Remembering Greg Athans

GREG ATHANS – Lives Lived

By Steven Threndyle

During the mid-70s, when Canadian Olympic ski racers were struggling to make ends meet, hot dog skier Greg Athans once won four cars. In a single weekend. While talented skiers were channeled into ski racing programs that might lead to success at the Olympics or in the World Cup, Athans eschewed bashing bamboo gates for bashing the bumps.

His athletic success was almost  preordained. Like most successful athletes, he had the right genes. Greg’s father George Sr., a family physician in Kelowna, was a three-time Olympic diver, who won a gold medal at the British Empire Games. His mother Irene competed internationally in both competitive and synchronized swimming, and once co-held a world Masters record as part of a relay team.

Then, there was the environment. Growing up in the bucolic Okanagan Valley during the 60s and early 70s, Greg and his brothers lived in a kind of “Beach Boys version of Kelowna,” according to older brother George. “All of us learned how to snow and water ski from the time that we could walk. It was a perfect time. Skiing in the winter up at Big White, carving turns behind a ski boat in the summer – it really was nothing but fun in the sun.”

George and Irene encouraged their children to not just participate, but to compete, in both water and snow skiing. George soon became a national champion water skier, while younger brother Gary excelled at ski racing, racing for Canada’s national team at a time when it was full of stars such as Todd Brooker and Steve Podborski.

But it was Greg who would successfully compete in both water and snow skiing – especially in the fledgling sport of freestyle skiing. His skiing career started in a traditional way – bashing gates as a young ski racer and travelling throughout BC to competitions. However, the more free-spirited and anarchic sport of freestyle skiing beckoned. Athans was part of the ‘second wave’ of freestyle skiers who took the sport from its counterculture roots and brought serious athleticism and gymnastic talent to the three disciplines of moguls, aerials, and ballet skiing.

“Exhibition”, “hot dog”, or “freestyle” skiing as it was called, arose from a Sixties-flavoured ski bum culture and emphasized creative tricks over racing against the clock.  Doug Pfeiffer, the ‘father of freestyle’ who organized many of the early competitions, says, “the early freestylers had an image – not entirely accurate – as pot smoking hot doggers. Greg didn’t come from this hippie generation. In every event, competitors performed something that neither the judges nor spectators had ever seen before. Greg was an instant stunner on the circuit – very well coordinated and a real gymnast on skis. His ballet moves were outstanding – he pulled a 720 (two full rotations) on a groomed, flat slope at a time when many competitors were having trouble landing a 360 (single rotation) from a jump.”

Success followed quickly. In his first season, he drove away with no less than four cars – since Chevrolet was a major sponsor of the tour. George says, “he used to joke that he could have opened up his own taxi company with the cars he’d won. There were problems with Customs in getting the cars across the border, though, so they gave him a cash settlement.”

When Athans jumped from the Chevrolet-sponsored tour to the PFA (Professional Freestylers Alliance) tour, fellow competitor Rusty Taylor said, “we (PFA skiers) knew we’d have to pick up our game. Greg was ‘built right for’ a freestyle skier. He was compact and had very strong legs. And when he put his game-face on, he was all business.” By this time, hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money was pouring into freestyle skiing. It wasn’t just ‘hot dogging’, anymore.

Many of Greg’s spinning manoeuvres were a direct crossover from the world of ‘figure skiing’ on the water, a discipline of the sport that he excelled in. He won fifteen national water skiing championships and was the first person to win gold medals at both the Canada Summer and Winter Games.

Though some sibling rivalry might have been evident while growing up, it was primarily Greg’s focus and dedication which gave him the mettle to be a champion. George Jr. says, “he would use both video and photography to break down and analyze his moves, at a time when very few people did. Whatever he did, he taught himself – water skiing, snow skiing, and later, photography.”

Rick Bowie was part of a freestyle skiing family from Calgary, and instantly hit it off with “Ath”, as his friends called him. “We both came from accomplished sporting families so I think we had that in common right away. But although he was very focused and competitive, he was also extremely helpful. We roomed together for months at a time, and if he had a bad run he’d be right there at the side of the course cheering me on. He helped me at ballet, and I helped him in aerials.”

He practiced his freestyle skiing tricks, even in the summer. George recalls that Greg built a water ramp in the beach in front of his girlfriend – later, his wife’s parents’ house. “My parents didn’t want a ramp clogging up their beach. It was about thirty feet high, and he lined the ramp and kicker part of the jump with Astroturf. He’d ski down it with his snow skis on, do his flips and twists, and land in the water, get out, and do it again.” This form of summer training is now part of virtually every freestyle skier’s training regime. Bowie mentions that “he was not just an athlete, he was an innovator. He welded a ‘T-grip’ onto the top of his poles to improve his leverage and make it easier to perform back flips during his ballet routines.”

Many of Greg’s accomplishments occurred during a time when freestyle skiing was having difficulty being accepted by the skiing establishment, especially ski racers. Athans’s prodigious talent is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that he once handily beat a bunch of trash-talking racers on a course at Blue Mountain in Ontario using a pair of short, soft-flexing ballet skis.

He was even a pioneer in the world of combining music and skiing; having once shown up to Big White Ski Resort wearing a pair of headphones with a cassette tape recorder attached to his body; an early precursor to the Sony Walkman and I-Pods which followed. He appeared in three Warren Miller and Dick Barrymore movies, a true sign that he’d ‘made it’ as a professional skier.

Athans retired from freestyle skiing in 1982, after chalking up twenty World Cup events. By the time he quit, the pro circuit was in serious disarray and he was one of the first competitors to speak out in favour of gaining Olympic status for the sport, which has since occurred.

Post retirement, Athans was actively involved in fundraising for the Vancouver Children’s Hospital Foundation. A special event held annually at Whistler Mountain for the Vancouver raised over $150,000 in a five year period. Athans was, at heart, a gentle soul. In the days following his death, his daughter Zoe, now 12, confided to her uncle George that her father had “never once raised his voice to me.”

Athans was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes about ten years ago, and died in early August from complications. George says that “maybe due to the fact that he was such a good athlete, he didn’t look after himself as well as he could have, and unfortunately got out of control. If there’s a lesson to be learned in Greg’s death, it’s that we should all stay healthy and make time for family members and those whom we love..”

Condolences have flooded in from all over the world, including Prime Minister Harper, as well as Athans’s friends in the worlds of freestyle skiing, photography, and philanthropy. Nancy Greene-Raine, Canada’s Female Athlete of the Half Century and a fellow ski coach from the Whistler years, said “Greg was like a pebble in a pond; those close to the first ripple were indeed fortunate, yet as the ripples expanded, he continued to touch and influence a vast network of friends, colleagues and competitors.” The Canadian Freestyle Skiing Federation has announced the creation of a special ‘rookie of the year’ award to honour his freestyle skiing career.

Greg Athans was born in Kelowna on June 18, 1955. He died of complications arising from diabetes in Vancouver, B.C. on August 1, 2006. He is survived by his parents, George Sr. and Irene, his brothers, George Jr. and Gary, and two children, Carly and Zoe.

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One Response to “Remembering Greg Athans”

  1. wendy claire mangeant Says:

    Thank you for a lovely story but it is very important to note that he had Type One, Insulin Dependent Diabetes. Not Type 2, if people are really to learn from his mistake in believing there is a stigma attached to diabetes. He was a spectacular human being it seems, and having diabetes does not take away from that.

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