A champion's last call as Kerrin Lee-Gartner prepares to sign off
The 1992 Olympic gold medallist-turned-CBC Sports analyst will call her final race this weekend
For the past several years it's been my honour to call ski racing with an Olympic champion named Kerrin Lee-Gartner.
I was not her first partner in the booth, or the longest serving, but wistfully, I have to admit, I'll be the last.
Following this weekend's World Cup finals in the Pyrenees of Andorra, Lee-Gartner will step away from her broadcast career after 25 years of translating the majesty of the alpine world to so many fans across the country and around the globe.
She's finding it more difficult to travel in light of the post-concussion issues she's been dealing with, and therefore, will stay closer to home in Calgary.
"Canadian ski racing has some incredible young racers about to take off," she said recently. "It isn't easy to step back but I look forward to watching it all unfold from the comfort of my sofa."
Lee-Gartner is the only Canadian to have won a downhill title at the Olympics. She did that at the Roc De Fer, (Rock of Fear), course in Meribel, France at the Albertville Games of 1992.
"The course was appropriately named because it struck fear into the hearts of most racers," recalled Scott Oake, who called play-by-play of the race for CBC and who would soon after become Lee-Gartner's first broadcast partner.
"It was the longest and probably most difficult course the women had ever run, Olympics and World Cup included, and Kerrin beat it into submission. It was, in my opinion, one of the greatest moments in Canadian sports history."
WATCH | Kerrin Lee-Gartner races to downhill gold:
Don Peppin, who produced that race for CBC Sports and who went on to be one of Lee-Gartner's mentors in her formative years as a television analyst, agrees with Oake's assessment.
He recalled the chronicling of that victory as being a, "unique and remarkable," experience and that it was also a game changer for Canadian skiing, which was later revealed in her commentary.
"That day at Meribel she was truly at the top of the world," Peppin said. "Her passion for ski racing gave Canadian fans a real understanding of what each alpine racer faced every time they launched out of the start hut."
WATCH | Kerrin Lee-Gartner receives her gold medal:
Beyond that landmark triumph in the downhill, Lee-Gartner stood on the World Cup podium six times, while also competing at three world championships and three Olympics, retiring following the 1994 season.
WATCH | Kerrin Lee-Gartner's skiing dream comes true:
Later that same year, while nine months pregnant with her first child Riana, she broadcast her first races from Lake Louise for CBC. Following the men's speed events, she and her husband Max returned to Calgary where the baby was born midweek. Lee-Gartner showed up at Lake Louise a few days later, infant in tow, to call the women's downhill on Friday afternoon.
"I'm not sure what I was thinking but I have never been one to give up or take time off so there we were, our little three-day-old baby travelling to work with me," she recalled.
"The only concession she made to her post-delivery condition was a Ski-Doo ride to the finish line for on-cameras and she wasn't too happy about that," Oake remembered with a laugh. "I thought to myself, 'Jeepers … I'm working with Superwoman!'"
For her part, Lee-Gartner has reserved a special place in her heart for Oake because of his willingness to accept a rookie who came with a certain amount of baggage to the commentary booth.
"His sense of humour helped keep me sane and I can still picture him holding Riana while he was making his notes and prepping for the race," she said. "When I was a little girl I knew I would win the Olympics. But I didn't prepare for my future beyond my dreams as an athlete on the Canadian ski team. Lucky for me it turned out my next team was just as awesome."
In all, she has called hundreds of World Cup races and has been an analyst at five Olympics for CBC and one — 2010 Vancouver/Whistler — with BBC. She has worked with a legion of broadcast partners including Doug Dirks, Terry Leibel, Brian Stemmle, Brenda Irving, Signa Butler, Steve Armitage, Todd Brooker, Karin Larsen, Mark Lee, and Ken Read.
Brian Williams is the dean of Olympic broadcasting in Canada and he too worked alongside Lee-Gartner.
"I saw her bring that same dedication, preparation and ability to broadcasting races that I saw when she competed," Williams said. "What makes her so special is she has that rare ability to step up and be the best on the world's biggest stages."
Kelly VanderBeek, also a former alpine racer-turned-broadcaster, pointed to the impact that Lee-Gartner's Olympic experience had on her own career.
"That moment changed the trajectory of my life and many others like me," VanderBeek said. "As I watched her win that gold medal I was inspired to follow in her footsteps."
Rob Snoek, now an established and skilled play-caller with CBC Sports, remembers Lee-Gartner's generosity just as he was getting started in the business.
"She helped me learn the ins and outs of telling the stories of ski racing," Snoek said. "And she always showed patience and poise if I stumbled along the journey."
Inspected courses on skis
My own recollection of working with Lee-Gartner revolves around her overwhelming passion for her sport and wanting to share it unselfishly with others.
She insisted on inspecting the treacherous downhill tracks while on skis and providing on-site reports from the forbiddingly steep side of the mountain.
Lee-Gartner was also devout in her desire to immerse the viewer in all aspects of the alpine experience. I remember she even tricked me (an intermediate skier at best) into slip-sliding down the ice-injected course when I first came to Lake Louise, just to get the "feel" of it.
I somehow made it down to the bottom but I was almost overcome with fright.
Still, the thrill of that soul-searching descent was undeniable and to this day I love to participate in alpine skiing above all sporting activities because of that feeling of exhilaration Lee-Gartner revealed to me.
I also have a favourite memory of playing shinny with Lee-Gartner and her family on the frozen pond in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains under a moonlit sky when the racing at Lake Louise was done for the day.
Love of alpine adventure
Max was there, as were her daughters Riana and Stephanie. Their beloved dog, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, kept interrupting the game by grabbing the puck with his mouth and running wildly into the night.
It was all so typically and beautifully Canadian.
The Gartners are a family built on a love of the alpine adventure.
"Between her ski racing days and now broadcasting, it's been an amazing run which has lasted most of her life," Max told me. "I am so proud of her career as both an athlete and a commentator because she always gave it everything she had. She was always fully prepared and fully in the moment. As a skier and as a commentator she loved race day."
"Working alongside Kerrin was a blast," Oake said. "Early on she proved herself to be a gifted commentator. I'm not sure she learned anything from me but I learned a lot from her. Mostly to shut up and let her do the talking."
An appropriate sentiment because for the last quarter of a century, when it came to broadcasting alpine skiing in Canada, Kerrin Lee-Gartner always had the final word.
"I have loved to see the breakthroughs and I have loved sharing the sport of ski racing with all Canadians," she said. "I knew I would always be happy and I am so lucky to have been able to work with such an incredible team at CBC Sports."
And now as the Olympic champion prepares to make her last call, I think it can safely be said, that her voice will be greatly missed.