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Where are they now: Anne Heggtveit

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The Globe and Mail
6/14/2009 8:59:29 PM
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Anne Heggtveit was only 9 when she stood bundled up on a curb to watch the parade honouring Barbara Anne Scott.

The lustrous, elegant figure skater was being welcomed back to frosty Ottawa after winning the gold on chippy outdoor ice at the 1948 Olympics. Blonde and radiant, Barbara made an impression on the girl that dreams could be touched. She was Ottawa's first Olympic champion. She could not be its last, Heggtveit thought.

She was right.

The Vancouver Olympics mark the 50th anniversary of Heggtveit's breakthrough to win the Olympic slalom in 1960 at Squaw Valley, Calif. It was a historic win as Canada's first gold in an alpine ski race.

"When I came back in 1960, I was treated to a welcome home that was incredible," Anne Heggtveit Hamilton recalled in a conversation from the Vermont home she has with husband Ross Hamilton.

"It was very much like Barbara Ann Scott ... She was always an inspiration, and being from my town and being the first, well, it didn't really matter that it was a different sport."

If Scott's Olympic win was a motivator, parental nurturing was the enabler. By her pedigree, Heggtveit looked destined to take Canada's first alpine gold. Her father, Halvor Heggtveit, was of Norwegian descent and skiing was as natural a way of movement in the family as walking. Halvor was a Canadian cross-country champion, and two uncles had represented Canada in the 1932 and 1936 Olympics. Her father strapped boards on her feet at age 2, and Anne became a star on skis from childhood, winning races as a junior against senior competitors in the Gatineau Hills - first at the local level near Ottawa, then nationally.

She'd marked out her target early, that if she were to get to an Olympics, she'd be at her prime in 1960.

 

"It was through my parents - especially my father - who instilled the desire from age 7 or 8. He saw I had the desire and competitive drive to do it.

"Not every kid who gets into racing is going to be that determined. Now look at the Canadian team. The men's and women's teams have a lot of good skiers who are skiing as well as those who are winning, but at some point, the psychological element enters into it. Having a national program allows Canada to develop team with more depth and more possibility, but it's tough out there today with what those kids have to do."

In 1954, at the age of 15, she first gained international attention when she became the youngest winner ever of the Holmenkollen Giant Slalom event in Norway. She also took first place in slalom and giant slalom in the U.S. national junior championships. Although she suffered from several injuries between 1955 and 1957, she still earned a spot on Canada's team at 17 at the 1956 Winter Olympic Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy.

The baby of a team that was trying to shake the European grip on ski podiums, she got a firsthand view of how it could be done when Lucile Wheeler flew downhill to an Olympic bronze. Wheeler also went on to win both the downhill and giant slalom events at the 1958 World Championships.

"I was one of the beneficiaries of her success," Heggtveit said.

In 1960, it was her turn. Her victory at Squaw Valley made her the first non-European to win the International Ski Federation slalom and overall world championship. She destroyed the field to win by a record 3.3 seconds over two runs.

She was also the first North American to win the Arlberg-Kandahar Trophy, the most prestigious and classic event in alpine skiing.

At the Olympics, though, she played the underdog role.

"That day, I remember ... I hadn't won my first two events - I was 12th I think - but my focus was on slalom. I was trying to stay focused and positive and out of the limelight. Some of the Canadian journalists had written me off."

It was early days for Canadian women in sport. There was no national team to speak of, no programs, trainers other that those paid for by an athlete's club or parents. In 1960, Heggtveit had gone to Europe with fellow skier Nancy Holland and they'd overtrained. Heggtveit's turns weren't happening until long after she'd told the muscles to move - not a good condition for a slalom skier. Eventually, Heggtveit and Holland were advised to move in with a masseur who could set things right in time for the Games.

"In those days, you even climbed the slalom courses on your own. I was confident as I climbed up [at Squaw Valley].

"Starter No..1 was a French girl who fell about the sixth gate down. I thought, 'Omigosh,' and I knew I'd have to watch it there. But there wasn't much time to think about it - I was No..2.

"I was something like seven seconds ahead on the first run. The second run was a different style course, Betsy Snite (USA) got me by a fraction but I won. In fact, I won three golds, because in those days, the Olympics doubled as the world championships. So, I won the Olympic slalom and the two world championships, for slalom and combined. That's never really been acknowledged in Canada, that I won multiple golds at the Olympic Games."

Heggtveit was a key part of a continuum, having been inspired by Scott, then being the rookie on Wheeler's team, then, in 1960, having a freckled teen as her roommate, a girl named Nancy Greene. No doubt Greene drew on the 1960 Olympic experience at Grenoble, France, in 1968, when she became only the second Canadian skier to win gold and took two of the three Canadian medals in the Games.

Heggtveit was gone from the ski scene by then. "There was no pro level to aspire to and I'd achieved my Olympic goal that I'd had since I was eight.

"There were no earnings from the sport, and I had to make a decision to do other things. I was probably the first Canadian to end up with [advertising] contracts," she said.

Dupont of Canada used her image, "and that's where I met my husband, Ross. I was doing an appearance. They wanted a rep who wasn't married to escort me in a photograph. He was chosen for the job ... and that was that."

They married in 1961, moved for a time to North Hatley in Quebec's Eastern Townships and had two children - in 1963 a son and in 1965 a daughter. From 1970, for about six years, Heggtveit Hamilton ran the learn-to-ski ski program at Jay Peak in Vermont. The family moved to Vermont permanently in 1979, where Ross was head of Pedigree ski wear.

Canada's first skiing gold medalist didn't sit idle, however.

"Back in 1970s, before we moved, I had taken some accounting courses at Concordia, and once the kids were out of college, I decided to put together the credits I had and seriously tackle university. I went to Trinity College in Burlington, Vt., full time at 50 years old and got my Bachelor of Science," she said.

The competitive spirit still burned. "Typically, I wanted to be at the top of my class ... I did graduate summa cum laude."

Since 2000, Heggtveit Hamilton has worked in her own business, doing some floral design work and photography. Being her own boss gives her time to stay on snow when the urge hits.

"We just got back from couple of weeks in Verbier, Switzerland. I still do some skiing. I'm trying to keep going, and ward off knee replacement [surgery], but I know that's coming."

 

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