With that fifth, higher-pitched beep, Broderick Thompson launches out of the start gate and past the TV camera with one strong push of his poles into the foggy abyss below him on Lake Louise’s “Tickety Chute”.
One of the first Canadians to leave the start during five days of thrilling World Cup downhill and super-G races in November, the 23-year-old is keen to show the world stage — and a 150 million-strong television audience — what Canada is made of.
The Whistler, B.C. local would end up placing 23rd of 76 racers on the first day of the downhill race, the fastest, and therefore most crowd pleasing discipline on the World Cup circuit.
It was an impressive feat for someone so young starting so late in the race — this meant having having to battle through wet snow, wind gusts and low light.
His parents, along with Olympic gold-winning sister Marielle, greeted him excitedly at the finish corral’s VIP area. They weren’t only thrilled with his run, but thankful to see him safe after charging through fog at speeds averaging 115 km/h and topping out at 135.
This week, Thompson blasted down the hill again at the PyeongChang Olympics.
On Feb. 13, he placed 23rd to be the top Canadian in the alpine combined event which combines a time from the fastest event, downhill, with the slowest, slalom.
He followed it up the next day with a 35th place finish in the downhill medal race, and then the next with a 23rd in the super-G. A great Olympic debut for one of the youngest men on the team.
American media darling Mikaela Shiffrin is a specialist in the more technical disciplines of slalom and giant slalom — she’d never seen the podium in a World Cup speed race. She certainly wasn’t expected to dazzle at Lake Louise.
As the two days of downhill came to a close, however, she was on a plane home with gold and silver medals around her neck.
“I thought I could be solidly top 10 in downhill but certainly not a podium, that would be really presumptuous,” she says.
Laughter was a common theme for her in the finish area. “My normal coach isn’t here, and I’m realizing that he keeps me together. I’m like, ‘Where’s my goggles? Where’s my poles? Where’s my drink? Where’s my hat? Where am I?’ So that was pretty funny.”
Shiffrin planned on taking a shot at four different medal events. She took the gold in the giant slalom on Feb. 14, and followed that up the next day with a fourth place finish in the slalom. Unfortunately for Shiffrin the ladies’ alpine combined event was shifted a day earlier from Feb. 23rd to the 22nd, and as a result, she pulled out of contention for the downhill.
“As much as I wanted to compete in the Olympic downhill, with the schedule change it’s important for me to focus my energy on preparing for the combined,” said Shiffrin in a statement. She would end up leaving South Korea with one more silver medal around her neck from that alpine combined.
While athletes like Thompson and Shiffrin get to compete in Korea, some athletes won’t be able live out their Olympic aspirations.
In early November, veteran French downhiller David Poisson died instantly after flying through safety netting and into thick forest during a training run at Nakiska.
Later, in December, 17-year-old German racer Max Burkhart succumbed to his injuries after a crash during a NorAm race on that same Lake Louise course Thompson completed.
The latest data from the governing body Fédération Internationale de Ski shows a rate of 37 injuries per 100 World Cup athletes per season — the vast majority of which keep athletes from training and competing.
While no absolute data exists on fatalities in alpine competition, Canadian ski race fans will remember the death of Toronto’s Nick Zoricic in 2012, contributing to the average of 38 North American recreational and competitive ski fatalities each year.
It’s a risk understood by all, but for the athletes like Thompson who learn to manage it, it’s worth the pursuit of Olympic gold.
An athlete’s psyche
“Absolutely it’s crazy, it’s a ridiculous thing to be doing,” Thompson acknowledged. “But when I’m at the start, I’m confident in the process that has gone on to put me here. I’m confident in myself. And once I know that, that’s when it starts to be so much fun it's hard to say no. Once you get going fast, you also forget about the dangers because you're having so much fun.”
The process that Thompson refers to includes a year-round saga of sports psychology consultations, weight room sessions and on-hill training across four hemispheres. It separates the armchair observer’s perception of the sport and the athletes pointing their skis straight down Lake Louise for a minute-and-a-half.
“When my athletes’ get in that start gate, they need to know in themselves, not just me telling them, that they've done everything they could do to be prepared,” explained national Paralympic team coach Will Marshall.
He adds, “You can tell when an athlete steps in the gate on their facial expression that they're okay with the outcome. The second that an athlete is okay with an outcome, that's when an athlete's in their best place."
Marshall highlights the unique, under-the-microscope type of pressure that he helps his Paralympic athletes cope with as they prepare for their turn in PyeongChang, Mar. 9-18.
“A lot of people who don’t compete as athletes, they’re judging their success like 'How did I do at work?' Whereas these guys are being directly told, 'You made it on the podium, you did it.' Or the timing in the racing is telling them they're slower than they should be. That is very hard, they're dealing with either failure or success every day in a very literal form.”
One might think that nerves surrounding expectations, or nerves surrounding their own safety, would be something that fades as a young alpine racer grows into an adult and gains experience on the world stage. This isn’t the case.
“They might show on their face that they're not scared but I'd argue there aren't any racers that aren’t nervous,” Marshall says. “You should have butterflies in your stomach and the second you learn to embrace that and enjoy that, that's when you become a better athlete.”
Sarah Elliott represented Canada at the Lake Louise World Cup in 2015, and she echoed the sentiment. “They actually call it ‘The Fear,”’ said the 25-year-old, whose constant knee trouble stemming from three separate crashes led her to retire later that season. “It’s just the reality that you’re going to be afraid.”
Every Olympic sport has its share of injuries, but speed puts downhill racing at the top of the list.
A 2012 study by Scientific American pegged alpine racing at number 10 most dangerous on a list of 45 summer and winter Olympic sports.
A knee injury like Elliott’s is by far the most prevalent among World Cup ski racers, constituting one-third of injuries that take athletes out of commission.
"Everyone always told me that blowing your knee was a rite of passage as a ski racer, that it happens to everyone,” said Elliott. “So the first one was fairly easy to come back from, and I was young too. The second one was a bit harder to come back from, and the third was like 'are you kidding me?'”
The Okanagan native said it was a serious blow to her drive. “I felt like I'd worked really hard in my rehab and all my physiotherapists and surgeons had said that I was solid and had done a good job, so then to have it fail again was really frustrating.”
Sitting it out
Overcoming injury seems to be central to the psyche of most Olympic ski racers, even the best of the best.
Aksel Lund Svindal, the Norwegian star of the Red Bull team and perennial crowd favourite, placed third at Lake Louise this year.
With Louise being the first stop on the World Cup circuit, it marked a solid return for the three-time Olympic medallist after a wreck at the world-famous Kitzbuhel, Austria downhill prematurely ended his season 11 months prior.
“I don’t plan on doing only a few races every year like its been the last couple years. I’m pretty relaxed, I realized that the condition I’m in and my knee is in, I’m not going to ski forever,” explained the six-foot-four Norwegian from the finish corral, basking in the podium finish with his coaches.
“But it’s a lot of fun and I don’t want to stop quite yet. You never know what’s going to happen.”
The 34-year-old Svindal continued, “You don’t get old in sport really, it’s more the injuries that you’ve had. You recover from another injury and another and in the end, there’s just too much stuff not working the way it should.”
In an effort to preserve his knee, Svindal chose to sit out the tight, ligament-jerking turns of the slalom portion of Feb. 13’s alpine combined — it proved to be a good call.
Two days later he won the Olympic gold in the men’s downhill, beating out his Norwegian teammate Kjetil Jansrud by twelve hundredths of a second.
Like Svindal, Invermere’s own Ben Thomsen chose to take himself out of medal contention for the alpine combined by sitting out the slalom after battling a bumpy downhill course on Feb. 15 where he placed 22nd.
Thomsen said that he’s taken a National Football League approach, focusing one game at a time on his World Cup races leading up to his second Olympic Games.
After placing second in a test race downhill for Sochi 2014, Thomsen went into race day in Sochi with high expectations for himself. He came home thoroughly disappointed with his 19th place finish.
“It’s a huge thing, it is the pinnacle of sports, but you can't put it on this pedestal or else you'll end up psyching yourself out,” said the 30-year-old. “I feel like that's what I did in Sochi, and I definitely learned a lot from my experience. It's a lot different going in this year."
"The race itself, it's nothing new for us. We have so many challenges day-to-day on the World Cup when we race whether that's Lake Louise or Kitsbuhel or Olympics, it's big, but it is just another run down a downhill course,” says Thomsen.
“It's when you get outside the fences, that's when things change drastically. It's about finding that even keel between the two."
As an additional way of keeping him grounded, Thomsen’s mother, a ski coach herself, has been accompanying her son through most of his primarily-European races this year.
A Relaxed State
Elliott, learning to work with the butterflies, placed halfway up the field in her World Cup appearance, an impressive result for a 23-year-old appearing on the circuit for the first time.
“I remember my club coach from Big White giving me really good advice, just saying 'this is just the first, there's no expectation, just enjoy every minute of it.' Which is what I did,” she explained.
“I remember being in the start, and it was sunny, it was pretty warm, and I just really tried to enjoy the day, because you only get one first World Cup. The girls who had been racing the downhill that week had either crashed or come last. So I thought 'okay, there's nothing to lose.’”
Of course, every fourth year there are added expectations put by athletes on themselves, from friends and family, and from funding and grant bodies. They can take their toll.
“You feel an extra stress come over the team, you feel like you know it's an Olympic year, people start to get excited. The important thing I think is not to change what you're doing if the team's successful already,” Marshall explained.
“For us, we've been a successful team for the past three years. Don't change what you're doing entirely, stick to the same program, fix little things that you could have done better the year before. I think the worst thing you can do is all of a sudden train an extra 15, 20 days — all of a sudden be on the road way longer.”
He says the team goes the extra mile to do what they can to take pressure off the athletes leading up to the Games. “We're not attending some races this year, we'll go, we'll pull back, we'll go train, we'll go relax a little bit, put the guys in a nicer hotel, make sure they're comfortable before we go to these places.”
- By Patrick Gibson