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A piece of Canada's sporting history crumbled when the gates of Gray Rocks resort closed at the end of March.

Gray Rocks was the starting point, 103 winters ago, for the development of the Laurentians as Eastern Canada's ski mecca. Just as important, it was the ski haven founded by Lucile Wheeler's family, the place where Canada's first alpine medalist of the Winter Olympics learned to be fast on snow from two years old. As an infant, she'd ski messages back and forth across a frozen Lake Ouimet from the homestead to the Gray Rocks Inn.

Wheeler - the unique spelling of her first name differentiated her from grandmother Lucille - broke the ice at the Olympics by helping to break the European stranglehold on ski podiums. Then she became Canada's first world ski champion in 1958, breaking ground for the intrepid Crazy Canucks. But the roots of Canada's ski success were planted at the Gray Rocks ski centre at Mont-Tremblant, Que.

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"I was there for the farewell," Wheeler recalled over the phone from her home in Knowlton, Que., where she lives with husband Kaye Vaughn, a Hall of Fame lineman with the Ottawa Rough Riders of the 1950s. They married in 1960.

"I spent quite a bit of time there over the years and Gray Rocks played a big part in Canadian ski development. I lived there. I trained there."

Wheeler grew up in the village of Saint-Jovite, Que., in the Laurentians near Mont-Tremblant.

Grandfather George Wheeler had been one of the first English speakers to move up into the Eastern Townships from Chazy, N.Y., in the late 1800s, eager to get rich in the lumber business.

"But he was wiped out by a forest fire. Still, people would come up to fish the lakes and the family ended up feeding them. That's how the inn started. In the winter, the snow covered the hills and its was just right for skiing.

"The ski hill was right outside my door. I worked in reservations, and before work, I'd go to train, running up and down the hill."

With abundant snow and the early encouragement of her first coach at the club, Herman Gadner, Wheeler took to the boards naturally. She could hold her own and even beat the bigger kids. Her cohort of talented confreres included Peter Kirby, who became a bobsleigh gold medalist in 1964 in the sled of Vic Emery and Tommy Corcoran, a future American Olympian. She admired and was inspired by twin sisters Rhoda and Rhona Wurtele, Montrealers who combined for an astounding 94 wins in national and international races in the pre-World Cup era, 1942 to 1959.

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At 10, Wheeler was seventh in an all-ages downhill ski event at Mont-Tremblant. By 12, she was Canadian junior ski champion and at 14 was selected to compete for Canada at the 1950 world championships in Aspen, Colo. However, her parents felt she was too young to miss school and forbade her from going.

In the 1950s, resources for Canadian skiers were extremely limited. Professional training was on the athletes' own coin. Wheeler's Saint-Jovite club and her father, Harry, familiar with the demands of high-performance sport as a medalist in the demonstration sport of dog sledding at the 1932 Olympics, came up with the funds for her to spend the winters from 1952 to 1957 training with a master coach in Kitzbuehel, Austria. Summers were spent back in Saint-Jovite, riding, swimming, rock climbing, and playing golf and tennis.

The efforts bore fruit at the 1956 Winter Games at Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, when Wheeler became the first Canadian Olympic medalist in alpine skiing, winning the bronze in the downhill. She followed up brilliantly at the 1958 world championships in Bad Gastein, Austria, where she won both the downhill and the giant slalom and took silver in the combined event.

"We did all events. During my time, people were starting to specialize but most of us did the three events, slalom, giant slalom and downhill. If you won the combination at the Hahnenkamm [which Wheeler did] it was the biggest thing you could win. The combination identified the best all-round skier. Now, not too much is made of it," she said.

Today's athletes, Wheeler said, have more opportunity to learn and the sport's economics allow for longer competitive careers and earnings that would, in her day, have disqualified an athlete as a pro. She could not accept a car offered in appreciation by her Saint-Jovite ski club.

"I see [General Motors]gives the ski team members a car if they win now or accomplish certain things in a season. ... I'm amazed when I hear of Olympic athletes able to buy houses and such. Now, I think it's good if they can make a career out of it.

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"I retired at 23 and Anne Heggtveit retired when she was 21. It seems very young now, but we'd achieved what goals we'd set. There was no professional level to aspire to and you couldn't keep pouring money into it.

"But there was lots I enjoyed about the time I competed. Teams travelled together by train and we got to talk and know each other."

The long careers of skiers is one of the things that's better today than in the 1950s, she said.

"I'd been a ski racer from the age of 10. I didn't know what to do. I was in a different world from most people, and I guess when it was over people thought Olympic athletes just went and lived in a little cottage somewhere behind a white picket fence."

A focus on high-performance athletics didn't prepare her for much, though she did establish some youth ski programs.

"Today they have counselling for athletes and they have more of a possibility of careers in the industry."

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For the record

Lucile Wheeler

Born - Jan. 14, 1935, St-Jovite, Que.

Resides - Knowlton, Que.

Olympic medal - Bronze 1956 Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, Downhill. Canada's first medal in alpine skiing.

World Championships - Gold 1958 Bad Gastein, Austria, Downhill; Gold 1958 Bad Gastein, Austria, Giant Slalom; Silver 1958 Bad Gastein, Austria, Combined.

Other distinctions - Wheeler is a member of the Order of Canada, the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame, Canada's Sports Hall of Fame and won the Lou Marsh Trophy in 1958 as Canada's most outstanding athlete.

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