For as colourfully as she lived her life, Grace Oaks recognized one colour above all.
“She told me once, ‘There is only one colour: Gold, because I want to get first and if I get second, that’s just not good enough,’” recalled director Lois Neu, who featured Oaks in Orange Lily Productions’ award-winning 2019 documentary, Ski Legends, which followed a trio of advanced-age skiers.
“Legend” is no exaggeration for the 86-year-old Oaks, who passed away from cancer on Jan. 23. A mainstay of Whistler mountain for decades, Oaks found ski-racing in middle age and never looked back. If she did, she likely would have found a cavalcade of younger skiers in her dust.
“At the Kokanee races, and even the Peak to Valley races, all the guys who don’t usually race but are still pretty good skiers, they would all go to the board and the first thing they’d look at was Grace’s time to see they didn’t get ‘chicked,’” remembered long-time friend Lloyd Henderson, who raced with Oaks since the late ‘70s. “I tell ya, that was so common! Everyone thought, ‘Oh boy, if I beat Grace, that’s good.’”
It was even hard for Oaks’ teenage granddaughter, Michaela, to keep up. Oaks’ daughter Danielle remembers “the trip of a lifetime” the two took together to France a few years ago, and when she hadn’t heard from them by the end of their first day there, she assumed they were delayed in getting to their hotel and hadn’t found Wi-Fi. Nope.
“It would have been 9 or 10 o’clock at night their time, and she sends a message and I thought it would say, ‘OK, we landed safely. All good!’ But it wasn’t,” Danielle said. “I kid you not, it was [a message saying] that they had done 16,000 steps that day and they saw the Sorbonne and the this and that.
“I thought, ‘My mom is going to run her ragged,’ and she did. In fact, Michaela came back from her trip and said, ‘Never again.’”
Not that there would’ve been any shame in trailing Oaks. A 21-year veteran of the Peak to Valley—including her last race, at age 85—she also skied in the U.S. and international masters ski events numerous times.
A ski instructor, Oaks was committed to giving back to the sport she loved, thinking nothing of donating gear to newcomers. And even with all her accolades, she was never content resting on her laurels, joining Whistler Blackcomb’s Gatebusters training sessions twice a week to boost her skills.
“Grace would always be bugging the coaches, ‘How was I on this?’” said Henderson. “Even last year, she wanted to improve, I’m telling ya. Improve, improve, improve. That’s the kind of person she was. She wanted to be better. She wanted to be faster than the people out there. She was definitely a competitor.”
It was that competitive drive that first bonded Oaks to Neu, an athlete herself, during the filming of Ski Legends. A new filmmaker in her 50s, Neu said that Oaks, who began ski-racing in her 50s, seemed more focused on Neu’s budding film career than how she came across in the documentary.
“She was super proud that I was doing something that I was passionate about and not becoming complacent in life and continuing to follow a passion of my own,” she said. “She was supportive of me and my journey just as much as me exposing her life on film. It wasn’t about her.”
Being the stylish, convertible-driving, mountain-biking, occasional-beer-drinking octogenarian she was, Oaks was a shining example of how to live life, and live it well, into the golden years. But, to hear Danielle tell it, it wasn’t because of her age that she embraced adventure, it was simply who she was.
“I don’t know that she had the age-defying thing. She wanted to have experiences,” she said. “She told me once that if she couldn’t ski—and I thought she’d say, ‘That would be a real bummer,’ but she didn’t. She said something way better, which was, ‘If I couldn’t ski, I’d so something else. I’d find something else to do. That’s what you have to do.’ I think that’s why she’s so beloved. It’s like I got this superstar as a mom, while I’m just me, a normal person.”
In honour of Oaks, Whistler Blackcomb said it would add her name to a trophy she was won many times: The Owen Owens and Grace Oaks Inspirational Racers award, presented to the most experienced male and female competitors in the Peak to Valley race.
Ski Legends is available on Amazon Prime and Vimeo On Demand.