Rhona Wurtele Gillis - Canadian champion skier
Rhona Wurtele Gillis died January 17, 2020, in Montreal, less than a week before her 98th birthday. She is survived by her twin sister, Rhoda Wurtele Eaves.
The Wurtele twins, the youngest of five children, were born in Saint-Lambert, Quebec, a suburb of Montreal. As kids, the twins were natural athletes, excelling in swimming and tennis before focusing on skiing, which they began at age 5 on the rolling hills of their neighborhood. “Their father strapped a pair of skis on each and pushed them out the front door,” Byron Rempel wrote in “No Limits,” a biography of the twins.
By age 11 they had skied off the senior ski jump on Mount Royal. They never looked back. The sisters soon called themselves the “Flying Twins,” and became pioneers in supporting women’s skiing in Canada, and later taught thousands of Canadians how to ski during more than 50 years as instructors.
By the time they were in their 20s, they were accomplished racers. In 1948 they were the only women named to Canada’s Alpine skiing team at the Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland. The St. Moritz Games became a tale of misfortune for the twins. A few weeks before the Games, a teammate collided with Rhoda during a practice run resulting in an injury that prevented her from competing. Soon after, Rhona fell during a practice run, with her ski gashing her head. She ended up in the hospital for a week. Rhona still raced the Downhill, but crashed on course. “I flew up in the air, and my right ski hit the left ankle,” she told CTV News in Montreal. “I heard this loud crack—and it broke.”
The sisters never won an Olympic medal, but both medaled frequently in various races in Canada and the United States throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, including the Alta Cup, the Roch Cup, the Silver Dollar Derby and the Harriman Cup.
The twins were collectively named 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 given the Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance award in 1998 for their 50 years as instructors. In 2019, the sisters were invested as members of the Order of Canada, a prestigious civilian honor similar to the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the United States. The citation cited their “role as trailblazers in winter sports.”
And they were trailblazers, indeed. The Flying Twins “started everything” for female racers, Kerrin Lee-Gartner, a Canadian Olympic downhill champion, told the Canadian Press in 2015. “We started believing in our dreams because of those who did it before us.”