The untold story of Canada's original skeleton crew

Neate Sager
February 15, 2010

Mellisa Hollingsworth and Jon Montgomery are out to win one for the thumb.

Canada's top skeleton racers probably wish to be left to prepare for their event, which begins Thursday at Whistler. But once they're done, someone should link them to Canadian political columnist Greg Weston's hilarious piece about Bill Brown and Peter Fallis, who became Canada's pioneer skeleton racers on a lark in the early 1980s.

Then in their late thirties, Brown and Fallis were comfortable Ottawa-area businessmen in physical condition to match.

Fittingly, their story begins in a bar in Lake Placid, N.Y., home to a notoriously bone-crushing bobsled track.

The duo had never seen a skeleton sled before that day, but the U.S. team had been practising, and somehow the Canucks talked their way into a beer-assisted run.

"It was terrifying to say the least," Fallis recalls.

Back in the bar, a member of the U.S. national team said: "You must be the Canadian skeleton team."

Brown and Fallis looked at each other, cracked up at the mere thought, but decided to play along for a joke.

"That’s great," the American racer said with some excitement. "There is a world championship coming up, and it will be officially sanctioned if we have eight teams, and you’re the eighth."

Back home in Ottawa with no equipment, no training, no idea what they were doing, and only nine weeks to prepare for a world championship, the two reached a madman’s decision: Why not?

Going down a bobsled run face-first was probably not what George Bernard Shaw (history lesson: Robert F. Kennedy was quoting) had in mind when he issued his famous aphorism about "Why not?"

Saying "We should compete in skeleton!" easily outranks "We should open a bar!" and "We should start a band!" as the five words every man says once, but comes to regret.

Brown and Fallis, on their own dimes, went to the worlds in St. Moritz (where skeleton had been contested in the 1928 and '48 Winter Olympics, and wouldn't be again until 2002).

Brown and Fallis looked like a couple of bowling balls clattering down the gutter, bashing and bruising themselves with each painful high-speed brush with the blue ice.

Fallis duct-taped so much foam rubber onto his skin-tight racing suit, "I looked like the Michelin man."

... Brown soon wished he, too, had opted for caution.

"I became a bit more competitive and really went for it, and when I came down, I hit the wall and cut my thumb off."

At the finish line, he found the missing digit in his glove.

As Weston relates, they didn't finish last. Scoff if you must, but keep in mind this was 1982. There are no Eddie the Eagles in skeleton, for obvious reasons. There is a very rigid standard for competing in it at the Olympics, relative to other high-speed sports.

There was a butterfly effect. Brown and Fallis couldn't have known one day skeleton would be in the Olympics, let alone that women would compete in skeleton and that there was a then-1-year-old girl in Alberta who would grow up to become medal contender Hollingsworth. It has to start somewhere. The first worlds put skeleton on its 20-year path to debuting as a permanent Olympic event.

Note to Hollingsworth and Montgomery: If you win gold, you should send an autographed picture to Bill Brown.

Just don't be giving a thumbs up.