No Limits tells the previously undisclosed tale of Canada’s most decorated alpine skiers of all time. Decades before extreme sports, identical twins Rhona and Rhoda Wurtele were unstoppable, inseparable trailblazers not only for skiers, but also for women and Canadian sports. Today, they’re carving new trails for seniors in sports.
This engrossing book not only details the twins’ races down the slopes, but also the uphill battles they faced from the 1930s through to the 1970s. They already ski jumped by age 11 on Mount Royal. During a minus 36 degree snowstorm Rhoda came out first in the famed Taschereau race, beating all other women—and men—by a full 24 seconds. In 1948 the twins made up the entire Canadian Olympic women’s downhill ski team. Byron Rempel also uncovers the Wurtele’s disregard for barriers and limits, including their fight against the refusal to give them the top level ski instructor badges they earned, and in the 1960s, their push to get Westmount housewives out of the kitchen and onto the slopes.
Their fame brought them into contact with celebrities from Salvador Dali to Jackie Robinson, and got them an offer to play softball with the Chicago Peaches of A League of Their Own fame. But most important to them were their equally talented and dogged children, who blazed their own paths as modern dancers, ski acrobats, NHL stars and Hollywood stuntmen. Today in their 90s the twins continue to push boundaries, amazing and electrifying everyone active enough to keep up with them.
- No Limits won the prestigious International Skiing History Association’s Ullr Award for literature in 2008. The ISHA is based in Colorado and Vermont and has members in 72 countries.
EXCERPT FROM NO LIMITS:
On a clear winter day in the heart of Montreal, two identical girls stood at the top of a hill on ponderous seven-foot hickory skis and dreamed of flight. It wasn’t the first time. In 1933, the eleven-year-old twins were already veteran skiers. Rhoda and Rhona Wurtele had been strapping their brothers’ skis to their leather lace-up boots and skiing the Gully, a half-mile slope down Westmount hill, since they were five years old. The hill was a short walk from the front door of their family’s Elizabethan home, and they had hiked the distance many times. The Gully was a bumpy, two-tracked piste that seemed tailor-made to train skiers for any eventuality. Today the track has become Summit Circle, a toney street winding past magnolias and fortresses of the wealthy, a place where people like to think they can keep the unpredictable at bay. But the twins’ weren’t thinking of any of that, and especially not of the future. The Gully was only the means to an end. And the end was a massive wooden structure that rose from the mountainside: beside the junior ski jump, where skiers took off from a jump built into the hill, towered the 125-foot-high senior ski jump.
The jumps had the allure of forbidden fruit. The twins’ older brothers, future air force aces Edgar and George, both regularly flew off the end of the things in the same long, four-inch-wide glorified barrel staves with four grooves on the bottom. It was a wonder they got any air at all. But professional male jumpers could wing it for 148 feet before gravity remembered them. Upon landing, skiers had to turn fast so they wouldn’t jump again over the big snowdrift at the end of the run—and come down through the roof of a tennis clubhouse.
That afternoon, watching Edgar soar off the rickety jump, Rhoda and Rhona asked each other if today was the day to make the leap, take that jump. That was the danger and delight of being twins: you always had an alter ego to push you further or pull you back. They soon found themselves at the top of the junior jump and, before they knew it, off its ramp.
It is neither esoteric nor complicated, the feeling that comes from ski jumping: it feels as if you can fly. Granted, it lasts only two or three seconds before the Earth comes rushing up to take you back in her arms. Except that those two or three seconds are forever.
One after the other, Rhoda and Rhona landed on their feet. Then they immediately cornered Edgar and told him about their first taste of flight.
“That was nothing,” he replied, conscious of his brotherly duty to tempt and challenge. “You don’t get to brag until you’ve gone over the senior jump—and are still able to speak after you hit the ground.” When were the twins going to try that? Obviously, though older and wiser, Edgar still didn’t understand his little sisters. They could resist everything except temptation—the temptation of a challenge. So they answered, simply: “Today.” And as he saw his sisters climbing up to the launch area, he considered that he might be the first one called in for questioning if one of them broke a leg. Or a neck.
Now he had to stop them. “It’s icy today. Not the best day to do it,” he tried.
But it was much too late. “If not now, when?” the twins called back. “You afraid?”
The Côte des Neiges senior ski jump was nailed atop a rickety wooden scaffolding that creaked and shifted in the frigid wind. It was built by Aleksander Olsen, a Norwegian immigrant carpenter who was six times Canadian champion in ski jumping (his son Kaare also jumped and skied; today he is a member of the Rhona and Rhoda’s Twinski Club). Jumpers reached the top by climbing stairs from the base. The twins clutched the railings, lugging their brothers’ skis. Up top, where February blew hard, you could see the entire city spread out below. One million people at your feet, the three hills that rise in mid city dusted with powder around you. According to Quebec’s greatest ski pioneer Herman “Jackrabbit” Johannsen in 1928, Montreal was “unique in being the only place on the continent where good skiing can actually be enjoyed in the heart of a great city.” Despite the crushing Depression, there was a lot more to be enjoyed in the city too—if you looked closely, you could also spot more than two hundred gambling joints and a bevy of brothels on de Bullion Street. On the roads into town, streams of cars and trains brought Americans fleeing Prohibition. Going the other way across the border were bootleggers like the Bronfman family, feeding the same need. Mayor Camillien Houde, the flamboyant eccentric who was in and out of office for twenty-eight years, was trying his best to keep the city on its feet.
From the top of the ski jump too, you looked directly down on what less adventurous souls might have considered a warning: Mount Royal Cemetery, already jam-packed, but always with room for one—or two—more foolhardy souls.
The twins don’t remember today who went first, but it hardly mattered. Both girls landed on their feet, their heads still in the clouds. They landed in a crouching position, making sixty feet on the first try and eighty feet on the second. “It’s actually easier than the junior,” Rhoda told her brother. “You’ve got more time to prepare.” Both had survived the crushing shock of landing, although Rhona says she might have busted a few ribs. Or it might have happened in the next thirty or so times they tried it in the next two weeks. Said a local paper at the time, “For a bruising, glorious fortnight the twins bumped their derrieres and scraped their knees on that ski jump, while awe-struck boy companions gazed incredulously at this feminine double-scoop.”
No woman under the age of eighteen had ever flown off that jump before; few women of any age had. The Montreal Star later said they were “the only girls to do it in 15 years.” And yet their glorious career in ski jumping came to a crashing halt one day. Someone had suggested they go off the jump together, holding hands, during the George Washington tournament. The twins had thought it a smashing idea. But someone, perhaps the Montreal Ski Club, or the newspapers, or a worried neighbour, had called their parents and let the secret out. Their father, John Stone Hunter Wurtele, was suitably impressed (he even sent a friend to record the event with a 16 mm movie camera), but Mother thought it wouldn’t be a good idea for her little birds to jump out of the nest in such a spectacular fashion. “It isn’t a ladylike sport,” she said.
After those heady flights, the impact of that forced landing was harder than any other.
“It isn’t a ladylike sport.” That kind of statement seems crazy in our modern world, more than eighty years later. Think of the spectacular feats of today’s female athletes, and imagine someone claiming that ladies are physically and psychologically fragile beings who need to be coddled and protected from the damaging influences of the world. Imagine someone saying something like this: “Ski-jumping is like jumping down from, let’s say, about two meters off the ground about a thousand times a year, which seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.”
Incredible? In fact, that quote is from Gian Carlo Kasper, Fédération International de Ski (FIS) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) official—in February of 2006. As of this writing in 2007, ski jumping is the only sport women are still banned from in the Winter Olympics. Alissa Johnson, a young American ski jumper who had to sit on the sidelines while her brother went to jump at the Olympics in 2006, had trouble believing it too. “So far, we’ve been told every excuse in the book. That it’s too ‘dangerous’ for girls. That there aren’t enough of us. That we’re not good enough. That it would damage our ovaries and uterus and we won’t be able to have children, even though that’s not true. It’s so outdated, it’s kind of funny in a way. And then it’s not.”
That these kinds of limitations are still placed on women may not be surprising to anyone born before 1960. Not too long ago, girls were given the same excuses when they wanted to play Little League baseball; the women’s marathon wasn’t added to the Summer Olympics until 1984 because officials still believed women wouldn’t be able to handle it.
Even before Rhona and Rhoda got to an age where they would encounter these limitations, they had already seen their older sister Jean held back from her passion. A natural dancer who in the 1930s performed at His Majesty’s Theatre in Montreal and who at the age of eighty could still kick her leg above her head, as a girl Jean was stopped from pursuing a career in the art. “Ladies didn’t do that kind of thing,” says Rhona.
Jean certainly seemed psychologically fragile. When she was only fifteen years old she suffered a nervous breakdown. “She just came downstairs one day and wouldn’t talk,” says Rhona. “It was a very difficult situation because nobody really knew about these things. The neighbour told Mom that she thought Jean was doing too much, because she used to get these nosebleeds and things, and cry over her homework.” Yet Jean’s misfortune led to a winter-long holiday for the twins; their mother packed up all three girls and went to the family’s second home at Acton Vale for the season, taking the twins out of school. (A short while later Jean would become one of the first people in North America to receive electric shock therapy when the European neurologists who developed it toured to promote the method. “It worked—to a degree,” says Rhona.) Blissfully unaware of the serious problems around them, the young girls revelled in their freedom, building forts, skiing cross-country and generally getting into as much mischief as they could find.
Looking back, the twins acknowledge they were lucky; they were privileged. Not every young girl had the chance to be a carefree child in the Depression. Back in Montreal, a third of the work force was unemployed. The majority of women, kept out of paying jobs in the best of times by their supposed frailty (even though they did hard physical work at home), now had even less chance; many made sure to take off their wedding rings lest their employers fire them so their jobs could go to men. But the twins’ family was well off, and Hunter Wurtele, a breadwinner whose job was not at risk, could afford to send his wife and children away for the winter. Years later, when they were young women and their work schedule didn’t jibe with their skiing schedule, it was an easy decision: quit work. Influenced by that early, invigorating taste of absolute freedom, the expectation that they could do what they wanted, when they wanted, would stay with Rhona and Rhoda forever. For they not only had freedom in their childhood to be tomboys, and freedom from financial worry, they also had the security of each other. Rhoda and Rhona, despite their penchant for wild flights, were good girls. That day when they were stopped from soaring off the ski jumps, they listened to their parents. “We haven’t tried it since,” Rhona says today. However, their parents had said nothing about racing downhill. And so began a double career that would help revolutionize women’s sport in North America. In a few years, the twins would go further and faster on skis than anyone else had before, beating the best male skiers of their day. Rhona became the first Canadian skier to hold both American and Canadian national championships at the same time; the twins were the first and only women with Canada’s first true Olympic ski team; Rhoda was the first North American woman to place in the top three in a European Kandahar event; they jointly won the Athlete of the Year award. “Canada’s Terrific Twins” would go on to be featured in Life magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, Time, Chatelaine, Maclean’s and the New York Times—they would even be drawn up in a True Picture comic book during wartime, which otherwise told stories of heroic soldiers battling Nazis. The girls would have loved to see stories about themselves as heroic fighter pilots too, but that proved to be a barrier even the twins couldn’t surmount.
The two skiing pioneers had carved an easily identifiable trail for others to follow. Canadian women’s skiing is directly indebted and linked to them, from Lucille Wheeler, Anne Heggtveit, and Nancy Greene, to today’s World Cup championship–winning women’s ski team. Even when the twins were no longer racing, their influence was felt: in 1959 Rhoda managed and assistant-coached the very first National Ski Team that Canada sent to Europe for the World Championships. It is no coincidence that Canada’s wins in the Olympics and world championships have largely been in the women’s division.
Today, seventy years later, Rhoda and Rhona are still propelling themselves through the air. Within the last few years they have gone heli-skiing, bobsledding, paraponting, even bungee jumping. Always ladies, however, for the most part they stay off the ski jumps.
Also available en français!
SANS LIMITES:La vie exceptionnelle des jumelles Rhona et Rhoda Wurtele, olympiennes et pionnieères du ski au Canada.
Traduction de Michelle Tisseyre
Les Éditions Histoire Québec
“What timing. Just as young Canadian female ski jumpers take on the Old Boys Club of the world, namely the International Olympic Committee, over their right to compete at Vancouver’s 2010 Olympics, two of the greatest women skiers in the nation’s history decide to tell their story.”
– Laura Robinson, author of Black Tights: Women, Sport and Sexuality
“No Limits is a book that matters… in that it shapes the stories of two great Canadian athletes, and lays those stories over decades when huge changes occurred.”
– Literary Review of Canada
“Thoroughly researched and replete with intriguing photos…wonderful descriptions of their days schussing down “the gully” and launching off the Côte-des-Neiges ski jump in Montreal during the Depression… I thoroughly enjoyed Rempel’s account of the twins’ charmed lives and their impact on Canadian ski history. It’s definitely a must-read in front of the fire this season.”
– Ski Canada
“This is a fascinating history of two wonderful athletes and their times. It will be of particular interest to anyone interested in the development of amateur sport in Canada, especially those familiar with the important initiatives coming from Montreal and the Laurentians.”
– Richard W. Pound,
Past President, Canadian Olympic Committee, Member International Olympic Committee
“With the aptly titled No Limits, author Byron Rempel has put everything together in a thick, comprehensive book that celebrates the twins’ eventful lives…No Limits stands not only as a detailed double biography; it also provides readers with a veritable history of skiing in Canada through dozens of sidebars and historical vignettes…as a result, it is a must-read for avid skiers and local history buffs alike.”
– The Westmount Examiner
“A treasure-trove…anyone looking to get a perspective on skiing in Canada and to understanding the role that the Laurentian Mountains played in it would do well to pick up the book and spend a winter weekend reading it between ski outings. It is a light, enjoyable read and a valuable historic summary at the same time.”
– Joseph Graham, Main Street
“A loving tribute…profusely illustrated…liberally sprinkled with sidebars and anecdotes about Canadian amateur sport, and the place of women in it throughout the years.”
– Montreal Gazette
“As a ski reporter for the Montreal Gazette in the 1940s, I watched Rhona and Rhoda win race after race. They were truly phenomenal as they tamed the wildest hills. But I knew nothing about their later lives until I read this book. It led me to further admiration as I learned how the twins overcame many hardships and brought up, between them, seven children, all of whom have had outstanding careers. The book is much more than a chronicle of sporting achievement; with its revealing sidelights it is also a valuable contribution to the social history of Canada in the Twentieth Century.”
– William Weintraub, author of Crazy About Lili and City Unique