Winter Tale: Divina Galica

Forget the Olympics: the ultimate test of determination, Divina Galica discovered last summer, might just be squeezing a Hyundai Sonata-towing RV through the narrow barriers of America’s motorway toll lanes.

The deceptively difficult manoeuvre is enough to infuriate any road-tripper, but the Brit behind the wheel wasn’t your average driver - she remains one of just five women to compete in Formula 1.

It’s been almost two years since the 77-year-old sold most of her worldly possessions and moved into the Sebring, Florida-based motorhome she shares with a rescued marmalade moggie called Ginger.

The dramatic downsizing inspired a recent garage sale, where trophies from Galica’s skiing career - spanning four Olympic Games and as many decades - went for $1 apiece.

“Once your sport is done, it’s done,” proclaims the former British downhill speed skiing record-holder, who insists she’s a still very sentimental person.

“I can relive the agony of 1968, when I should have won the medal, but who cares? Most people can’t remember who even won that race.

“It’s no good looking back. I’m not [that] kind of person. First of all, I’m an optimist. I’m an absolute optimist, my glass is always half full.

“And secondly, you must never look back. Never. It’s not worth it. I mean, yes, you can reminisce about the fun times you’ve had, but it’s no good saying, ‘Oh, if only.’ So what, ‘if only?’ You did it, you had fun.”

Galica’s stance on life’s rear-view mirror made abundantly clear, she’s surprisingly willing to drive down the meandering road of reminiscence.

If only, perhaps, for the benefit of the Antiques Roadshow expert who might someday appraise one of her garage sale cast-offs.

F1 drivers have traditionally shunned number 13, but “horribly superstitious” Galica considers it lucky - it’s the day she was born in August 1944, the third of June and Wladyslaw’s six children.

Galica was four when June booked a family trip to Swiss ski resort Lenk, a location chosen with their patriarch in mind.

Wladyslaw had, by that point, a “terribly bad heart”, and June hoped the low altitude would allow him to join.

“But actually he was extremely ill,” recalls Galica, who lost her father to a heart attack shortly after her sixth birthday.

Still, the sport stuck.

“I had to follow my older brother down everything as fast as I could to keep up with him. I think he was my first trainer,” she says, laughing.

But skiing was no joke. It transformed into an obsession so serious that, when Galica was 13, June sent her to school in Switzerland.

Miles from Bushey Heath, she contemplated the words of Britain’s most famous bard.

“At school I was made to read a lot of Shakespeare,” she explains.

“When Lady Macbeth says to Macbeth, ‘Thou wouldst be great; / Art not without ambition, but without / The illness should attend it.’

“That always stuck with me, because to be good at a sport you’ve got to have the illness that attends it.

“In other words, you’ve got to be passionate about it, you’ve got to live, think and do anything to do what you’re passionate about. That’s what motivates all the good sports people, I think.”

At 15, Galica joined the Downhill Only Club in Wengen, where a trainer, sizing up both her potential and “awful” cracked skis, handed the teen a new pair and told her, “You’re going to win races on these.”

Galica soon found success in inter-club, junior and national races, and on the Citizen Racing circuit – competitions open to athletes from non-Alpine countries. She was just 19 when, in 1964, she made her Olympic debut in Innsbruck.

In the weeks immediately preceding those ninth Olympic Winter Games, one thing had managed to unite all 36 participating nations across language and cultural barriers: a distressing lack of snow. None had fallen, reported the New York Times, for two months.

So Austria called in the army, who hauled 40,000 cubic metres of the stuff from elsewhere in the Alps.

“And then,” Galicia vividly recalls, “just as the Olympics opened, it started snowing and it really stormed very badly.

“It was blinding snow in the downhill as I went.

“Then there was a wind that literally picked me up, and almost pushed me backwards. And I finished very low down, [in 30th].

“Although I had high hopes of doing well in the Olympics I never did. There was always something huge that prevented me.”

By 1968, Galica’s misfortune appeared to be reversing. In Badgastein, just 17 days into the Olympic year, she stood on a World Cup podium for the first time.

“Lo and behold, when I went through the finish, totally out of control, I finished third,” Galicia marvels.

“It was a big shock. They’d almost already presented the prize to a different person, and suddenly [there’s] a Brit coming third.”

She still has that trophy.

Galica equalled her result in Chamonix before turning to the Grenoble Games, this time captaining a five-strong GB women’s squad managed by the formidable Maria Goldberger, who ensured each athlete was in the shape of her life.

Galica consistently finished top five in downhill practice runs, bolstering her medal hopes. In those days, she explained, athletes only took one pair of skis to the start. Disaster struck when the sun came out.

“My trainer waxed me cold,” she says. “Nowadays you’d never do that, you always wax warm.

“I set off, I think I was about seventh off the top, and I knew immediately I was a dead duck. My skis literally stuck.

“It broke my heart. I couldn’t believe it. It was awful, because you’ve been working for years to get that medal. We were so close.

“And when he saw me get stuck, he rushed at Felicity [Field], stripped off all her wax, wrapped some warm wax and she finished sixth. I always used to beat her, but she got sixth and I got 32nd and I should have got a medal.

“That was my biggest choking feeling. Just to make sure that everyone knew [I was capable], I came third in another race directly after the Olympics.”

Galica broke her fibula about four months before the 1972 Sapporo Games, where she fought through the lingering pain to clock a pace-setting speed at one point in her downhill run. Then, right at the bottom, her leg gave way. She finished 26th.

Galica retired after Japan, where she recorded a personal Olympic best seventh-place finish in the Giant Slalom.

But then, she remembers, “I got an MBE from the Queen, but no training to get on with my life.

“I hadn’t gone to university. I had no degrees, I only knew how to ski very well and I didn’t want to be an instructor.

“You’re sort of set free into the real world, but you had no guidance.”

So Galica and team-mate Gina Hathorn opened a skiwear shop on London’s Sydney Street. (“I just threw away all my ski suits,” she adds anecdotally. “I put them in a dumpster.”)

In 1974, Brands Hatch boss John Webb talent-spotted Galica, who placed second in a celebrity race.

By then thoroughly bored of shilling anoraks, Galica’s passion shifted to motorsport. Two years later, she was driving a Surtees F1 car—and generating reams of publicity—full time in the Shellsport International Series.

“I never won a race,” she adds, “but I came a close second, I had lap records, so I thought maybe I can do it.”

She lobbied for number 13, though it didn’t prove particularly lucky.

Galica often found herself at the wheel of inferior drives and ultimately ran in just one Grand Prix, the 1978 International Trophy at Silverstone.

It was the same year she narrowly escaped death in Argentina, her left wheels cut off by a post “like a bacon slicer” during one of two serious attempts to qualify for a GP.

By the decade’s end, Galica, who counted Mario Andretti, Ronnie Peterson and James Hunt among her peers and supporters, was eclipsed Desire Wilson.

She found her way back to the slopes, where, while working at French resort Les Arcs, she was introduced to speed skiing.

“My first run was 100 miles, that blew my mind,” Galica recollects. “It was amazing. It’s totally addictive. You want to go faster and faster.”

And she did, breaking 125 mph—and the British women’s record—at age 48.

Two decades after she left Sapporo, Galica was invited to demonstrate the sport at the 1992 Albertville Games. Ultimately, she believes, “the [broadcasters] decided they couldn’t commentate on a dot coming down a mountain at over 100 miles an hour.”

In 2007, Cornwall’s Caitlin Tovar celebrated her 32nd birthday by breaking Galica’s record. Just two days later, she died in a Grenoble hospital after falling 3000 feet down the slope at Les Arcs.

Galica considered trying to regain her title, but quickly concluded, “I can’t do this. Let her keep that record. What do I need it for, for god’s sake? You move on.”

Besides, she had moved on, literally, to the United States in 1994, racing sporadically while starting a new chapter as an instructor, first with Skip Barber Racing School, then in her current post at Bertil Roos.

Galica still occasionally gets behind the wheel, and though the Brit sometimes finds the Florida heat a bit too intense, the sun isn’t close to setting on the septuagenarian’s astonishing career. In fact, a third ‘illness’ – a passion for teaching – has caught on.

If Galica’s name rings a bell, the recognition is always rooted in motorsport. In most biographies, her Olympic career sometimes feels fragmental, like a carrot stump nose left behind from a melted snowman.

“I don’t give a toss. I never was in for the glory of it. I was in for the passion of it,” she insists, adding, “I think people have very short memories, particularly nowadays.”

Galica ultimately emerged from last summer’s toll lane battle victorious and undeterred.

And last week, she took Ginger to the vet to get microchipped—the first step toward the pair’s planned summer road trip redux.

The state freeway speed limit usually hovers around 70 mph, but these days the fearless athlete, who once raced Andretti and cracked 125 on skis, never feels inclined to compete with a police radar gun.

“Everyone passes me,” she adds. “But I don’t care. I chunder along and I’m perfectly happy.

“I can’t see the point. I’m no longer in a hurry.”

Sportsbeat 2021