Contributor: Ken Read
This article was originally posted at albertaalpine.ca
Mike Irwin represents the very best of ski racing: athlete, volunteer, father of four ski racing children, official, sponsor of programs and athletes, Masters racer – a lifetime commitment of leading, sharing and building.
Ski racing was always a passion in the Irwin household and the lure of the World Cup could be found right next door. “I grew up living beside National Team athlete Reto Barrington. I would see the ski bags outside on the street as he was getting ready to head to Europe to race” said Mike. “I followed his career and his achievements and as I grabbed my school books to go off to Mount Royal Junior High, I swore to myself that is what I wanted to do. So, I did.”
He did, indeed! With his hugely supportive parents, Jeannie and Joe, from early days on snow at Paskapoo and Happy Valley on the outskirts of Calgary to training under the keen eyes of Canadian Hall of Fame Inductee Mike Wiegele and his brother Norbert and colleague Andre Schwartz in the Lake Louise Ski Club, the foundation of future success was laid down. “He (Mike Wiegele) taught us how to ski downhill, basically he taught us how to go fast.”
From this foundation, Mike earned a spot on the Canadian World Cup downhill Team, racing in North America and Europe over five seasons. Career highlights included two top-15 downhill results on the World Cup Tour, plus a bronze medal in Europa Cup action at Meiringen-Hasilberg. Like many members of the Canadian World Cup Team, a trip down the Streif at Kitzbühel was another memorable moment. “Nothing was better than my three years of racing in the Hahnenkamm” says Mike. “It was incredible. Canadians dominated the event and all of us always skied a little better that week every year. I never fell either. My Mom and Dad came and watched and it was a thrill of a lifetime.”
Even in retirement from the Canadian Team, ski racing was never far away. Mike raced the Ontario University ski circuit. With graduation from Western University, he joined brokerage firm Raymond James. Back in the corporate world of Calgary, Mike took on organizational and leadership roles. He served as a Board Member and Chair of Alberta Alpine and Director of Alpine Canada. In 2005 he brought Raymond James to the lead role in supporting the Alberta Ski Team, a sponsorship that supported the next generation of athletes for a decade. His corporate leadership extended to every fundraising and promotional activity of Alberta Alpine including the Quest for Gold golf, Return of the Champions and Alberta Ski Team ski day. And Mike continues to keep personally active in ski racing, leading the Canadian Team to the Interbourse Ski Championship, the world’s largest yearly ski competition for all involved in the financial industry.
The support of ski racing in the Irwin Family runs deep. His father, Joe, is one of the founding patrons of the Petroleum Club fundraising event for the Canadian Ski Team, established in 1968 and has been recognized by the Canadian Rockies Ski Hall of Fame for his lifetime dedication to athletes as a coach, organizer and fundraiser. Mike has carried on this tradition through his sustaining support for this event, now known as the annual “Highest Peak Gala” the annual major fundraising event for alpine skiing in Alberta which carries on today after 51 years. Son Geoff, is carrying on the family tradition, having represented Canada at the FIS Alpine Junior World Ski Championships and is a current member of the Alberta Alpine Board of Directors.
Even after more than 50 years of support for our sport, Mike is still hard at it, leading Teams. His knowledge and leadership skills were called on to building a team that started with organizing two World Cup test events in 2007-08 at Panorama and Whistler and culminated in the staging of alpine events for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver.
And Mike carries on! He has been the boss for the annual Nor-Am slalom at Panorama since 2007, a crew that is arguably one of the best in North America. And looking forward, the worlds’ best juniors will gather in 2022 for the FIS Alpine Junior World Ski Championships, to be held in Panorama. You guessed it: Mike Irwin is Race Chair for this prestigious event.
Behind every great leader, is a great champion. Missy Irwin married into the world of ski racing 36 years ago, probably not really knowing what she had signed up for. With her humour and twinkle in her eye, Missy has supported Mike in his many pursuits and as a partner in marshalling Tom, Geoff, Pete and Kath through ski racing careers, university and into the professional world.
To lifelong friend, Mark Bowman, Mike has not only set the bar high for himself, he has also been there to help friends and his community. “Mike and his father Joe reeled me into ski racing at Lake Louse, which turned out to be ‘the gift that keeps on giving’” said Mark. “It didn’t take long to see that Mike would become a lifelong leader that is so evident today. Not only did Mike push himself to achieve all the success he has earned, he always challenged others to strive to succeed as well, even from the early years, and if anyone needed help along the way he was always there to provide a hand or some encouragement. Mike still loves to compete in several sports and is a natural leader and builder as evidenced by his leadership roles across the spectrum of sport, business, family and community.”
“Our sport has many dedicated supporters and Mike has been such a tremendous leader,” said Alberta Alpine President, Rob McCloskey. “We have athletes, parents, alumnus and keen individuals who give back, invest their time and resources, so our athletes can aim high, aim to represent our country. Mike is one of those remarkable people who have given so much to build our sport: as an athlete, as a volunteer leader and through a personal commitment to our athletes. We simply cannot thank Mike, his entire family and his peers enough for their enormous contribution to our athletes and in leading our events.”
As Mike’s friend and teammate since our days in the Lake Louise Ski Club in 1968, we’ve shared the ski racing pathway from section training on the Lake Louise downhill as nervous 13-year olds right to the toughest downhills in the world. My most enduring memory though, while working as a volunteer on the adjacent race track in Panorama, was watching a tiny dedicated crew led by Mike working alongside Randy Tarchuk, Andrew Abbot and Lisa Thompson, build and then deliver an exceptional, crisply efficiently Nor-Am slalom that has been a stepping-stone for many Canadian, American and European athletes into the World Cup. To me, this is the essence of what Mike Irwin brings to our sport: world-class leadership, teamwork, dedication and paying it forward to lift the next generation.
The Canadian alpine ski racing community salutes Mike, Missy and the entire Irwin family for a lifetime of dedication to our athletes, our events and our sport, upon his induction into the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame, as an Honoured Member of the Class of 2019.