Seventy years after representing Canada at the 1948 Olympics in Switzerland, 97-year-old Rhoda Wurtele is still skiing.
A confident walk, quick wit and a youthful smile are all attributes that remain with the lifelong skier, who is now considered a pioneer of the sport alongside her identical twin sister, Rhona.
Together, the sisters were the sole members of the Canadian Olympic women’s alpine ski team in 1948. They have since been inducted into both the United States and Canadian Ski Halls of Fame, as well as the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. In late December, it was announced that the twins would also be appointed to the Order of Canada.
[Rhoda and Rhona Wurtele, 1945. Wikimedia Commons file]
On Saturday, February 2, Rhoda made the trip to Fernie to ski and visit family. She also met with locals to take questions about her successes and share advice on living a long, and healthy life. Rhona was unable to make the trip to Fernie this year.
“Wonderful friends and wonderful times I must say, skiing is the greatest,” said Rhoda.
She admitted that every year it becomes a bit harder to strap in, but added that she will continue to stay active as long as she is able.
“Keep active, absolutely, I think that’s the secret to everything,” she said. “(It’s) certainly why I’m around. We just did everything, as much as we could. We were always running around, keeping up with sports.”
The twins had unfortunate luck at the St. Moritz Olympics in 1948. Rhoda injured her ankle in a training run and Rhona broke her leg in the downhill, finishing last. Rhoda was able to recover in time to tie for third place in the Arlberg-Kandahar alpine skiing race at Chamonix a few weeks later, and went on to compete in the 1952 Winter Olympic in Norway, finishing ninth.
Despite an unfortunate result for both Rhoda and Rhona, it was their journey leading up to the Olympics that remains a notable feat. As young girls, the twins would never shy away from competing against the boys and found that not only could they compete against them, they could beat them too.
During the Taschereau downhill race at Mont Tremblant, QC, in 1942, 20-year-old Rhoda bested everyone at the competition, including the men, by 24 seconds.
After their racing careers ended, the two dedicated their lives to coaching the next generation of skiers. They first taught children in the Ski Jays and Ski Chicks clubs before turning their focus to their mothers.
“We ran a ski school for the Penguins, at one point almost a 1000 (students) with all the sections,” said Rhoda.
The twins played a huge role in inspiring young skiers. Many students emerged from the shadows of Rhoda and Rhona as world champions; Lucile Wheeler, the first woman to win an Olympic skiing medal for Canada, Anne Heggtveit, Nancy Greene Raine, Kathy Kreiner and Kerrin Lee-Gartner to name a few.
From the age of five, the twins were skiing out their front door in Montreal, with planks of wood strapped onto their feet. This tradition stuck with the women as they grew up and Rhoda’s son John Eaves recalls his childhood being much the same.
“You would try to get into our house in Montreal, you literally opened the front door and all these skis and poles would fall on you,” said John. “It was absolute chaos.” John went on to become a six-time world freestyle ski champion and a stunt double for many international films. He is pictured on the cover of the 1986 hit action film, Fire and Ice.
In 1948, skis were solid wood and over seven feet long. Since then, the sport has evolved and the equipment has changed. Asked what she sees as the future of skiing, Rhoda said it’s showing no signs of slowing down.
“The future is… the greatest. It’s growing and growing, they keep thinking of new things. More and more people are in it, the competition is tougher,” she said.
“I tell you, the downhills and things now, they’re (racers) really moving. They’re just fractions apart. Very exciting, very exciting.”