By Martin Cleary
Scott Finlay certainly knew how to have fun.
As a young man, he loved to ease into his jazzy Datsun 240Z sports car and zip along the streets of Napanee, ON., and the connected communities. The speed, the handling and the reliability of his Japanese coupe ignited his senses.
He could walk into a room of strangers, feel right at home within a few minutes and become the life of the gathering.
A member of the Ottawa-based National Capital Division alpine ski team, off-season South American camps were not just for training purposes for the next on-snow season. Finlay had an entrepreneurial side to him. He would bring hundreds of pairs of colourful, mirrored sunglasses, which cost about four dollars each in Canada, and sell them for $40 American apiece.
“He was totally upbeat, fun, fun, fun,” said Ottawa’s Lu Korte, who trained, raced and pursued the national-team dream with Finlay for more than a decade. “He made the most of everything.
“Scott would often say: ‘I’m here for a good time, not a long time.”
While Finlay certainly knew how to get the most out of one aspect of life, he also was focused on becoming a member of the exclusive Canadian men’s alpine ski team called the Crazy Canucks. He wanted to be like Ken Read, Steve Podborski, Jim Hunter, Dave Irwin and Dave Murray, who were World Cup stars in the 1970s and 1980s.
There were indications that was a possibility for Finlay as he had produced some solid results and medals on the Pontiac Cup and Can-Am Series developmental ski circuits.
When he reached the 1978 Canadian alpine ski championships at Lake Louise, AB., time was of the essence for him to make the jump to the national team from the inaugural Ontario Ski Team.
“At the time, he was getting old to be put on the national team,” Korte added. “For sure, he knew it was a race he had to do well in.”
On Feb. 24, 1978, Finlay entered the start hut for the men’s downhill. It would be his final race and the outcome triggered an entire new and unpredictable life for him.
Finlay attacked the course, but an horrific crash left him with a traumatic brain injury and he would spend the remainder of his life in a wheelchair. He was paralyzed, but over time gained limited arm and hand movements. Stripped of his ability to speak, Finlay could hear and his facial expressions served as his method of communication.
On the morning of Nov. 19 and more than 44 years after his ski accident, Finlay peacefully passed away surrounded by his devoted parents Hugh and Rosemary, who are in their 90s, at the Lennox & Addington County General Hospital in Napanee. His funeral was on Monday. He was 66.
“My sister Nancy and I were standing at Double Trouble (a difficult section of the men’s downhill course) and we saw it happen,” Korte recalled. “We saw it from 30 feet away on the other side of the fence.
“When he hit the first bump at about 110 kilometres an hour … he was on the back of his skis. When he hit the second bump, he was too far back and it flipped him. He landed on top of his head and went into the trees. There was no snow fence there.”
Finlay flew well off course into snow and wasn’t found for about five minutes, according to Korte. Race and medical officials quickly took Finlay to the bottom of the hill and he was helicoptered to hospital in Calgary.
Three days later, the Korte sisters were encouraged by the Ontario team coach to visit Finlay in the hospital. They could speak to him and, while he was in a coma, he could probably hear what they were saying.
“We had no idea this is what we were seeing. It was devastating,” Korte said about Finlay’s appearance in his hospital bed.
After spending two months in the Calgary hospital, Finlay was transferred to a Kingston hospital for treatment and rehabilitation. He also received some medical assistance in Toronto.
Eventually, Finlay returned to his Napanee home and was lovingly cared for by his parents for more than 35 years. As Hugh and Rosemary grew older, they were concerned about Scott’s care after they passed. They assumed they would both die before him.
Hugh was the driving force for about 15 years behind petitioning the Ontario government to establish the province’s first Acquired Brain Injury support centre in Napanee, which would assist Scott and other people with similar medical conditions.
Sportswriter Randy Starkman, who wrote a story about Finlay’s athletic journey and medical challenges for the Toronto Star, also played a vital role in bringing Scott’s story into the public light along with the support of many members of the ski community. The Star raised more than $300,000 towards the Napanee Acquired Brain Injury and Rehabilitation Home, a.k.a. Finlay Home.
Finlay moved into the six-bed support home in April of 2017 and thrived in his new environment for more than five years. The official opening was five months later.
Although confined to a wheelchair, Hugh and Rosemary knew how to feed their son’s inner athlete and his need for speed and adventure.
The Finlays had a large RV and took many trips with Scott to get out of the house and see new parts of the world.
After Finlay’s skiing accident, the family had his Datsun 240Z car completely restored so he could sit in the passenger seat and hit the road for an exhilarating ride over the region’s highways and roads.
And in March, 2012, Finlay had the extreme thrill of feeling like a skier again, when he attended a fund raising event for the future Finlay Home at the Osler Bluff Ski Club in Collingwood, ON.
Finlay was offered a chance to go skiing on a sit-ski controlled by an instructor, who was familiar with coaching skiers with disabilities. They didn’t go down the tame bunny hill, but rather a bumpy, black-diamond run.
At the end of the thrilling run, Finlay’s face was beaming. He loved every second of his return to skiing, after a 34-year absence.
“This is the happiest I’ve seen him in ages,” Rosemary said at the time.
HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
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Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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