CALGARY – The offspring of Canadian ski legends Ken Read and Kerrin Lee-Gartner have arrived in the sport.
Erik Read, 22, won the Canadian men’s slalom title this year and is a member of the World Cup team. Stephanie Gartner, 17, was named to the Canadian women’s development team this season.
Kerrin Lee-Gartner won the women’s downhill at the 1992 Olympic Games in Albertville, France. As a member of the “Crazy Canucks”, Ken Read was the first Canadian man to win a World Cup downhill race and was also the first non-European to win on the notorious Hahnenkamm and Lauberhorn courses in Austria and Switzerland respectively.
Erik and Stephanie say the advantages of having a parent who has been where they want to go in their sport outweighs the burden of expectations.
“Any situation, he’ll give a little advice and it comes from experience so I know it’s valuable,” Erik says. “It’s worth paying attention to.”
The fact that Kerrin Lee-Gartner and Ken Read were both downhillers, while Erik and Stephanie race slalom and giant slalom, helps buffer comparisons somewhat. Erik, however, keeps a toe in downhill.
The super combined — determined by the combined times of a slalom and a downhill — is a medal event at both the Winter Olympics and world championships.
Erik wants that as an option in his future, but he’s concentrating on slalom and giant slalom for now. He will not race with Canada’s downhill at the season-opening World Cup in Lake Louise, Alta., this week.
Not only did Stephanie and Erik grow up with their parents’ legacies, but skiing is a way of life for both families. Lee-Gartner’s husband Max is a former Canadian team coach and was head of Alpine Canada until he stepped down earlier this year.
Ken’s wife Lynda is also former national team skier. Erik is the oldest of three sons who all race. Ken is also a former head of Alpine Canada.
It was in elementary school when both Erik and Stephanie realized their parents were famous and why. It was because of the attention their families drew on ski hills.
“I remember all these kids wearing her medal and their parents were so thrilled taking pictures,” Stephanie recalls. “I was like, ‘whoa.’ That was when my mom showed me the medal.”
Kerrin and Ken try to strike a balance of their children benefiting from their knowledge and experience without overwhelming them.
Ken gives Erik tips on World Cup courses he’s raced. On summer trips to Europe, they’ve hiked courses together because Ken found those scouting trips useful during his career. Ken can also help his son navigate relationships with ski equipment companies.
But when it comes to race-day strategy, the father wants to stay out of it.
The internal competition and teamwork between Read and fellow Crazy Canucks Steve Podborski, Dave Irwin, Dave Murray and Jim Hunter produced historic results for Canada in the 1970s and 1980s. Because of that, Ken feels emotionally invested in how Erik’s teammates perform too.
“Obviously you want to see him do as well as possible, but you want to see the whole group do as well as possible because they push each other, lift each other and support each other,” Ken says. “The stronger that group is, the better that outcome is likely to be.”
It’s not surprising Erik and Stephanie took up the sport, but to compete at the level they are requires more than just encouragement from their parents.
“She was not forced into this. She found it on her own,” Kerrin says. “If she wants to be a racer, we’ll support her. This is not our dream. We’ve done this. I’ve done it. Max has worked in it. It really needs to be owned by Stephanie.”
Kerrin, now a television commentator, says it can be difficult for her to watch Stephanie race knowing all that she knows about the sport.
“There’s definitely the hard parts,” she says. “I know Stephanie probably doesn’t want to admit the pressure she gets being our child.
“To me, the hard part is I know the danger of the sport. I know the danger of the heartbreak when it doesn’t work out and the negative aspect of putting it all on the line and being disappointed in the end. That really hurts.”
Erik says his mom is thrilled he’s gravitated to technical events because of the potential for catastrophic injuries in downhill. Ken admits he’s held his breath as Erik carves past a gate at breakneck speed.
“He’s still a good downhiller,” Ken says. “That’s something that will maybe be in the cards some day. When I watch him in downhill, I probably get much more nervous than the other disciplines.
Neither Erik nor Stephanie can think of moments where they’ve felt their parents were overbearing, but they’ve also taken more ownership of their careers as they ascended to the national teams.
“A couple of times I’ve been on the hill and had a game plan and she just wants to make sure I have that game plan because there’s been a couple of times where I haven’t and situations have gone wrong,” Stephanie says.
“She’s just protecting me making sure that I’m not going to make those mistakes twice, but there’s a couple of times where I’ve been ‘mom, I got this.’”
For both Ken and Kerrin, their influence over and input into their children’s racing careers has waned now that national team coaches and staff oversee Erik and Stephanie.
“The advantage for Stephanie making the development team this year is it’s so much easier for Max and I to step back,” Kerrin says.
“She has trainers asking her if she did the program. They’re meeting her at the gym, they’re pushing her, they’re making sure she’s doing what she needs to be doing. Our job is ‘have you signed up for English online? You’ve got to get through Grade 12 this year.’ It’s way easier for us to come back to parenting.”
Parents often say to their children before a game “to relax and have fun,” but Erik doesn’t treat it as cliche when it comes from his dad.
“When he says ‘relax’ I can take that seriously from him,” Erik says. “You need to relax. That’s how you ski fast.
“It does matter coming from him because he’s been through it all and he has relaxed and had fun. I’m trying to do the same.”
While Stephanie is a 2018 Olympic prospect, Erik has a chance to make the 2014 Olympic team and compete in Sochi, Russia, in February. The competition for spots is stiff though with several Canadian contenders competing for four spots.
In the meantime, Erik is carrying on the Read name in Europe where it is so well-known.
“It’s fun getting letters from Europe that are coming to me saying ‘will you please get Erik’s autograph?’” Ken says. “They’re not asking any more for mine.”