SPORTS

Canada's Sports Hall of Fame to induct 93-year-old ski twins in Legends Class

06/16/2015 06:26 EDT | Updated 06/16/2016 05:59 EDT
CALGARY - Before Lucile Wheeler, Anne Heggtveit, Nancy Greene-Raine, Kathy Kreiner-Phillips and Kerrin Lee-Gartner, there were the Wurtele twins.

Rhona and Rhoda Wurtele were Canada's queens of the ski slopes in the 1940s. They made up the entire Canadian women's ski team at the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

The identical twins from Montreal "started everything," said Lee-Gartner, the 1992 Olympic women's downhill champion. "We started believing in our dreams because of those who did it before us."

Now 93 and still downhill skiing, Rhona Wurtele-Gillis and Rhoda Wurtele-Eaves are part of a unique class of athletes to be inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame in Calgary on Wednesday.

In addition to its annual induction of athletes later this year, the Sports Hall of Fame is marking its 60th anniversary with an intake of pre-1955 athletes whose achievements span almost 150 years.

The twins, whose last name is pronounced WHIR-tell, are part of the Canadian Sport Legends Class.

"We're delighted," Rhona said. "We come from way back in the dark ages of amateurism. We'll probably be the only ones alive going to this."

While it's true most of the Legends inductees will be represented by their descendants, 95-year-old Vancouver sprinter Barbara Howard will join the Wurteles for Wednesday's ceremony.

Howard is widely thought to be the first black woman to represent Canada in international competition when she won relay silver and bronze at the 1938 British Empire Games in Australia.

What the three women have in common is the Second World War interfered with their Olympic ambitions as no Games were held in 1940 and 1944.

Howard's sprinting career was over before the Games resumed, but the Wurteles raced in 1948 and Rhoda again in 1952.

Both were unlucky in Switzerland. Rhoda withdrew after injuring her ankle in training. Rhona bloodied her head during the downhill race when her ski came off in a crash.

"Canada came last," Rhona wailed. "I waited for two girls to go by. I finally got up and went down. There was no other way down anyway."

But both sisters went on to finish first and second in dozens of international races together. Rhoda's best result in 1952 was ninth in giant slalom. Both married, became ski instructors and taught people to ski for another 50 years.

They started a Canadian ski tradition of putting women on the international ski podium. Wheeler, the first North American to win a world downhill title in 1958, met the Wurteles at a race on her 10th birthday.

Greene-Raine, an Olympic gold medallist in 1968 and a now a member of the Canadian Senate, reminded Lee-Gartner of the legacy that began with the Wurteles.

"It was Nancy who brought that to my attention after I won the Olympics," Lee-Gartner said. "She said 'the tradition lives. The torch has been passed from woman to woman.'"

Each other's teammate and competitor, the Wurtele sisters grew up playing every sport they could in hilly Westmount. They were flying off ski jumps decades before women were allowed to do so in competition.

"We were crazy about sports and we did very many sports," Rhoda said. "There were two of us. There was always something to do with someone who was just as good. If you wanted to do anything, you had an equal partner."

They did run up against the sexism of that era as they were designated "Class B" racers in the United States, while the men were "Class A." When they became instructors, they weren't encouraged to achieve the highest level of certification because of their gender.

"We just went ahead and did our thing," Rhoda said. "We believed women should to it."

Rhona and Rhoda got in a few downhill runs this past January at Mont-Habitant. They also go cross-country skiing out the back door of their seniors' residence in Pointe-Claire.

"It's good for your health to keep moving and this is what is promoted so much now," Rhoda said. "We're very much behind that."

The Sports Hall of Fame's Class of 2015 will be inducted Oct. 21 in a ceremony in Toronto.

Former NHL star Paul Coffey, soccer player Craig Forrest, freestyle skier Jennifer Heil, hockey player Danielle Goyette, speedskater Susan Auch, judoka Nicolas Gill, para-swimmer Michael Edgson, cross-country ski sisters Sharon and Shirley Firth and track cyclist Lori-Ann Muenzer are the athletes entering this year.

Jocelyne Bourassa (golf) and Marina van der Merwe (field hockey) will be inducted as builders.

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