Canada looks to break 20-year medal drought in alpine skiing
Gagnon, Guay are legitimate contenders for a return to the podium
Canada’s ascension to the top of the medal table over the past few Winter Olympics has not included podium trips from the country’s top alpine skiers.
Since Ed Podivinsky won bronze at the 1994 Lillehammer Games, Canada has been shut out over a span of 49 races. You have to go back nine races before that for the most recent of Canada’s four Olympic gold medals in alpine, won by Kerrin Lee-Gartner in the downhill at the 1992 Albertville Olympics.
There have been close calls since, including a pair of top five performances from Erik Guay at the Vancouver Olympics, but Canada has watched from the sidelines as just nine countries have accounted for those 49 gold medals.
Gartner believes the Canadian team members who competed in Vancouver will be helped by the fewer distractions and requests from media and family members halfway around the world.
"The pressure in Russia will seem easy compared to what happened in Vancouver, and that's what I had from Calgary [in 1988] to Albertville," said Gartner, alpine skiing analyst for CBC Sports.
Here’s a look at the Canadian team heading to Sochi, including their chances for ending the medal drought:
Erik Guay didn’t get on skis this season until Nov. 1 due to off-season knee surgery, but has called upon all his guile and experience to get back into contention in the downhill. With a win in Val Gardena and a subsequent bronze, the Mont-Tremblant, Que., native broke the all-time Canadian men’s record with 21 career podium finishes.
Guay exercised discretion in January by opting not to race at legendary Kitzbuehel due to knee problems, but it is undoubtedly a cause for concern. As well, his best finish in the super-G this season is sixth place, and he hasn't been on the podium in that discipline in over three years.
Which means the pressure will really be on for the Feb. 9 downhill.
The strongest contender to break the drought, based on consistent results this season, is Marie-Michèle Gagnon of Lac-Etechemin, Que.
"I really suspect she could be a medal threat in more than one discipline, the combined and slalom at least, in the Olympics," Gartner said.
Gagnon has amassed eight top 10 results spread out over slalom, giant slalom and super-G events.Then on Jan. 12, a victory in the super-combined gave her a first ever World Cup win.
It should be noted that Gagnon's victory comprised a slalom and super-G. The super-combined taking place at Sochi on Feb. 10 will consist of a downhill (shorter than a typical World Cup downhhill) and a slalom. Gagnon typically doesn’t enter downhill events, although she managed to earn points in the discipline in a Jan. 11 race.
Not probable, but very possible
Jan Hudec of Calgary has a history of getting the ball rolling for Canada, so why not him? This season, he reached the podium before Guay or Gagnon, with a silver in the super-G at Val Gardena for his fifth career podium finish.
He won a historic downhill silver at the 2007 worlds. At the time it was the best ever finish by a Canadian man at the worlds, with teammates John Kucera and Guay following in the next two years with gold medal efforts.
Hudec, 32, has endured seven knee injuries in his career, but it’s a slipped disk in his back that could slow him down this time. He was forced to miss the Wengen races in mid-January, although he did return for Kitzbuehel, where he finished 29th in the super-G.
Manny Osborne-Paradis of North Vancouver suffered a devastating leg injury in January 2011 that took him out of competition until a transitionary 2012-13 season.
Osborne-Paradis has impressed teammates and coaches since the team's summer training camps in New Zealand and South America. He’s been waiting four years now to achieve his 10th career World Cup podium, but has managed fourth- and seventh-place showings this season in the downhill.
Lightning strikes again?
There are two young Canadian skiers who have demonstrated the talent to be in the top three before struggling in 2013-14.
Erin Mielzynski of Guelph, Ont., was the first Canadian woman to win a World Cup slalom race in 41 years in 2012, and she won a bronze medal in slalom the following year. But this year’s been a struggle, with a 14th on Feb. 2; her best result of the season.
"She's still trying to figure what's her very best mindset on race day," said Gartner. "Because she is fast enough in the slalom, fast as anyone on the mountain in training and on certain runs."
Ben Thomsen of Invermere, B.C., finished second in the super-G at Sochi two years ago but has struggled to earn top 30 points this season. On a positive note, he's coming off his best race of the season heading to Sochi.
The Cinderella story
Larisa Yurkiw of Owen Sound, Ont. did it her way. When the best Canadian women's speed racers from the 2010 Winter Olympics subsequently retired and Yurkiw endured injury woes that stretched into years, official Alpine Canada funding dried up.
Yurkiw raised more than $150,000 from private individuals and businesses to back her bit and then showed she belongs with the world's best this season, with a pair of top 10 downhill finishes.
Martin Rufener came to Alpine Canada in the spring of last year after a period of great success with the Swiss team. He also consulted for Canada back in the early 1990s.
Rufener's goal is to have a deep stable of skiers across disciplines and over several years, so that a situation like Yurkiw's won't be repeated again.
This will be an important event for the under-25 competitors on the team who have shown great potential.
Those competitors include Trevor Philp of Calgary, Morgan Pridy of Whistler, B.C., Brit Phelan of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., Elli Terwiel of Sun Peaks, B.C. and Toronto’s Phil Brown.
Olympic alpine skiing schedule:
- Sunday, Feb. 9: Men's downhill
- Monday, Feb. 10: Women's super-combined
- Wednesday, Feb. 12: Women's downhill
- Friday, Feb. 14: Men's super-combined
- Saturday, Feb. 15: Women's super-G
- Sunday, Feb. 16: Men's super-G
- Tuesday, Feb. 18: Women's giant slalom
- Wednesday, Feb. 19: Men's giant slalom
- Friday, Feb. 21: Women's slalom
- Saturday, Feb. 22: Men's slalom