- BC Games
INSTANT REPLAY: ‘Straight-Ahead Fred’…
You have likely never heard of the sport of speed skiing.
Yet for half a dozen years spanning the late 1970s and early 1980s, the North Shore boasted four of the top-eight ranked speed skiers in the entire world. Their names were Mark Rowan, Bob Miller, Terry Watts and Kent Wills. Those aren’t household names even here in North and West Vancouver, but they should be.
You see, the so-called Crazy Canucks of downhill skiing (Dave Irwin, Dave Murray, Steve Podborski, Jim Hunter and Ken Read) – folks you surely have heard of – had nothing on our Fearsome Foursome speed skiers who made the North Shore their home, plus others named Phil Graves, Leif Nelson and Tom Prochazka who followed shortly afterwards.
In the words of Mark Rowan, “The North Shore was the unsung centre of world speed skiing power.” Except that we just didn’t know about the sport or about the skier they called “Straight-Ahead Fred.”
But Rowan, who skied for Grouse Mountain and wrestled and played football at Handsworth before graduating early from Carson Graham in 1975 at the end of the first semester (so he could ski the rest of the winter) knows what he’s talking about.
Rowan held the world record for speed skiing in 1978 – albeit unofficially and for just a few short minutes before his time was unceremoniously usurped in a subsequent run the same day by the giant of the sport, Steve McKinney, who became the first to go faster than 200 kilometres per hour which was speed skiing’s equivalent to breaking track and field’s four-minute mile. Rowan’s time was 198.700 km/h. McKinney’s was 200.222. Their clockings were achieved on Oct. 4, 1978 – exactly 35 years ago tomorrow – in Portillo, Chile.
Bob Miller, a 1971 Delbrook grad, Grouse Mountain skier and member of the noteworthy Miller wrestling family who now lives in Miami, was fourth at 197.477 km/h.
Kent Wills, a mid-1970s Hillside grad who raced for Whistler where he now resides, was seventh in 190.074. In 1985 he won speed skiing’s World Cup title.
Terry Watts, originally from Vernon who skied for Red Mountain in Rossland, had placed second and achieved the identical time as Miller in an earlier speed skiing race that year in Cervinia, Italy. In 1996, he was found murdered in Vancouver over the B.C. Day long weekend.
But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. What exactly is speed skiing? Who was “Straight-Ahead Fred”? And how did these local lads get involved in this niche sport?
Simply stated, speed skiing is a dramatic gravity-induced free fall – under control and in as straight a line as possible – down an icy slope. The beginning of the run, on a decline of some 50 degrees, sends the skier off. The speed is clocked during the middle portion of the run which concludes with a run-out area much like a truck runaway lane you see on a highway.
“Speed skiing,” quips Rowan, who became known as ‘Straight-Ahead Fred,’ “is kind of like standing on a rock in the middle of Hell’s Gate and trying to hold your position. That’s what it feels like. The force of the wind, that’s the big difference [between downhill and speed skiing].”
Rowan explains how it all began for him and his buddies.
“The story,” he recalls, “started in 1964. Dick Dorworth, an American ski racer, set the world speed record in 1963 [at 171.428 km/h]. My parents bought me the Guinness Book
of World Records for Christmas 1964 and I said, ‘I’m going to be the world speed skiing champion.’ Of course everyone laughed.
“Then in 1975 I won a scholarship to go to a ski camp in Bariloche, Argentina . The coach of the downhill program was Dick Dorworth. I asked him if he thought I could be a speed skier and he said, ‘The only guy I know that’s faster in a straight line than you is Steve McKinney.’ I said, ‘He’s the world champion’ and he said, ‘Yeah, you should do it.’ But I was only 18 years old at the time so I said I’ll go race downhill for a few more years.
“In early 1978, when I told Bob, Terry and Kent that I was going to Cervinia [for a world speed skiing race in July], they said, ‘Let’s all go.’ Bob got over on his own. Terry and I flew to London on a cheap fare. Kent probably went first class because his father was the senior pilot of Air Canada at the time. We took the ferry from Dover to Calais and a train to Italy. We all met in Cervinia. We didn’t have anything lined up, no skis, no helmets, no suits, nothing. But we were there more than a month before the competition driving around, going to ski factories, trying to hustle equipment. We got nothing.
“A couple of weeks before training started, there was a sporting goods guy named Renzo Rica. He sent this woman named Mami Chiavassa to our hotel room. She said, ‘Mr. Rica would like you gentlemen to come to lunch tomorrow.’ So we went to the fanciest restaurant in Cervinia for an amazing spread and he signed us all up. He got us helmets, poles, suits, everything but skis. And he said, ‘Don’t worry, you guys will get skis.’ Within a couple of days of the start of training, Atomic sponsored us [for skis]. We had been skiing with the Americans and I guess they were talking about us. I don’t know what they were saying, but it was enough to get us sponsored. So we had looked for sponsors, but ultimately the sponsors came to us.”
Watts finished second in the event, Miller placed sixth, Rowan seventh and Wills 12th. After Italy, they went on to Portillo and, as already noted, did astonishingly well there too.
Rowan, who now lives in West Van and is a partner with the law firm of Affleck Hira Burgoyne in downtown Vancouver, retired from the sport in 1980. Miller, Watts and Wills carried on for a few more years, each of them breaking the 200 km/h barrier at least once.
So what about the nickname “Straight-Ahead Fred”?
“My name is actually Frederick Mark Rowan,” he explains. “I was named after my grandfather. I was Mark until I was in Grade 8, but in my French class in Grade 8 at Handsworth there were five Marks and my best friend, Rick Spittle, said, ‘Well his name is really Fred.’ So that stuck. Most people who met me between 1969 and 1986 still call me Fred.”
So he eventually became “Straight-Ahead Fred,” a very cool nickname for one hot speed skier.
This is episode 488 from Len Corben’s treasure chest of stories – the great events and the quirky – that bring to life the North Shore’s rich sports history.