Alpine skiing is a dangerous sport, but even by those standards, Canada’s veteran speed racers of the downhill and super-G have been hit hard by injuries.
“We went from a place where six years ago we had an extremely strong team - I would say one of the most competitive in the world - to having this sort of beat up team, guys coming back from injuries and barely hanging on,” said Erik Guay, currently Canada’s best alpine skier.
Guay, Jan Hudec and Manny Osborne-Paradis, part of the so-called Canadian Cowboys group, are among those set to compete this weekend at Lake Louise, Alta., with the downhill scheduled on Saturday and super-G on Sunday.
Guay, of Mont Tremblant, Que., is just newly back on snow this month, recovering from off-season surgery on his left knee. He surprised even himself on the first day of training at Lake Louise on Wednesday, finishing first.
"I haven't skied seven months in the summer," said Guay. "There's going to be a certain amount of mileage you need to find that race pace. I think there's room for improvement, but technically I skied really well. For a first day, it doesn't get any better."
Robbie Dixon returned to the powder just a few weeks before Guay. Dixon had his right leg “snap in half,” in his words, last November. It wiped out the 2012-13 campaign, sure, but the Sochi Olympics are not yet out of reach.
The North Vancouver, B.C., native took to wearing his ski boots in gym workouts in the spring and summer to allow the leg and foot muscles to get used to the unique stresses again.
While some of the world’s best can string together five or six straight seasons without catastrophic leg injuries, few have remained unscathed on the Canadian team in the recent past.
Understandably, it’s affected morale.
“It beats you up absolutely,” said Paul Kristofic, vice-president of sport for Alpine Canada. “It takes some time to recover, and re-injuries do occur and you need to be patient and really do things right so that athletes come back with confidence.”
John Kucera, another of the Cowboys, is the most extreme case. The Calgary native fractured his left leg two months before the Vancouver Games and, after subsequent injury setbacks, was just finally working his way back to consistent appearances last season. But now Sochi is again in question as he has recently been diagnosed with vestibular neuritis, which results in concussion-like symptoms.
Strong rehab program gets skiers back on track
Martin Rufener, hired in March by Alpine Canada as alpine director, is overseeing the men’s speed team this year. Rufener, who once guided Swiss stars Didier Cuche and Didier Defago to success, said in an ideal world the top skiers would get maximum volume in training miles and reps with turns and angles, let alone the fine tuning and testing of equipment that’s required.
But both Rufener and Kristofic are confident in Alpine Canada’s staff and the individualized approach to getting an athlete back on track. That process involves the best professionals in sports medicine, physio and strength conditioning, and sports psychology sessions for the mental side of the game.
Hudec and Osborne-Paradis, who can relate to the mental rollercoaster of injury rehab, consider themselves fit. Calgary’s Hudec won the Lake Louise downhill in 2007, while Osborne-Paradis of Vancouver prevailed in the super-G two years later.
Hudec is undoubtedly familiar with the term “mind over matter,” having had multiple ACL surgeries in his knees in his career, as well as back and head injuries.
CBC Sports alpine skiing analyst Kerrin-Lee Gartner says that for a skier like Hudec, particularly when conditions are bumpy or icy, “it’s really a matter of being able to block [the pain] out as well as you can.”
Osborne-Paradis had his transitional year in 2012-13, coming back from a 20-month competition layoff due to a torn ACL in his left knee, and nearly landing on the podium at Kvitfjell, Norway.
He earned raves from Rufener earlier this autumn for his off-season training camp work. “I think I have a lot of motivation,” Osborne-Paradis told CBC Sports earlier this year. “I've come back a lot more free spirited, I think. I've opened myself up to being vulnerable, for sure, and learning a lot more from people and not just being stuck in my own ways.”
Younger skiers chase strong results
Ben Thomsen, the youngest “veteran” at 26, doubted himself at times during the 2012-13 season, but is also healthy. He can also focus on Sochi with some confidence, having finished second there at the downhill test race in early 2012. The Invermere, B.C., native, like his three older teammates, can punch his ticket back to the Olympics with a single top 12 showing.
There are younger Canadian skiers at Lake Louise who can gain more recognition with strong results. They include Jeffrey Frisch of Mont Tremblant, brothers Morgan and Conrad Pridy of Whistler, B.C., and Dustin Cook of Lac-Sainte-Marie, Que.
Young or old, team members are no doubt aware en route to Sochi that no Canadian man has ever won an Olympic gold or silver medal, and that it’s been 20 years since the last bronze.
The Canadian with 20 World Cup podium results, a world championship and a discipline title is hopeful the recent adversities will soon be forgotten.“I feel like we’ve paid our dues and it’s time to move on,” Erik Guay said.
You can watch World Cup skiing this weekend from Lake Louise and Beaver Creek, Colo. (the women's tour) on CBC and CBCSports.ca. Check here for listings.