!”
“See everything,” is probably the best travel advice I’ve received in my life, and perhaps the best life advice I’ve received in my travels. I knew that Nancy meant to look up when I was skiing—to not get lost in watching the snow in front of me or getting worried about my feet. The true joy of skiing is taking in the entire landscape while flying through it, and Nancy showed me how.
Hour after hour, we skied together—my amateur self following the calligraphy of snow tracks left for me by the pro, Nancy Greene. In the afternoon, her husband joined us. Al Raine is the mayor of Sun Peaks, but this is a recent career change that follows a lifetime of pro skiing and coaching pro skiers.
Skiing with the pros did not make me feel like a pro, but it sure turned me into a much better skier. I was grateful for Nancy’s endless patience and her uncanny ability to correct without criticizing and to encourage me with every stride.
All that attention from an Olympic athlete made me feel pretty special, but the fact is, I am not. Nancy will ski with anyone who wants to.
Despite her outrageous schedule flying back and forth to Ottawa, Nancy shows up on the slopes of Sun Peaks every weekend and at one o’clock in the afternoon, she waits at the top of the Sunburst chairlift. Whoever shows up and wants to ski, Nancy will gladly take skiing.
Just be ready to learn. Nancy is a born teacher and no matter how good you might be, she’s still better and wiser and faster. She may have won the gold medal forty-three years ago, but she has still got it.
I may have only skied with her for a day, but I like to think that perhaps a bit of that gold rubbed off on me.