Canada’s Olympians No. 5: Michael and Britt Janyk

Michael and Britt Janyk, Skiing’s first family

Photograph by chris bolin

When Britt Janyk was four years old, she and her mother Andrée harboured a deep secret. Britt’s two-year-old brother Mike couldn’t know that she had mastered the two-wheeler, because anything big sister did, Mike would surely try. “I knew he could ride it, that wasn’t the issue,” says Andrée. “It was whether he knew what a stop sign looked like.” Mom held off for a year before letting him catch a glimpse of Britt on her bike. From Mike came the inevitable demand for the removal of his bicycle training wheels, “and off down the road he went,” says Andrée.

As for stop signs, they’ve never figured large in the imagination of either Britt or Mike, Whistler’s World Cup alpine duo and—if life goes according to plan—Olympic teammates. By the time each had turned five, they were skiing double black diamond runs—the extreme, expert-level drops that many skiers will sensibly avoid their whole lives.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Britt, now 29, and Michael, 27, were born to ski. All three of Bill and Andrée’s children first experienced Whistler’s challenging terrain in the womb. Mike was born just eight hours after Andrée pulled off her ski boots from a prepartum run. That familiarity will provide a huge advantage at Games time, says Mike. “It’s so familiar. It’s the lift that we’ve ridden since we were two years old and the runs we’ve gone down all our lives,” he says. “It’s not going to be easy, but that’s how the Olympics are supposed to be,” adds Britt. “The fact that we get to be at home and have some normalcy, I think that will help ease it a little bit.”

Their Whistler pedigree, in fact, goes back to the resort community’s beginnings. Their late grandfather Peter Vajda, Andrée’s Hungarian-born dad, was an engineering student and a member of the touring ski team from the University of Zurich, when he first laid eyes on the Rocky Mountains in 1937. It was love at first sight. He stayed, finding work as a mountain guide and ski instructor at Lake Louise and later B.C.’s Silver Star Mountain, before moving west to Vancouver and the Coast Mountains. In 1948, as an engineer, he built the first double chairlift out of logs at North Vancouver’s Grouse Mountain.

But it was Whistler, a massive mountain of undeveloped potential, that consumed much of his time. His engineering company designed its first lift lines and Andrée remembers travelling with him to Europe as a 16-year-old to finalize the deal for its first chairlifts. The mountain officially opened for skiing in 1966. Vajda was a player in Whistler’s unsuccessful campaign to host the 1968 Winter Olympics—an audacious bid for a still-primitive weekend facility. “They had a vision that if they got the Olympics, it would bring money in to help develop the town,” Andrée says. “In fact, where the town is placed is where these guys envisioned it to be.”

Andrée is a former ski racer, with a Ph.D. in physical education from the University of Brussels. She laid the groundwork for her children’s athleticism with the same painstaking planning that went into the Olympic mountain they’ve skied all their lives. Before age two, all three children (Stephane, the youngest, was also a competitive skier until 16, when she turned to fashion and acting) had soccer balls at their feet, to improve their foot-eye coordination. She enrolled them in gymnastics for agility, balance and coordination, another lesson she learned studying in Europe. “I thought no matter what they end up doing, to me sport is very important. They would have those skills.” They were also enthusiastic and skilled tennis players, a sport Andrée loves because it instills not only the need for intense focus, but also civility and etiquette.

“As for skiing,” she says, “I had a little deal with the kids. If they got really good marks, like As, I said, I’ll take you out of school to go skiing in the middle of the week.” The result was a series of stellar report cards and priceless early hours of time on snow.

There wasn’t a sport Britt and Mike played where they weren’t competitive, though not when it came to each other, their mother says. “They compete in the sense that, hey, if you’re going to do that, I’m going to do that, too,” she says. “I know if you ask them, they’ll say they’re each other’s best support system.”

True enough. They speak regularly as they hopscotch across the world on the ski circuit. “There’s definitely a lot to be learned from each other about what we go through,” says Mike. “There’s a lot of knowledge being passed back and forth on different experiences.” Adds Britt: “To know that I can go to Michael or he can come to me with fears, and be sent back in the right direction, that’s important, too.” She can also draw on Mike’s experience as an Olympian. In Turin in 2006, with his family watching from the hillside, he clawed back from a disappointing first slalom run to finish 17th.

The mutual support has helped as they both worked through difficulties last season. Britt, a downhiller and a nine-time Canadian champion, had no podium finishes last season, after snagging a gold and a bronze in the 2007-08 season. Mike fought off a back injury to finish last season with a bronze in the World Championships. This season both are ranked in the top 10 on the World Cup circuit.

While home-snow advantage carries its pressures, both Janyks can close their eyes and visualize their respective Olympic courses. The men ski on the Dave Murray run. “There’s gliding at the top, there’s good air, there’s good jumps,” says Mike. “It’s a true downhill in the sense of having everything.” The women ski Franz’s run, which is fine by Mike, since he broke his leg there as a 13-year-old. “It’s technical in places. It feels fast. It’s got some good jumps,” Britt says of Franz’s. “I think it’s really cool that the men’s track and the women’s course both have a jump into the [same] finish area, so people get that action and a bit of a show at the finish.”

And cooler still that they are literally heading for home. From the finish area, they could ski the short distance to their parents’ back door. Their plan, though, is to linger awhile. On the podium.

Peter Vajda, age 90, died in 2003, six months after learning that Whistler will finally host the Olympics. “I think the bigger joy was knowing how well his grandkids ski,” says his daughter. Come February, the third generation might write a new chapter in the intertwined history of a family and a mountain.