Canadian Cowboys have big goals in downhill
The men's downhill is slated for 11:45 a.m. on Day 1 of the Vancouver games - Feb. 13 - and represents one of the host nation's best chances for snapping an inglorious streak.
Canada has never won a gold medal at a home Olympics, failing at both the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal and the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary.
"There's certainly going to be a lot of attention on that first day," Canada Alpine director Max Gartner said in a recent interview. "Who can be the first Canadian to win a gold medal? People are realizing there's a bunch of guys that can do it. It's going to be a high-profile event."
The Canadian men feature at least four potential medal contenders in downhill - John Kucera, Jan Hudec, Erik Guay and Manuel Osborne-Paradis - a group that calls itself the Canadian Cowboys.
Kucera won gold in downhill at last season's world championships in Val d'Isere, France.
"It was cool to see that I could put together my best day on the most important day of the season," Kucera said. "That's going to be great experience heading into the games."
Hudec claimed silver in downhill at the previous worlds in Are, Sweden, in 2007; Guay has seven World Cup podium finishes in the discipline; and Osborne-Paradis claimed the first World Cup victory of his career in the event at the end of last season in Kvitjfell, Norway.
Guay's younger brother Stephan claimed bronze in downhill at the junior worlds three years ago, although he might not even get a chance to race the event in Whistler, with each country allowed only four starters.
"We've got big expectations. We're supposed to win two medals, and we're going to win two medals," Gartner said, referring to the targets set up by the big-budget Own the Podium initiative designed to improve Canada's performance in every sport.
The Alpine squad has raised its own in-house target to three medals.
"We think we have some good chances, but a ski race is a ski race. And anything can happen," said the Austrian-born Gartner, who guided wife, Kerrin Lee-Gartner, to Olympic downhill gold in 1992.
Weeks of exclusive training time on the Whistler course over the past several years should help.
"There's no question our downhill guys should know that course better than anyone else," added Gartner, who has hired two former U.S. Ski Team coaches to meet the squad's goals.
Austrian-born Patrick Riml is in his second season as head coach of the women's team after guiding American racer Lindsey Vonn to her first overall World Cup title, and speed specialist John McBride has been coaxed out of retirement to join the men's staff.
McBride led the U.S. men's speed team for years before becoming Bode Miller's personal coach in 2007-08, guiding Miller to his second overall title.
The Canadians coaxed McBride out of retirement by offering him a deal that requires only in-season work.
"I've got a busy deal here at home living on a cattle ranch, so for me it works great," McBride said from Aspen, Colo. "To be able to come on and work for three months was pretty opportune for me, having three kids at home.
"I love coaching still. It's a neat opportunity for me to still be a part of it and not have to dig through the trenches and go to every single summer camp and conditioning camp. We're northerly and southerly neighbors, so if there was any other team I would for, it would be my neighbors right next door."
Although McBride wasn't there, the downhillers trained with defending overall World Cup champion Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway in Portillo, Chile, over the summer.
"Svindal is obviously a good measuring stick. He was always among the fastest, but we were challenging him and won some runs in downhill - and GS too," Gartner said in Soelden, Austria, last weekend. "But you have to be careful with the Norwegians. We used to train with (Lasse) Kjus and (Kjetil Andre) Aamodt and sometimes you would beat them by a lot in training and all of a sudden they would turn the switch on for the race."
The women's speed squad also has potential, with Emily Brydon and Britt Janyk having won on the World Cup circuit and Kelly Vanderbeek a three-time podium finisher.
Perhaps more importantly, the entire Canadian squad is healthy entering this season.
Hudec is ready to return from his sixth knee surgery and giant slalom specialist Francois Bourque came back in Soelden after crashing in the season-opener a year ago.
Jean-Philippe Roy led the Canadians in Soelden by placing ninth.
Six of the seven giant slaloms on this year's World Cup circuit are scheduled before the Olympics.
"I'll know then if I've had a good year or not," Roy said. "If I reach my goal on the World Cup, then I think the Olympics are going to be good."
The women's GS squad still has some work to do, with none of the five starters qualifying for the second run in Soelden.
Marie-Michele Gagnon led the team by placing 33rd in the opening leg. Genevieve Simard raced despite the flu and was 47th.
"This is a day to forget," Gagnon said. "But this doesn't mean we can't have a great day some other day."
Still, it's the speed disciplines that get Canadians most excited.
"It goes back to the Crazy Canuck era and the yellow downhill suit," Gartner said, recalling the exploits of Ken Read, Steve Podborksi, Dave Murray and Dave Irwin in the 1970s and 80s. "That's where the real attraction comes in."