Canada 150

Nancy Greene: Ahead by a century

Canada's top female athlete of the 20th century won Olympic giant slalom gold in 1968 by such a wide margin that she broke the clocks. Or so the legend goes.

'68 Olympic champ skied so fast she broke the clocks... or so the legend goes

A double skiing medallist at the 1968 Olympics, where she won giant slalom gold, Nancy Greene was named her country's female athlete of the 20th century by The Canadian Press. (Chuck Stoody/Canadian Press)

Editor's note: This is part of a series of stories celebrating some of Canada's greatest sports heroes and moments as the country marks its 150th birthday in 2017. We've also revisited the lives of baseball hall of famer Ferguson Jenkins, speed skater Gaetan Boucher, figure skater Barbara Ann Scott, distance runner Tom Longboat, Kentucky Derby winner Northern Dancer, sprinter Harry Jerome and auto racing's Villeneuve family. We also looked back at the Richard Riot and explored Babe Ruth's Canadian origins.

Find all of CBC Sports' Canada 150 stories here.

Time may stop for no one, but Nancy Greene Raine once skied so quickly she momentarily left the folks from Omega scratching their heads.

Canada's female athlete of the 20th century needs no real introduction for anyone who lived there — or who consumed a Mars bar while doing it.

The daughter of B.C.'s mountains skied three Olympics, beginning in 1960 at Squaw Valley in the U.S. (at just 16), then Innsbruck, Austria for 1964. She hit a super stride in time for 1968 at Grenoble, France, resulting in a silver in the slalom and a gold in the giant slalom.

One of the finest ski racers of the 1960s — as formidable on her side as France's Jean Claude Killy was on his — Greene lived by the clock, died by the clock, and on one occasion was sneakily kept from seeing the clock in order to calm her down.

Or so her coaches thought.

Stay for tea?

Greene arrived on the slopes of the Chamrouse Valley, southeast of Grenoble, as a heavy favourite for medals at the 1968 Olympics after battling back from an injury. She had won the inaugural World Cup overall title in 1967 despite only skiing six of the nine events.

After finishing 10th in the downhill and taking silver in the slalom in Grenoble, the giant slalom on Feb. 15 give her a final shot at gold.

Greene skied to silver in the slalom at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, then went on to win gold in the giant slalom. (Associated Press)

Like many star athletes, the Ottawa-born, West Coast-raised 24-year-old could get a tad overwound before competition. So her coach, Verne Anderson, took his charge up to the restaurant, about a 30-second ski above the start line for the GS, for tea. 

They chatted about this and that, the ski program, whatever came to mind as time ticked away and the race got started just below them. Head coach John Platt dropped by to add a few words.

Anderson, you see, thought he was being sneaky, keeping The Tiger from thinking of the job ahead and getting too nervous.

"I was fully aware of what they were doing," Greene says today, over the phone from Sun Peaks Resort, near Kamloops, where she is director of skiing. "They didn't know I knew."

With about 10 minutes to go, they all ran up the stairs from the resto, carefully made sure her Rossignol skis were properly on and adjusted, and zipped down to the start.

"I had just three or four minutes [behind the gate]," Greene says. "If you go down to the start early, you just have to sit in the snow or stand up waiting."

Into the gate ninth, starter's orders, off and rolling in her smooth, technical style and 1:51.97 later the Canadian star had blown away the field by an unheard of 2.64 seconds — setting off another set of circumstances that have built into a wonderful, often repeated, though factually incorrect legend.

Nancy Greene skied so fast she broke the clock.

What actually happened was almost as dramatic because the Omega automatic timing system (still a relatively new advancement dating back to 1956) had "a built-in parameter so if you were one or two seconds ahead, they would check the times manually," says Greene.

When she turned around to look at the big results board there was ... gobbledygook. Letters and numbers that made no sense. It only took a couple of seconds for the timers to double check and up went the incredible victory. 

Not hard to imagine that moment being almost enough to blow your blood pressure right off the scale. 

Gave her a headache for two days.

Sweet deal

Those amateur days did not produce a lot of Canadian Olympic champions, so when Greene stepped down from the plane back home she found herself a national hero — as big as Gordie Howe, as big as quarterback Russ Jackson.

She retired, and headed off to a future that included a happy marriage to Al Raine, development of ski resorts around B.C., and their own lodge, twin boys, a ferocious battle for opportunity, recognition and funds for young athletes, and in 2009 a new job in Ottawa as a Canadian Senator.

If you played word association with those who grew up through those times and gave them "Skier Nancy Greene," they might give you back "Mars bars."

Created in 1933 at Slough, England, by Forrest Mars (raised in Saskatchewan, by the way), the chocolate bar was already a world leader when the company latched onto Canada's new hero and put her on billboards and television screens coast to coast.

Greene set up a program with them where for each Mars wrapper sent in, the company would donate one cent (around seven cents today) for youth skiing. She also repped the Bank of Montreal, General Motors and Rossignol skis. 

The best woman athlete in the 100 years of her century may have turned snowy Chamrousse Valley to Greene during those two weeks, but the glow of gold can still be seen from here.


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