Sunday, February 13, 2011

Olympic skier and luge slider find redemption

One year ago, when we were celebrating with patriotic gusto the 14 gold medals and 26 total Olympic baubles won by Canadian athletes, the country’s alpine skiers and luge sliders were left out in the cold.

Shut out on home soil, they were unable to party hearty with our beaming bobsledders, beer-chugging skeleton racers and cigar-puffing hockey players.

The skiers left Whistler shaking heads at their failure to handle the weight of expectation and the cruel fate of landing on the wrong side of the hundredths of a second. The lugers left fuming about the lowered start position that negated their home track advantage.

But in the space of an hour Saturday, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, and in Paramonova, Russia, gutsy Erik Guay and Alex Gough reached deep and found redemption.

And for that, they deserve to be celebrated every bit as much as Jon Montgomery, Joannie Rochette, Ashleigh McIvor et. al.

Guay, essentially the last man standing on an alpine team decimated by injury, shook off his own back woes and won the marquee event at alpine skiing’s world championships in Garmisch, the men’s downhill.

Gough, a disappointing 18th at the Olympics, won a women’s World Cup on the sport’s newest track, snapping Germany’s seemingly unbreakable 105-race, 13-year winning streak.

As Guay said of overcoming challenges: “It speaks to the fighting spirit we have. If you keep battling, good things will come.”

Guay’s win makes it back-to-back world downhill champions for Canada. John Kucera won in 2009, but broke his leg at the start of the 2009-10 season and still hasn’t returned to racing.

“I keep joking that Johnny wasn’t here to defend his title, so I’m just keeping it on ice for him,” said Guay in a conference call.

The Mont Tremblant, Que., native was fourth in the Super G at the 2006 Olympics (.10 seconds off the podium), fourth in the downhill at the 2009 world championships (.02 off the podium) and fifth in both the Super G and downhill at the 2010 Olympics, when he was just .34 and .33 out of the gold medal position.

He says those in the ski racing world know all about being on the right or wrong side of the hundredths of a second.

“I’ve always seemed to be on the wrong side, but last year I was on the right side [in winning the final two Super G races of the season to capture the] Crystal Globe,” he said. “If you persist and stay at it long enough, it will eventually go your way.

“This definitely is a monkey off my back. Nobody can say now I don’t perform at big events.”

Guay, the first Canadian male to win a world championship and a Crystal Globe, finished .32 seconds ahead of favorite Didier Cuche of Switzerland and .76 seconds ahead of Italy’s Christof Innerhofer.

European news agency Reuters, in its race report, called Guay a “rank outsider,” a strange choice of words given how comfortable he feels at Garmisch. In his previous four World Cup races at the Bavarian ski resort, he was third, first, third, first — the first three races all downhills.

Admittedly, Guay did have that wonky back, which had forced him to miss two races earlier in the season. On a conference call before the championships, he had said it was still affecting him.

But on Saturday, he conceded he overplayed that a bit to take some of the pressure off himself. “I don’t feel it when I ski.”

Guay said season-ending injuries to fellow Canadians Francois Bourque (knee), Manuel Osborne-Paradis (broken leg, knee), Robbie Dixon (concussion) and Louis-Pierre Helie (knee, concussion) had taken a psychological toll.

But he shook off those bad vibes and his own tendency to get too charged up in the start gate and skied with a new sense of calmness.

“A lot of times, I feel like I get overly excited and I want it too much. I’d tighten up instead of using my cat-like reflexes. Today I felt like everything was coming slowly almost. It’s a neat feeling. I call it ‘magic skiing’ when it feels like that.”

It was a magic day in Russia for Gough, a 23-year-old Calgarian.

“This is absolutely fantastic,” she said after her two-run combined time of one minute, 33.536 seconds beat out the 1:33.914 of Carina Schwab of Germany. Another German, Natalie Geisenberger was third in 1:33.935.

“I always knew this winning streak would come to an end one day. I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished.”

With their huge budget, state-of-the-art equipment and easy access to European tracks, the German women had been unbeaten in World Cups since Nov. 29, 1997.

But the new sliding track in Paramonova helped level the playing field. And the improving Gough took full advantage. She had three third-place finishes on the circuit earlier in the season and two weeks ago became the first Canadian ever to reach the podium at the luge world championships when she won bronze.

The Canadian program began to turn around three years ago. Aided by Own the Podium financing, the national luge federation recruited Wolfgang Staudinger out of Germany to be the head coach. He put in place a system that was designed to create consistency and repeatable performances.

“You cannot even imagine what it was like around the finish line when a Canadian finally ended this [German] streak,” he said. “This is not just history in Canada, but this is luge history in the world.”

Saturday may have come a year later than Gough and Guay would have liked. But a continent away from home, they made Canada proud.

No comments:

Post a Comment