Steve Podborski, the Crazy Canuck
Bronze medallist in the downhill at Lake Placid 1980, Canadian skier Steve Podborski was the first North American to make it onto an Olympic podium in an Alpine skiing speed event.
Steve Podborski grew up in the Don Mills suburbs of Canadian city Toronto, where he was taught the basics of skiing as a two-year-old at the nearby Craigleith Ski Club. At the age of 16, in 1973, he was called up to the Canadian national team, coinciding with the emergence of the “Crazy Canucks”, a famed group of five downhill racers known for their aggressive skiing style, of which he would become the most prominent member.
His older compatriots, Ken Read, Dave Murray, Dave Irwin and Jim Hunter, had already begun to compete and defeat top European skiers in their own back yard, picking up tremendous results on some of the Alps’ most fearsome courses, such as the Streif (Kitzbühel), Lauberhorn (Wengen), Arlberg-Kandahar (Garmisch-Partenkirchen), Sasslong (Val Gardena), and OK (Val d’Isère). By the late 1970s, Podborski was following in their footsteps in stunning style.
North American pioneer
The Canadian recorded various trailblazing victories in the FIS World Cup between 1979 and 1984, including two on the Streif, in 1981 and 1982. “I finished second twice there as well,” he recalls. “Crossing the line and seeing your name at the top of the field in Kitzbühel must be one of the greatest experiences in Alpine skiing,” he says.
In addition, he collected three wins in Garmisch-Partenkirchen (in 1981, 1982 and 1984), earned 20 top-three finishes, including eight victories, and became the first North American to top the World Cup downhill standings in 1982. The prize he values above all others, however, is the bronze medal he captured at the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid (USA).
Lake Placid breakthrough
On 14 February 1980, in terrible conditions on Whiteface Mountain, Read (CAN), who began his run just before Podborski, fell badly, leaving the latter athlete as the only Canadian in a position to win a medal. “And there was this moment in my head where I thought, thank goodness this is all over – now I can just race because that’s what I do,” he says.
Although he was convinced he had made a huge mistake in the early stages of his run, he got into a good rhythm, put his head down and finished in 1:46.75, a time that was enough to guarantee third place behind the Austrian pair of Peter Wirnsberger (1:46.62) and winner Leonhard Stock (1:45.50). “It was pretty rockin’!” he says with a smile. “When you’re a ski racer or any competitor, you mostly lose, so you have to learn to love losing way more than winning. And so getting an Olympic bronze medal is really about victory. I was delighted to have done it.”
Podborski’s achievement, as the first North American to win an Olympic medal in the downhill competition, had a profound effect on him. “It was a whole mix of emotions,” he remarks. “It’s not a simple thing, because you have no way of preparing for it. The Olympic Games are like nothing you’ve ever done in your life. Relief was probably foremost, and then a great pride and joy. And it’sclearly something that’s stuck with me my whole life. I’ve had many better races, but not one that’smore recognised around the world.”
Staying in touch with skiing
After he finished eighth in the downhill at Sarajevo 1984, a 26-year-old Podborski brought the curtain down on an inspirational career. He later became a television commentator, covering several Winter Games, and sat on the bid committee for Vancouver 2010, before being appointed Chef de Mission for Sochi 2014 by the Canadian Olympic Committee.