Sipping a coffee in the La Tovière hotel in Val d’Isère, France, Canadian men’s downhill ski team coach Heinz Stohl was in a reflective mood. It was Dec. 6,1987, the eve of the first race of the World Cup downhill season. Looking out the hotel restaurant’s picture window at the race course across the road, the 40-year-old Austrian recalled the team’s years of preparation for February’s Calgary Winter Olympic Games. Said Stohl: “We have done everything possible. But it is like pieces of a big puzzle.
If there’s one tiny, little thing missing, then the picture is not complete.
But I think we are ready.”
Indeed, the Canadian men downhillers are not only in the Olympic picture but are actually among the gold-medal favorites. While the women’s team largely pins its medal hopes on veteran Laurie Graham, 27, the men are on the threshold of once again becoming a dominant downhill team.
The pieces of Stohl’s puzzle did not quite fit at Val d’Isère. The best the team could manage was Rob Boyd’s fifth-place finish and Brian Stemmle’s 15th. But the following week in Italy, the Canadians proved that they are ready. Even the superb Swiss team—winners of nine of the 11 World Cup downhills last season— could not match the Canadians at Vál Gardena.
Boyd, of Whistler, B.C., who will turn 22 the day after the Feb. 14 Olympic downhill, won for the second time in two years on the demanding course. And Stemmle, 21, of Aurora, Ont., placed third to reach the podium for the first time in a World Cup downhill, while Felix Belczyk, 26, of Castlegar, B.C., was 10th. It was the best Canadian team performance since the 1975-1984 reign of Steve Podborski, Ken Read and the rest of the Crazy Canucks. Said Belcyzk: “The flickers have been seen
during the last race and last season. Now, it’s here. No one can dispute a result like this.”
When the current Olympic cycle—1984 to 1988—began, it seemed that the best the men’s team could hope for in Calgary was to avoid embarrassment. Glenn Wurtele, 36, of Whistler, B.C., took over the head coaching duties when John Ritchie retired after the Sarajevo Games. Wur-
tele and Stohl—the former coach of the Austrian team who specializes in selecting the skis, waxes and line of attack on the courses—had just one proven World Cup skier on the team, Todd Brooker. A terrifying fall last January at Kitzbühel, Austria, ended his career.
But long before Brooker’s injury, the coaches realized that they would have to develop the younger skiers if they were to succeed in Calgary. Wurtele devised a Games plan stressing technical training and an organized approach to physical conditioning—two aspects that eroded
during the era of the Crazy Canucks. In contrast to an almost exclusive concentration on the downhill, the training now involves extensive work on slalom and giant slalom courses to develop and reinforce the technical skills required by the repeated and sharp turns of those events. Indeed, on the technically demanding 1987 World Championship downhill course at Crans Montana, Switzerland,
Boyd finished fifth, the only non-Swiss in the top six.
As the technical training has paid dividends, so has the conditioning program. The superstar Crazy Canucks had their own regimens, tailored to their specific needs. The younger skiers were largely left to their own devices. Explained Wurtele: “When I took over, that policy of ‘doing your own thing’ carried over to the younger guys on the team, which wasn’t good. Even if they are winning World Cups, I don’t care. Some of them have the talent, but perhaps not the mental tough-
ness. They can develop that if the coach plays a really strong part, basically kicking their butts, getting them moving.”
Boyd and Stemmle, products of Wurtele’s four-year regime, have ascended the downhill rankings at an amazing pace. The average age of the first seed— the top 15 skiers—at Val Gardena was 26, yet at 21, Boyd and Stemmle approach their first Olympics as legitimate medal contenders. At week’s end, Boyd was ranked eighth in the world, Stemmle 16th. The 1986-1987 downhill champion and veteran of 11 World Cup seasons, Peter Müller of Switzerland, is a man who doles out compliments grudgingly. Yet Müller bestowed the ultimate accolade on Boyd at Val d’Isère by calling him a “Crazy Canuck” and added, “It is not going to be easy to beat the Canadians.”
Boyd and Stemmle are friendly rivals with contrasting personalities.
Boyd is an intense competitor whose mood is usually dictated by his performance on the hill.
Stemmle is much more relaxed, rarely finishing a conversation without breaking into a smile.
Belczyk, the only holdover from the Crazy Canuck period—having joined the team in the 1981-1982 season—is still waiting for a major breakthrough. But together, the team enjoys a camaraderie and selflessness rarely seen in what is essentially an individual sport. Explained Boyd: “When Brooker was with us, he was the leader.
Now I may be a leader on a piece of paper saying that I’m ranked ahead of everyone else, but we’re such good friends, and we treat each other as equals.”
Boyd is partial to the terrain of the Olympic course at Mount Allan. The bottom of that layout involves jumps and glides, two facets of the sport in which he has displayed a natural talent. At the Val Gardena course, with similar flat stretches at the lower end, Boyd has been the fastest in the world over the bottom third of the course for the past three years. At last year’s World Cup event on the Mount Allan course, won by Switzerland’s Müller, Canada had three skiers in the top 15—Boyd (fifth), Stemmle (tied for 13th) and Belczyk (15th). Said Wurt-
ele: “Judging by that, we have good potential on the course.”
The Christmas break interrupted the team’s momentum. And when they returned from their vacations, lack of snow in Schladming, Austria, forced the cancellation of the Dec. 31 World Cup downhill race. The team’s search for snow led them to the resort of Are, Sweden, to
prepare for the Jan. 9 race scheduled for Val d’Isère, a replacement for snowless Garmisch-Partenkirchen, West Germany. But as they waited and trained, the Canadian men could reflect on the team’s progress since 1984 and on all the pieces that have fallen into place.
The women’s team remains a puzzle with some missing pieces. The early part of the women’s World Cup season did not unfold as Graham had hoped. Her best result in three downhills was a fourthplace finish in the first race of the annual back-to-back runs at Val d’Isère in December. It was the first time in three seasons that she did not win one race of the doubleheader. The 27-year-old from Inglewood, Ont., tied for 14th in the second race and placed fifth in a downhill at
Leukerbad, Switzerland, a week later. But as women’s team head coach Currie Chapman is quick to point out, Graham— with six World Cup victories—will be ready on race day in Calgary. Said Chapman: “Laurie can turn on her race mode as soon as she hits any starting gate, anytime.” Added Graham: “Having the Games in Canada is just the ultimate for a Canadian winter athlete.”
With the injury last season to super giant slalom and downhill specialist Liisa Savijarvi and the retirement of slalomer Dee Dee Haight, the coaches predicted that the young skiers on the women’s team would be ready to fill the gap. And the initial signs are encouraging. Canada placed four in the top 15 of the first race in Val d’Isère and three in the top 15 of the second. Kellie Casey, 22, of Collingwood, Ont., finished fifth and 12th, while Kerrin Lee, 21, of Rossland, B.C., was eighth and 14th.
The Canadian women’s team is a better balanced team than its male counterpart, having made more progress in the slalom events. In addition to the downhill stars, Karen Percy, 21, of Banff, Alta., is the country’s best medal prospect. Percy will likely race in all five disciplines at the Olympics—downhill, slalom, giant slalom, => super giant slalom and I combined—but she is fo| cusing on the combined event, which couples the results of a downhill and a slalom. She finished third in the combined at Leukerbad,
as well as fourth in a super
giant slalom. Chapman, who has guided the women’s team for the past decade, is happy with the team’s progress. Said Chapman: “We have a number of skiers performing well, we have the momentum going. We just have to keep it rolling along through the Olympics.”
With the Calgary Games less than two months away, the Canadian alpine ski teams appeared more than ready. And as they waited for snow in Europe, Games organizers halfway across the world waited for the same. The weather was the final piece of the puzzle. The rest of the pieces were beginning to fit.
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