Monday, December 22, 1997
The waiting game
He's a very precise skier and excels on more demanding terrain. Thomas was in 15th when we left, he ended up in 25th and was obviously disappointed, especially after being on the podium in GS earlier in the season.
We hit the road, and made a slight detour in our trip to visit the national junior women's team athletes involved in a car accident near Verona.
It seems like we've been spending a lot of time visiting people in the hospital this year. This is one of the things that I'm superstitious about. I believe the more time you spend visiting people in the hospital, the less time you will spend in the hospital yourself. Like making deposits into the good karma bank.
The weather for the first two days of the week was beautiful and we managed some much-needed training before official training runs at Val Gardena started Wednesday. The Europeans began arriving Tuesday, refreshed after spending two days at home.
We finally had a chance to look at the course Wednesday, the weather was overcast and a storm was brewing. In the morning it still looked pretty positive, so we prepared to have our first downhill training run in almost two weeks. Val Gardena is one of the "Classic 5" courses we race each year.
While some downhills rotate in and out of the calendar, Val Gardena is an annual World Cup host. It also boasts the most famous jump in downhill -- the "Camel Jump," named for its resemblance to the back of a two-humped camel.
Two enormous mounds of snow make for a perfect takeoff and landing ramp, with the skier flying as high as 10 metres and as far 70 metres. In the '70s, skiers would either go around the jumps (much slower) or would try and absorb both rolls. The first skier to jump the rolls was an Italian named Uli Spiess, who would win the race that day, and forever set the precedent future winners must follow. Today, everyone is jumping the double, as many times as I have raced this course I always get excited heading into the Camels, a good jump means that you are on your way to a good run, however a bad jump usually spells a short toboggan ride to the hospital.
It used to be that the Canadians would really excel on that section of the course, however everyone is getting much more comfortable in the air now and having fewer problems with the bigger jumps (too bad for us).
The weather was overcast and somewhat drizzly for Thursday's training run. I decided to take a slightly different line over one of the jumps on the top part of the course, and even though I am only slightly off the line everyone else is taking, I sail off the jump much higher and further than expected, and just miss a close call with the net on the side of the course. I end up missing the following gate and getting totally flustered for the remaining part of the run. Brian Stemmle has a good run and ends up in 15th position from the 43rd start position. Kevin Wert from Rossland, B.C., does not take his final training run because of back problems.
We wake up Friday, the morning of the race, and follow our new ritual -- look out our window and curse at the weather. It is another overcast, foggy, rainy day. We seem to have had more days like that this season than in the last three years put together. And it is only December!
Such was in evidence Friday. We were scheduled for a 1 p.m. start, but the fog was so thick on the course that from the start gate the racers couldn't see the first gate. Amazingly, at 2:30, amid patches of fog, they decided to start the race. They sent the first 12 racers down the course, including Canada's Luke Sauder. Unfortunately, visibility was so bad for these racers they decided to cancel.
The plan for the second race day on Saturday was to have two full-length runs on the same day, and if that wasn't possible in the morning, to try for a sprint downhill (two runs on a shortened course). I'm excited about this idea because my best races have been on shorter courses. I won my only World Cup downhill in Saalbach, Austria, on a day too windy to start from the top so we had a sprint downhill instead.
The night before the race, the organizers assemble the top-15 athletes for a public bib draw in the town that is hosting the race. At the bib draw the top athletes (in descending order) choose which number they'll start the following day. The athletes will take a number of variables into consideration because races have been won and lost according to start numbers. For example, if it snows throughout the night and the race line has a lot of snow on it, then the early runners will be at a disadvantage because the track will speed up as the new snow compacts.
On the other hand, the course also deteriorates as each racer charges down the slope, so picking a number too far back could be a disadvantage. Visibility and wind can also change from one racer to another, I typically leave the decision up to my serviceman (the technician who tunes my skis from Rossignol) to decide where it would be better for me to start. He is generally more in tune with the weather and the snow conditions because he must also gauge the wax properly in order for me to have a fast run.
At Friday's bib draw I pick No. 16 for two reasons -- one because Bobby Clarke who wore it was a hockey hero of mine, and also because I want to be right in the middle of the other top-15 athletes, so nobody will have a real advantage. During the bib draw, it starts to rain, yet another bad omen for Saturday's race. We have a hearty dinner and then off to sleep.
Our second chance at a race at Val Gardena ended early. While we are out for our morning jog at 7 a.m., the coach had already received word from the race jury the race is cancelled. Two weeks have passed now without a race and we're starting to get a little restless.
What do we do? What would any restless Canadian do? We went out to the rink and played hockey then packed up our clothes and headed off to the site of our next race, Bormio, Italy, to spend Christmas there. Since I joined the Mackenzie Canadian Alpine Ski Team, I've spent three Christmases in Europe. It's one of the small tradeoffs we deal with in order to pursue a sport we love.
We have an elaborate gift exchange program worked out where each athlete gives a present to another athlete; we decorate a Christmas tree, and all in all manage to have a very nice Christmas. Next week I will relate our Christmas adventures and share some insight into our next race in Bormio, where I've been successful with third- and fourth-place finishes the past two seasons.
I'd like to extend a very Merry Christmas from the Canadian ski team to Sun readers. I hope the snow is falling where you are and you have a very Merry Christmas!