|Don't think I have posted this before, always got a kick out of it.|
Racer took a different slope than his teammates from the 1960s
He may be a bit of a recluse, but Bob Swan skis every day
Journal Sports Writer
Monday, March 29, 2004
SALMO, B.C. -- At 61 years of age, Bob Swan is a happy man ... as the saying
goes, comfortable in his own skin.
It's a character-laced and weather-beaten skin that's been exposed to too
many days in the burning sun of summer and the dry, freezing winds of
Still, as he walked into the lodge of the Whitewater winter resort near
Nelson, his shoulders slouched forward in an old man's stance and his slow
walk more of a shuffle than a stride, there was no mistaking this one-time
member of Canada's national alpine ski team.
In many ways, Swan is the ultimate ski bum. He's never held a full-time job
in his life because, he says, "that's like prison to me."
He lives in a small log cabin he built himself in the bush near Salmo,
living on $81 a month pension and growing and selling organic vegetables in
"I live on maybe $5,000 a year," he says, with openness and no
"I don't worry about money, I just try to avoid spending it. I don't have
any bills. I've never borrowed any money in my life, well, not for more than
a couple of months."
Swabber, as he was known to his teammates back in the '60s, has been skiing
almost every day of every winter since he was a teenager growing up near
Ottawa. He spent five years on Canada's original national ski team when it
was first formed into a team and located in Nelson in the 1960s.
He and the others didn't know it at the time but as they were racing down
the slopes of Canada and the world, achieving what were at that time
spectacular results, they were carving the way for the legendary Crazy
Canucks of Jim Hunter, Ken Read, Steve Podboski and others, as well as
creating the building blocks for the future of alpine ski racing.
Swan's passion, some would say obsession, with ski racing has led him down a
different slope than his teammates, a different run, in fact, than most
people. While many of his teammates became successful lawyers, educators and
company presidents, Bob Swan never left the ski hills. Today he could be
called a recluse.
That he even invited a reporter and photographer to his cabin was something
of a surprise.
"But the cabin is a mess," he warned us ahead of time. "Nobody ever visits
me so I don't worry about it."
Just getting to the cabin is a bit of a challenge. In the winter there's no
road, not even a well-beaten path to the cabin that is well hidden from the
"I hope you brought your rubber boots," he says with a smile as we parked on
the side of a dead-end road. He's wearing a pair of old green boots and as
soon as we get out of the vehicles we see what he means.
From the road it's a climb straight up about 80 feet of what would be a
double black diamond slope on a ski hill. On this day it's devoid of snow.
Instead it's reddish clay turning to mud, but he moves up it like a
sure-footed goat. We follow, struggling with the steepness and then, once
over the top, often slipping off his narrow, self-packed trail into
The cabin is surrounded by snow-covered garden beds. The yard is sprinkled
with used skis and poles. The cabin is about 20 feet by 20 feet, built
mostly of logs he felled, dragged and peeled himself. It took him nearly two
years to build the cabin. Outside, on a roof overhang, sits a training bike,
rusting a little, that he still uses, and a mattress he sometimes sleeps on
in the summer when it gets too hot inside.
The entryway is littered with mostly junk, along with items like a couple of
pair of good snowshoes he'll use to pack his ski course or move around in
the deep snow.
There are three small solar panels on the deck. He bought them second hand,
set them up himself and gets enough power for lights and his radio.
Inside is a mess, as he warned it would be. In one corner is a pot-bellied
wood stove he uses for winter heating
"In the winter, when it gets to be 20 below the cabin gets so cold sometimes
the floor freezes. The door is warped, the wind just blows through it."
In an opposite corner is a large cast-iron, wood-burning cook stove. A
coleman gas lantern hangs from a beam in the middle of the room.
There's dressers with their drawers open, overflowing with clothes. A
mattress stands on its side in the middle of the room, surrounded by a few
chairs, and too many collected items to mention. On one wall is a 1993
calendar, on another a recent newspaper clipping of Thomas Grandi's
silver-medal performance this winter at a World Cup event.
Antenna wire is strung from the door across a number of beams to a car radio
sitting on a shelf. He gets up and turns it on, music from a Spokane, Wash.,
station immediately crackles from two speakers. He's proud that he can get a
Spokane station in the middle of the day. Probably no one else in the area
He sits down to put on his ski boots, resting them on a styrofoam cooler to
do up the buckles.
"I use that to bathe in when it gets too cold outside," he says of the
When it's not too cold he'll heat the water on his stove and carry it
outside to a round metal tub, about three feet in diameter, that he sits in
The water comes through a long garden hose strung through the forest to a
nearby stream, one of the reasons he bought the property in 1982. The view
is outstanding, with the valley opening up below and the mountains rising up
on the distant other side of the valley.
He and his dad sold a piece of land in the Slocan Valley that they bought
for $15,000 and sold for $80,000. For $38,000 he bought this property, 13
acres, well treed, great view, a stream running through it and a partial
logging road where he could set up his own slalom course.
He widened the slash to about 20 feet and set up 18 gates over about 100
metres. When he can't ski at Whitewater, where he uses twigs to set up a
course for himself, he runs his own course, hiking up and racing down, over
and over again.
"Just to work on my technique," he says. "It takes about 15 seconds to ski
down. It's good for training when the weather isn't good, if it snows too
much. I don't like powder much. I like hard, ice."
Spoken like a true racer.
Swan, and most of the veterans, were dropped from the national team in 1969
when the focus shifted from technical skiing -- where it had enjoyed
breakthrough success on the international scene -- to downhill, which led to
the era of the Crazy Canucks. But he wasn't ready to quit.
"Oh no," he says emphatically. "All I wanted to do was ski and race. It's an
Swan raced a year on the Pontiac Cup circuit, then the world pro tour from
1972 to 1978 or '79, then regional pro circuits in the Pacific Northwest and
Colorado before turning to the masters in 1987.
"I'm still doing that," he says proudly. "I can't get racing out of my
system, I guess."
He raced every weekend but one in February and March, travelling and
sleeping in his 1990 Volkswagen Golf that he bought used after retiring his
other Golf with more than 400,000 kilometres on it.
"I sleep in it when I go to races. I just put the seat down and get my
sleeping bag. If you're living on $5,000 a year you can't be spending $50 a
night or whatever on motels. And I don't even want to go to motels, this
seems the best way. And I like the challenge of spending the night out like
that, in the winter, in a car."
Like most of the national team of the '60s he graduated from Notre Dame
University. "I got a science degree, but never used it.
"I worked in the plywood plant and lumber mills. I never really had a job
for more than a summer. Everything was part-time. I never used my brain
much," he explains as we walk through the snow-covered garden plots towards
his huge raspberry patch.
But he used the brain enough to build himself about 75 garden beds, each
about six feet wide, 10-12 feet long where he grows vegetables organically
in the summer. He used to sell most of his crop to the local co-op but now
they want the vegetables certified organic so he sells to various other
About 20 pounds lighter than the 165 he weighed in the '60s, Swan isn't a
total recluse. He spends Wednesdays and weekends when he's not racing, with
Margaret Thast, a lady friend in Nelson.
"I've never been married but I've been with that lady from Nelson for more
than 30 years," he says as he slips on a moth-eaten red ski team sweater
with maple leafs down the sleeves, his only memorabilia from the national
team. "Probably why we're still together is we don't see too much of each
other. Maybe she would like to, I don't know, but we're happy the way we do
Happiness has always been the key to life for Swabber. Looking back over his
life he says he wouldn't do anything differently if he had the chance all
"I don't think so. I think I've had, and have, a pretty good life."