Renner leaves cross-country skiing to run a boutique hotel

Sara Renner has probably spent more time in ski boots than in shoes. She’s helped put cross-country skiing on the map for Canada by her World Cup results as well as the notorious nude team calendar she posed for to raise money. And, she owns an Olympic silver medal. But when asked why she isn’t leveraging her success on a nationwide speaking tour like many other Olympic athletes, the humble 34-year-old simply says, “I really didn’t feel comfortable talking about myself or what I’ve done.”

Instead, the four-time Olympian decided that her transition from sport would be to follow in her parents’ footsteps and become a entrepreneur – owning and operating the Paintbox Lodge – a boutique hotel in the heart of her hometown of Canmore. “Ski racing is what I did and I loved it, but I wanted to do something completely different,” Renner said. “This is a way to make a livelihood … introduce people to the Rockies and give them an experience that I would love to have if I came here.”

And aside from the realities of the new venture paying the bills, more importantly for Renner, she was able to team up with her equally successful husband – four-time alpine ski Olympian Thomas Grandi – and spend time with him and their daughter Aria, 3. Since they retired from sport, the duo, famous for their passion for the environment, commitment to the community and love of their family, have traded scrubbing thousandths of a second from their finish times to scrubbing the Lodge’s guest room toilets.

But, according to Grandi, the hard work is worth the payoff in being your own boss. “Being an athlete, you are told what to do a lot of the time – where to be, when to be there, how many of this and how many of that,” he said. “We work extremely hard, but at the same time, we’re setting it up so that we can get away from the 9-to-5 traditional role.”

Two years ago, Renner and Grandi purchased the Paintbox (named after Carl Rungius’s painting studio in Banff) from Renner’s parents, who have successfully run Mount Assiniboine for the past 27 years. And although Renner admits that it sometimes feels like they are on a crash course at “hotel school,” she has taken her experiences from growing up in the hospitality industry with her while adding her own personal touch. “We want to bring the best things that we loved about our stays all over the world to Canmore.” She explained. “That’s sort of the feel that we want to have, that it’s small, so you feel at home.”

And for any Canadians who stay at the lodge, at home is exactly how they will feel. The linens are woven in Vancouver, the rustic lamp shades created in Toronto, the art on the walls painted by local artists or friends, and one of the beds is made up with the famous wool Hudson’s Bay blanket that Canadian athletes received at the 2006 Olympic Games.

But its not just aesthetic appeal the pair strive for; Renner and Grandi have both been publicly vocal about their concern for the environment. Grandi, who worked with the David Suzuki Foundation to initiate a “carbon-neutral’ program, now makes it a priority to be as environmentally conscious as possible when it comes to the Lodge’s operations. “We have to explain to our guests when you flick the light switch on that it’s not bright right away, it takes a little time to warm up,” he says of the high-efficiency lights that are installed at the Lodge, which is also wind-powered by Bullfrog. “It would be great to put solar hot water on the roof. … I hope that every year maybe we can create an extra element of efficiency.”

And efficiency in the bones of the Paintbox to the efficiency of exploring Canmore on one of the vintage-style pedal bikes for guest use extends into the couple’s humanitarianism. For every two Kona bikes purchased, one is sent to Africa for AIDS workers to use. Renner and Grandi have already sent two over. And as future plans for the Lodge continue to grow, so does Renner’s belly. She’s expecting their second child in January.

Renner describes their days, split between parenting and running the lodge, as a “sprint relay.” Grandi, who completed an accounting certificate at Bow Valley College, gets up early to do the books with Renner coming in after to set up rooms and check in guests. “I would say between the two of us we are one competent human being,” she said, admitting that the instantaneous shift in priorities doesn’t come easy. “In sport the commitment you make is to yourself … training, recovery … conserving your energy and [performance]. [Then] your priorities completely shift to running a business, having a family and then [last] is taking care of yourself … exercise for me is a real luxury.”
And though neither of them pretends to have it all figured out, like in their athletic careers, they are determined to succeed.