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SkiingLee-Gartner's '92 victory a Canadian alpine treasure

Posted: Thursday, February 16, 2012 | 08:55 PM

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In this Feb. 1992 file photo, Canadian alpine skier Kerrin Lee-Gartner shows off her gold medal after winning the women's downhill race at the Olympic Games in Albertville, France. Lee-Gartner was the first Canadian to accomplish the feat. (Rick Stewart/Allsport) In this Feb. 1992 file photo, Canadian alpine skier Kerrin Lee-Gartner shows off her gold medal after winning the women's downhill race at the Olympic Games in Albertville, France. Lee-Gartner was the first Canadian to accomplish the feat. (Rick Stewart/Allsport)

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This past week has been one of memories for Canadian fans of Olympic sport with some great anniversaries to mark. But for those of a certain generation, Kerrin Lee-Gartner's gold medal in the women's downhill at the 1992 Albertville Games may be the sweetest of all.
This past week has been one of memories for Canadian fans of Olympic sport.

There have been some great anniversaries to mark. 

It's been 32 years since Steve Podborski became the first North American to win a downhill medal at the Olympics when he took bronze in Lake Placid.  A decade has passed since Catriona Le May Doan emerged as the only Canadian Olympian to successfully defend an individual title by winning gold in the 500 M speed skating event in Salt Lake City.  Two years have gone by since Alexandre Bilodeau captured Canada's first gold medal on home soil by claiming the men's moguls crown in Vancouver.

But for those of a certain generation, Kerrin Lee-Gartner's gold medal in the women's downhill at the 1992 Albertville Games may be the sweetest of all.

Perhaps it's because she's our colleague at CBC and we know her family so well.  Her husband Max, who was one of her coaches at the time, now heads up Alpine Canada and may be one of the nicest people in the World. 

Lee-Gartner's daughters Riana and Stephanie have been fixtures for years as we go about the business of broadcasting the World Cup in Lake Louise.  Both are very much into skiing, with Riana coaching younger kids and Stephanie taking a run at a future with the national team as a slalom specialist.

Maybe it's the memory of the race itself that stands out.  It took less than two minutes, 20 years ago but that win by Lee-Gartner on the Roc de Fer course stands the test of time.

"It was to that point in women's ski racing the toughest, longest course they had ever skied," remembers CBC's Scott Oake who called play-by-play of the event.  "She took the lead and survived every challenge thereafter.  It was a great day in Canadian ski racing and all told the significance of if was that on that day she was the best skier in the World on the most difficult course the women had ever skied."

Lee-Gartner had self-belief

Lee-Gartner entered the race as a 20 to one long shot that day.  She had never won on the World Cup circuit but she had been hovering near the top in the lead up to the Olympics.  She also had a history of knee problems and had endured reconstructive surgery.  Still, she recalls being undeterred and convinced that she could win the big one.

"I don't know if it was the water in Rossland, or wearing Nancy Greene's medals when I was a little girl," says the former Red Mountain Racer from the heartland of British Columbia skiing.  "I really did believe that I was going to win the Olympics.  I don't know what would have happened, I would have lost belief in everything, if I didn't.  I believed fully and I was that committed to it."

The elation that ensued when Lee-Gartner realized the victory was secure was contagious and the significance of it all was not lost on those who followed the Canadian team.  The gold medal ended a drought at the Winter Olympics, which had seen the home country fail to win gold in Calgary in 1988.  The last gold medal by a Canadian winter athlete had come in Sarajevo in 1984 when Gaetan Boucher won two speed skating titles.

And perhaps even more importantly, Lee-Gartner had produced the first and only Olympic downhill title by a Canadian.  It was a watershed victory in a coveted event, which has never been equaled in this country.

"The fact that another Canadian has not won it shocks me," Lee-Gartner says.  "So many could have done it but so much has to be right and the race happens only once every four years.  It was just right for me on that day."

Inspiring a generation

Even so, the brilliance of that gold medal should never fade even though it happened a generation ago.  It's magic resonates with the stars of the present and future.  Kelly Vanderbeek was nine years old when she saw it happen.

"I honestly didn't remember her name or anything but I do remember seeing a Canadian win a gold medal," Vanderbeek reflects.  "I went to bed that night and dreamed that I won a medal and I woke up the next morning and told my parents that I was going to be a ski racer at the Olympics."

The medal is tucked away in a box in Max's study at the Gartner household just outside Calgary.  Still, Kerrin hauls it out and will proudly show it to anybody who asks.  She believes it means something special.

"I think when you surround yourself with greatness you believe you can be great as well," she says.  "I didn't second guess that as a child, I didn't understand it.  Now I realize children need to be surrounded by that.  They need to believe it and you know I'll take my medal and put it around any kid's neck if they say they want to do that."

For his part Max Gartner sees the importance of his wife's accomplishment not just as a matter of pride but because of what it might mean to next wave of aspiring Canadian skiers he is trying to develop.

"You know you have to celebrate something like this," he says.  "I think it's an inspiration when somebody wins, the next generation of kids can start believing that this is achievable and they too can do this.  I think if you have that deep belief inside then it will come through."

Kerrin Lee-Gartner's victory happened in less than two minutes, 20 years ago.  But even though it was a fleeting moment in time, the resulting gold medal deserves to be regarded as a national treasure forever.

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