Rhona Wurtele and her identical twin, Rhoda, began skiing at the age of 5 in the hilly Westmount community outside Montreal. A few years later, they were ski jumping, and in 1948 they were the only women named to Canada’s Alpine skiing team at the Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
The sisters, who called themselves the “Flying Twins,“ did not win an Olympic medal, but they often finished first or second in Canadian and U.S. ski championship events in the 1940s and early 50s. They also taught thousands of Canadians to ski in a half-century as instructors.
When Grace Rhona Wurtele Gillis died on Jan. 17 in suburban Montreal at 97, she and her sister, Isabella Rhoda Wurtele Eaves – who she leaves – were remembered as pioneers of women’s skiing in Canada.
As youngsters, the Wurtele twins took up many sports, including swimming and tennis, before concentrating on skiing. In 2015, they were jointly inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in Calgary.
“They were my first heroines,” Canadian Anne Heggtveit, who won a gold medal in slalom at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif., told The Montreal Gazette in 2002. “If you asked who was the greatest all-time athlete in Canada, it would have to be them. They took part in so many sports.”
The Wurtele twins were born Jan. 21, 1922, in Saint-Lambert, Que., a suburb of Montreal, the youngest of five children of John Stone Hunter Wurtele and Edith Douglas (Fairweather) Wurtele. Their father was a hydroelectric engineer and a senior executive of the Southern Canada Power Co., and their mother was a homemaker.
The family soon moved to nearby Westmount, and the twins set out on an adventurous path. “At 5, their father strapped a pair of skis on each and pushed them out the front door,” Byron Rempel wrote in No Limits, a 2007 biography of the twins. By their 20s, they were elite skiers.
Rhona and Rhoda reached the pinnacle of winter sports at the St. Moritz Games, but it became the scene of misadventures for both.
Some two weeks before the event, a male teammate took a sudden turn in front of Rhoda during a practice run and hit her skis. She fell and broke an ankle, ending her chance of competing.
A couple of days later, Rhona hit a rock during practice, causing a ski to fly up and tear a gash in the back of her head. She came down with a fever, spent about a week in the hospital, then set out to compete in the downhill.
She was waiting to begin her run when a man carrying skis on his shoulder accidentally clobbered her on the already injured back of the head.
Despite her multiple head injuries, Rhona raced. But, as she once told CTV Montreal, she made a sharp turn and “I flew up in the air, and my right ski hit the left ankle. I heard this loud crack – and it broke.”
She got up and finished the race, albeit in last place.
Rhoda competed in three events at the 1952 Winter Games in Oslo; her best finish was ninth place in the giant slalom.
The twins received a trophy collectively naming them Canada’s Most Outstanding Woman Athlete in 1945. They were inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 1969, and the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame in 1982.
They were also given the Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance award in 1998 for their 50 years teaching their sport.
In 2019, they were invested as members of the Order of Canada, which is bestowed for service to the country. The citation cited their “role as trailblazers in winter sports.”
Rhona Gillis’s death was confirmed by her daughter Margie Gillis, a prominent modern-dance performer and choreographer and an officer of the Order of Canada.
Both Wurtele sisters passed on their love of physical fitness and the outdoors to their children.
In addition to her sister and daughter Margie, Ms. Gillis leaves her son Jere Gillis, who played in the National Hockey League in the 1970s and 80s, including stints with the Vancouver Canucks and the New York Rangers; her daughter Nancy Gillis, an acrobatic skier; four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Her son Christopher Gillis, who was also a well-known dancer and choreographer and at times performed with his sister Margie, died in 1993.
Rhona’s marriage to Gene Gillis, whom she met when he was a member of the U.S. men’s Alpine skiing team at St. Moritz, ended in divorce. He died in 2005.
Rhona and Rhoda continued to ski on occasion into their 90s. Rhoda took up sky diving in 2017 on a trip to Fiji with her son John Eaves, a world freestyle skiing champion and stunt double and actor in films.
“We just laughed our way through life, and were really evenly matched at everything we did,” Rhona told The Telegraph, a British newspaper, in 2017. “I hope we led the way for others to follow.”
The twins “started everything,” Kerrin Lee-Gartner, a Canadian Olympic downhill champion, told The Canadian Press news agency in 2015 when the sisters were inducted into the sports hall at Calgary in the Legends category. “We started believing in our dreams because of those who did it before us.”