Nancy Greene Raine already has her final day in the Senate planned out. First, there’s a fisheries meeting to attend. Then she’ll take part in a social affairs committee to talk about cannabis legalization.
No pomp. No party to mark the occasion. On May 11, when Greene Raine turns 75 and must therefore retire as a senator, a Canadian icon will quietly exit the public spotlight and return to where she feels most at home — the ski hill.
Fifty years ago, a then 24-year-old Rossland native stunned the world by winning an Olympic gold medal in giant slalom by an unfathomable margin of 2.68 seconds. The achievement capped a nine-year stint on the national ski team that included two World Cup titles, 17 national championships and three U.S. ski championships.
The accolades continued. She was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1967, received the Order of Canada in 1968, was named Canadian Female Athlete of the Century in 1999, and so on.
But for as long as she skied for Canada, she has also spent the same amount of time serving as a senator. She jokes that might not be a coincidence.
“Maybe I go in nine-year stretches, eh?”
Greene Raine was appointed as a Conservative senator by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in January 2009. A self-described fiscal conservative, the only elected post Greene Raine had ever run for prior to her move to Ottawa was for a school board position in Whistler, which she won by acclamation.
“I was a bit gun shy,” she said. “I never felt it was right to run for political office when you have a big name that came about in some totally unrelated field. I have nothing but respect for politicians who run for public office because they do put themselves out there and they can be and sometimes are rejected, which is very tough. So I have nothing but respect for them.”
Healthy living has been a focus for Greene Raine during her time on Parliament Hill. In 2014 she worked with former Conservative MP John Weston on the National Health and Fitness Day Act, which passed unanimously first in the Senate before again cruising through the House of Commons into law.
For the last two years, Greene Raine has been working on proposed changes to the Food and Drug Act. Bill S-228, the Child Health Protection Act, would prohibit advertising unhealthy food and beverages to children under 13.
The bill has the support of the Liberals and the NDP, and passed second reading in the House on April 18. If it becomes law, it will do so after Greene Raine is out of office. But she’s confident it will happen, even without the full support of her own party.
“I look at the unhealthy promotion of food and beverages to kids as one of the causes, not the only cause by any means, but it certainly has an impact on the rising rates of obesity,” she said. “Once a child starts to get overweight and obese, that’s kind of a life sentence. It’s really hard to roll back.”
It’s ironic that Greene Raine is taking on the Willy Wonkas of the world in the twilight of her career, because without candy many Canadians might not know who she is.
After retiring from skiing, Greene Raine started promoting Mars chocolate bars. She’d made little money as an amateur athlete, but that changed once she started appearing in commercials.
“You know, nobody recognized me in the street until after I did the Mars bar commercials. Because they are seeing you with your toque and your goggles and your helmet, it’s not the same. Once they’ve watched the commercial over and over, they recognize you.”
The celebrity that came with doing commercials opened doors for Greene Raine. But in retrospect she feels differently about the sponsorship deal now. It’s not lost on her that Bill S-228, the marquee work of her tenure in the Senate, might have prevented the commercials from ever happening had it been law at the time.
“I wouldn’t say I regret it. I would say in hindsight, in analysis, it’s not something I would do today. I think it’s very good in a way, it’s going to be easier for the athletes if they are not allowed to do it because they start getting invitations from all sorts of bad products who are offering them good money.
“I can think of some of our best known World Cup athletes in skiing who have Red Bull as their head gear sponsor. That’s a product that’s really not very good for kids and teenagers. I wouldn’t say that’s being targeted to little kids, but candy certainly is.”
Of course her lasting legacy will be what she did on skis, not who she repped on her helmet, and she’s had decades to consider the reasons for her success.
Greene Raine was born in Ottawa but grew up in the little ski town of Rossland. She learned to ski from her mother, who had a paralyzed arm and needed perfect balance while relying on her feet to turn.
When she was 17, Greene Raine suffered a broken leg. To rebuild her strength she turned to weight lifting, which was rare for skiers of the day.
“The guy who was training us, he didn’t ski, but he would just ask us, ‘What kind of muscles do you use? Where do you get tired when you ski? What are the movements that you make?’ … So I was probably always stronger pound for pound than the other athletes. Even though I wasn’t the biggest by any means, I was stronger.”
Greene Raine was already a star in international skiing before her 1968 Olympic performance. But when she went to the line for her giant slalom run in Grenoble, France, she knew she would win.
“I knew the course perfectly. I knew it really suited my way of skiing, where I was really, really smooth and very powerful. It’s a combination of being in perfect balance, having the feel of the snow and the feel for the edge and understanding exactly how much power to put on the ski and make it turn.”
Alpine ski events are often decided by milliseconds. At this year’s Pyeongchang Games, American Mikaela Shiffrin won the women’s giant slalom gold by just 0.39 seconds. Greene Raine won her gold by 2.68 seconds.
No one watching the Olympics’ broadcast saw her celebrate at the bottom of the run. Unlike the men, the women’s event was only televised for part of the course.
John Platt was head coach of the national ski team in 1968. He remembers climbing the TV tower ahead of the giant slalom, where one of the French team’s coaches helped him take Greene Raine’s time.
“She came into view and she was I think about 1.7 seconds ahead, this wasn’t at the bottom of the hill, this was maybe three quarters of the way down,” said Platt. “So he just scrubbed his watch and came over and shook my hand, because he knew there was no way Nancy was not going to win it.”
Greene Raine, who was skiing on an injured ankle, also won silver in slalom. Platt said she would have been on the downhill podium as well if the coaching staff hadn’t made a mistake waxing her skis.
In the ensuing half-century there have been just two other Canadian alpine skiers to have won Olympic gold. Greene Raine is also still 32nd overall in World Cup women’s victories with 14, which is eight more than the nearest Canadian skier.
Shortly after retiring, Greene Raine married her husband Al Raine and gave birth to twins. The family moved from Montreal to Burnaby in 1971 and built a chalet at Whistler. Al, a former national ski team coach, later went to work for the provincial government as the burgeoning mountain’s planner.
After a two-year sabbatical in the early 1980s, the family returned to Whistler, opened and sold another hotel, then relocated to Sun Peaks Resort near Kamloops. Greene Raine is the resort’s director of skiing, and plans to retire there.
That, she hopes, will mean plenty more time on the slopes. Last year Greene Raine had her thyroid removed after a cancer diagnosis, and later underwent successful treatment for a form of lymphoma. She’ll have another screening in November, but for now it appears she’s cancer free and cleared to ski once more.
“Before I was a senator I skied 130 days (during the season),” she said. “I’ll be skiing 130 days next year.”