Canadian skiers Kelly VanderBeek and Larisa Yurkiw are closing in on a return to World Cup racing more than two years after suffering catastrophic knee injuries at virtually the same time.
During their absence, retirements by other veteran skiers have left the cupboard nearly bare on the national women's speed team.
Yurkiw, from Owen Sound, Ont., stepped into the start gate of a World Cup race Sunday for the first time since Dec. 16, 2009, when she crashed in training for a downhill race in Val-d'Isere, France.
The 23-year-old skied off course in Sunday's super-G in Cortina, Italy, and did not finish.
"I was disappointed, but it can't be easy. It's not magic," Yurkiw said from Europe. "I spent years getting to know the World Cup circuit and then years off it just trying to get back to there.
"Just going that fast again and being smart and being aggressive, those are emotions I didn't experience for a couple of years. I'm excited and I don't want to be anywhere else."
VanderBeek fell and tore up her left knee in a training run the day after Yurkiw's crash in Val-d'Isere.
VanderBeek is tentatively planning to participate in downhill training in St. Moritz, Switzerland, next Wednesday.
The 28-year-old from Kitchener, Ont., would then decide if she's ready to race the two World Cup downhills and a super-G there Jan. 27-29.
"I'm to the point where it's good enough now that I can push really hard in training," VanderBeek said this week in Calgary. "I want to see if I can push really hard on a legit course.
"Essentially, downhill training runs are racing. There's no half-assing it down a downhill. You can't phone that in. Unlike hockey, you can't go out and do a shift here or there and see how you're feeling. Skiing, especially speed events, you're full on, or you're not on."
VanderBeek has won three World Cup medals — two silver and a bronze — and was .03 seconds away from a super-G bronze medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.
Considered a medal contender for the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., VanderBeek wasn't able to race because of her knee, which required two surgeries to reconstruct.
Yurkiw was a rising talent at the time of her injury with top-10 World Cup results on her resume. She was able to develop behind senior racers VanderBeek, Emily Brydon and Britt Janyk.
The 2010 Games were supposed to be a platform for Yurkiw to build on for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. But she too had multiple surgeries to repair torn ligaments and was unable to compete in what would have been her first Olympics.
Brydon and Janyk have retired since the 2010 Games. Without VanderBeek and Yurkiw to blaze a trail for the next crop of young skiers, the road to the top of the women's downhill podium looked like a long one for Canada.
Yurkiw was joined in Sunday's super-G by developmental-team racer Sarah Freeman of Pincher Creek, Alta., and slalom specialist Marie Pier-Prefontaine of Saint Sauveur, Que. Like Yurkiw, neither woman finished their race in Cortina.
"I grew up with vets on the team and now I'm like the mother hen at 23," Yurkiw said. "Things have changed a lot, but I'm excited to have Kelly back."
Yurkiw has raced more than VanderBeek in her comeback. Yurkiw competed in Nor Am events in Alberta in December and Europa Cup races last week in Austria. Both are circuits ranked below the World Cup.
She's planning to compete in a Europa Cup downhill and super-G this weekend in St. Moritz before the World Cup gets underway there.
"I'm still definitely battling with mental obstacles," Yurkiw said. "I'm slowly shedding some of those protective ways of going at it.
"Especially my first downhill back, I was doing things that slow me down and that's not the way a racer is bred."
VanderBeek has been a course forerunner in Nor Am events, but hasn't raced yet. She has more previous World Cup racing experience to draw on than Yurkiw, however.
"I'm excited to go and be in the environment again," VanderBeek said. "It's been a long time.
"I've had really good training, but at the end of the day, I need to find something to hold onto to get me through to Sochi and I think this will be a big part of helping me do that."
Both women feel next month's World Cup downhill and super-G in Sochi are significant races because they're dress rehearsals for the Olympic Winter Games there in two years.
VanderBeek's return to racing may still be up in the air somewhat, but Yurkiw has circled the World Cup races in Sochi on her calendar.
"I'm really happy that I'm in a place that I can go there and experience it," Yurkiw said. "It's definitely a place I want to be in 2014, so to go this year and explore was definitely a goal in August and we've met it."