There have been few better ambassadors for Canadian sport than Nancy Greene, who remains the most decorated Canadian skier in history. In the late 1960s, Nancy may have been the best-known Canadian figure worldwide, period. Nicknamed ‘Tiger’ for the way she attacked treacherous ski slopes around the world with ferocious courage and joyous zeal, today she remains among the most revered athletes in the history of Canadian sport.
Born in Ottawa and raised in Rossland in the West Kootenays, Nancy began skiing at age three, learning from her parents who were both avid skiers. Nancy’s mother had skied competitively in the 1930s reaching the Canadian championships one year, while in 1946 her father helped build the original chairlift at Rossland’s Red Mountain, her home mountain.
“I can’t remember not being able to ski,” she said.
Nancy’s competitive skiing career began in 1958 when Red Mountain hosted the Canadian junior championships. As a last-minute fill-in for injured competitors, 14-year-old Nancy managed two podium finishes just behind older sister Elizabeth hinting at her untapped potential.
Late the following year, Nancy made the Canadian national ski team, remaining a member for nearly a decade. As a wide-eyed 16-year-old in 1960, she competed at her first of three Winter Olympics. Seeing fellow Canadian Anne Heggtveit win Canada’s first-ever Olympic skiing gold medal at the Squaw Valley Winter Olympics gave Nancy a clear goal to work towards.
“I resolved at that moment that I would one day win a gold for myself—and for my country,” she recalled.
Over the next six years, she began training more intensely, becoming one of the first international skiers to incorporate weightlifting into her training regimen, and she rode a rollercoaster overcoming several serious injuries and competitive ups and downs.
In 1962, Nancy parlayed her new-found strength into her first victory in Europe, winning the downhill at the Toni Mark Memorial Races in Austria. At the FIS world championships that year in Chamonix, France, she finished a strong fifth in the downhill. She finished the 1963 season ranked tenth in the world in the downhill and just outside the top-ten in slalom and giant slalom.
Disappointing results at the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck served as motivation and 1965 proved to be a breakthrough year for her. She won both the slalom and giant slalom at the US Nationals at Crystal Mountain in Washington State defeating fields of the best skiers in the world and followed that up with a hat trick of victories at the Canadian Nationals, as well as a series of other North American wins.
Poised for success at the 1966 FIS world championships in Portillo, Chile, Nancy overcame a serious crash in the downhill that smashed her skis and tore ligaments in her elbow to finish a gutsy fourth in the giant slalom the next day with her arm frozen and her ski pole taped to her gloved hand.
1967 was the first year of the new FIS World Cup competition format.
“I set myself on a crusade to win in Europe in ’67,” she recalled. “I trained…with more determination and more drive than I’d ever brought to training before.”
After a series of early victories, going into the season’s final event at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Nancy stood third overall and needed to win every race she competed in to have any chance at the World Cup overall title. All was going to plan and it came down to the final run in the slalom. She skied the race of her life to finish just seven hundredths of a second ahead of French world champion Marielle Goitschel, edging her out for the World Cup title, 176 points to 172, to become the first-ever women’s World Cup champion.
Nancy had unquestionably become the best alpine skier in the world and 1968 proved to be even better, but first there was more adversity to overcome. Three weeks before the Winter Olympics in Grenoble, Nancy severely sprained and tore ligaments in her ankle in a crash. She spent the time before the Olympics rehabbing her ankle for a chance to still compete. After serving as Canada’s Opening Ceremonies flagbearer, Nancy managed to finish tenth in the downhill showing some rust from the injury lay-off. But three days later, she rebounded to win a silver medal in the slalom, skiing the fastest time of the competition’s second run to slip into second just 0.29 seconds behind France’s Goitschel.
“That really gave me a big dose of self-confidence and set me up for the giant slalom,” she remembered.
Did it ever. Skiing is one of those sports where because of speed and technique it’s often difficult to appreciate how hard a competitor is working. You could see Nancy’s will and determination in this race. She gave it her absolute all.
“I never worked as hard as I did that day,” she recalled. “I skated and I poled and I pushed and I had studied the course. I knew exactly where to go and not only did I ski the perfect line, but I did the extra pushing and polling which really made a difference on that hill. And coming into the last pitch where it was very steep and icy, I hung on not too much and I let my skis go at the last moment, pushed to get across. I saw that I was way ahead. I had a big lead and I think at that point the biggest sensation for me was relief because I knew in my heart even though I hadn’t said I was going to retire, I knew that it would be my last season and that was my only chance to win [at the Olympics].”
‘Our Nancy’ had done it, winning the Olympic gold medal in giant slalom by one of the largest margins of victory ever in Olympic skiing competition: 2.64 seconds over silver medalist Annie Famose of France.
Canadians across the country paused whatever they were doing that day, February 15th,1968, to watch grainy black-and-white TV footage of Greene’s victory. Small celebrations broke out immediately.
“For years afterward, people came up to me and said, ‘I remember I was driving along the freeway and I heard you won and I almost drove off the road!’” Nancy laughed later. “‘I was shaving and I heard you won and I cut myself!’ People remember the weirdest things, but it had a tremendous impact.”
The Olympics gave Nancy just the boost she needed and she proceeded to rattle off ten subsequent victories at World Cup events and the Canadian national championships. During a short break in the World Cup schedule, one of the largest parades in BC history took place on March 7th, 1968 when Nancy returned home and an estimated 100,000 people turned out in Vancouver to celebrate. The street lines were painted “Greene” for the occasion and the Vancouver Sun was printed on “Greene” newspaper, while parade goers wore every shade of ‘Greene’ possible from their closets.
It all combined to lift Nancy up even higher. Fittingly, it all came to a climactic conclusion later that month right back where it all began for her—Rossland’s Red Mountain at the du Maurier International World Cup event—the first ever World Cup event hosted in Canada. Overcoming a crash in the slalom, a day later she rebounded to win the giant slalom by over two seconds in front of over 7000 family, friends, and skiing fans, sealing her second World Cup overall title. You couldn’t have scripted it any better if you tried. For the second year in a row, she was World Cup overall champion, recipient of the coveted crystal globe. She retired from competitive skiing one week later going out on top as the world’s best skier and indisputably one of Canada’s all-time greatest athletes. Later that year she was awarded her second consecutive Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s Athlete of the Year.
Nancy retired as a nine-time Canadian champion, three-time US champion, and a 13-time World Cup event winner, which remains a Canadian record to this day. She was later voted Canada’s Female Athlete of the Century by the Canadian Press in 1999. She is a recipient of the Order of Canada, Order of BC, and the Order of the Dogwood and has been inducted into numerous halls of fame, as well as Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto. She served as one of the final four torchbearers who lit the Olympic Cauldron to open the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games at BC Place. Provincial parks, lakes, streets, ski runs, a Whistler lodge, and a long-running developmental youth ski league have all been named in her honour.
With husband Al Raine, she played a key role in the development of Whistler-Blackcomb and Sun Peaks in Kamloops as international skiing destinations. She also served as the first chancellor of Thompson Rivers University from 2004-10 and as a Senator in the Senate of Canada in Parliament from 2009-18.
Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.
For a more in-depth look at Nancy Greene’s career, please see the March 2021 Curator’s Corner feature article here:https://bcsportshall.com/curator-corner/canadas-tiger-nancy-greene-raine-our-nancy-our-greatest/