CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 25. . . .March 5, 2010.
No Limits is on one level an illustrated biography of Rhona Wurtele Gillis and her twin sister, Rhoda Wurtele Eaves, but it is also a history of competitive skiing in Canada in the formative years to the mid-point of the 20th century when Quebec was at the centre of Canada's skiing world. With Canada's hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics, this is a timely reminder that women have struggled and continue to struggle to be allowed to compete in sports that have traditionally been open only to men. While the Wurteles may not consider themselves pioneers, their dominance at the ski meets of eastern Canada and the United States in the 1940s made them regular features of newspapers, magazines and even a Paramount newsreel. This publicity helped to popularize the sport of downhill and slalom skiing and to inspire new generations of women athletes.
Although born in St. Lambert, PQ, in 1922, the twins' family soon moved to Westmount in Montreal. They were inseparable, fearless, very athletic and privileged in that their father was a rising executive in the Southern Canada Power Corp., and this allowed them freedom from financial worry and freedom to be children. They excelled in swimming, track and field, and took up ski jumping using their brothers' old skis. Their ski jumping was soon ended by their mother who declared it an unladylike sport. The twins found new challenges in other sporting ventures, yet they, too, would later shy away from some other sports like baseball and hockey for women because the early competitors that they encountered were too coarse and unladylike.
Family scrapbooks and photo albums provide Rempel with an abundance of contemporary printed material and photographs for use in this fabulously illustrated book. He quotes often from writings by contemporary women's columnist Myrtle Cook and draws heavily from personal interviews with both Rhona and Rhoda and Rhona's oldest daughter, Margie Gillis. Rempel makes excellent use of sidebars to highlight people and developments in the skiing world, or to illuminate the social context of the times, such as the portrayal in movies of women working outside of the home during the Second World War. One of the many gems in the sidebars is the 1947 list of Summer Training Hints that the Canadian Amateur Ski Association provided to the 1948 Olympic Ski Team:
With so many of Canada's young men serving overseas, women had an opportunity to gain public attention in sports coverage. Luckily for the Wurtele's and for North American skiing enthusiasts, the war also brought French and Austrian skiers fleeing the Germans to America where they took up positions as instructors. As the excerpt alludes to, the natural talent of the Wurteles was enough to win the downhill races, but they needed training to excel in the newer slalom event. The Wurteles and others also took ski instructor training so that after the war ended and the Europeans returned home, North Americans were able to take up coaching roles in the burgeoning sport.
An appendix neatly highlights Rhona and Rhoda's successes in competitive skiing during the 1940s and 1950s. They regularly traded first and second place. When they were named to the 1948 Canadian Olympic Alpine Team, they were the only women on a team with five men. This was a time when funding for sports in Canada was even worse than it is today! They were chiefly weekend skiers, holding day jobs and relying upon familial financial assistance to pay for their own training and travel to competitions, including emerging events in the American west. The Olympic Team only had a few weeks of coaching, and their training was on a small 400m hill in Quebec that would be very different from the alpine slopes in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Training runs in Europe took a heavy toll on North American skiers. Rhoda cracked an ankle and could not compete, and Rhona gashed her head; the cut became infected and she had to compete on borrowed skis just days after treatment with the new penicillin. Despite breaking her ankle in a fall, Rhona finished the downhill race. Canadians tend to only remember gold medal winners, and so figure skater Barbara Ann Scott and the men's hockey team may be collective memory's only highlights from that event. Rhoda went on to compete for Canada in the 1952 Olympics in Oslo, Norway, when she was a 30- year-old mother of a one-year-old and mentor to the younger members of the team.
Rempel includes information about the twins' double wedding in November 1948, their new roles as wives and mothers separated from one another for the first time yet growing into their own. Deserted by her husband, Rhona and her four children returned to Montreal from the USA. Reunited with Rhoda, Rhona joined her in programs to teach skiing to children and then also to mothers. Both twins' children went on to excel in their chosen endeavours, including dance and freestyle skiing. The women continued to enjoy life, have fun, and challenge themselves in extreme sports, like bungee jumping, and more moderate sports, like golfing.
At 362 pages, No Limits is a bit daunting but well-worth the read. Social history, sporting and especially skiing history is made accessible, and, most importantly, the remarkable story of the amazing Wurteles is made fresh for a new generation of readers. A brief bibliography and an index are also included. The index is heavy on personal and proper names, but it indexes text, images and sidebars, and includes subentries under both Rhona and Rhoda's names. Rempel could have interviewed more contemporaries and later Canadian Olympic competitors to gain more diverse perspectives on the careers, personalities and influence of the subjects.
Val Ken Lem is the Collections Evaluation and Donations Librarian at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.
To comment on this title or this review, send mail to
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.