Erik Guay had been a puzzle.
On the surface, he was the guy who had everything - enormous talent, good looks, a ski-racing star in the making. Those in charge of the Canadian team understood that, and so did the folks at Red Bull: when they went looking for skiers to carry their beverage brand, and be paid handsomely for that privilege, Lindsey Vonn was their choice from among all the women on the World Cup circuit, Guay from among the men.
He hadn't won a lot of races - just one - but his consistent finishes in and around the top five suggested that, entering last season, a breakthrough was at hand.
It didn't turn out that way. Something seemed to be holding him back. His teammates, the close-knit band of brothers who dubbed themselves the Canadian Cowboys, joked that maybe fatherhood was the issue. Guay had become a dad, which (along with the Red Bull perks, including the occasional trip in the company's private jet) naturally separated him to a degree from the old gang.
More significantly than that, it seemed that his focus had shifted ever so slightly, which in a sport where first and 15th are separated by the finest margins of error, could make all of the difference.
While John Kucera won the world championship downhill in 2009, and Manuel Osborne-Paradis became the break-out star of the team heading into a home Olympic year, Guay went into off-season training with a big asterisk attached.
He emerged for the first races of the season at Lake Louise, Alta., talking about back problems that certainly sounded serious, and about how that might affect his confidence. (Though he still managed to finish fourth there in the super giant slalom).
Here's where handicapping the sport can be a mug's game: Kucera's season ended that first weekend, when he broke his leg in a fall; Osborne-Paradis enjoyed a great first half, but then made a crucial error in the Olympic downhill on his home mountain, and hasn't done much of anything since.
Meanwhile, Guay was top Canadian at the Olympics in the downhill and the super G, finishing fifth in both races - results lost in wake of the gold-medal haul elsewhere, and lumped in with the larger disappointment of Canada's men's and women's alpine teams failing to reach the podium.
He then returned to Europe and the World Cup circuit on a mission.
"I was almost angry," he said. "I wanted to show people how I could perform."
That Guay did.
In Kvitfjell, Norway, he was ninth in the downhill, then the next day won the super G on the same mountain. Two days later at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, he was third in the downhill. The next day - yesterday - he won the final World Cup super G of the season at Garmisch, which (coupled with leader Michael Walchhofer's 15th-place finish) gave him the season's title in the event, a turn of events no one expected - including Guay himself.
The last Canadian to win a World Cup discipline was Steve Podborski, who became the first North American to top the downhill standings in 1982. They aren't really comparable - there are twice as many downhills as there are super Gs - but still, grabbing one of those crystal globes, emblematic of season supremacy, is for skiers bigger than an Olympic gold medal.
"I couldn't have dreamt this in my wildest dreams," Guay said. "I couldn't have written a better story."
For the public, it's the other way around - especially with the entire country still getting over the experience of being host of the Games, and hearing the anthem played 14 times. The alpine skiers weren't part of that, and as the men's coach, Paul Kristofic, acknowledged, left after the Games seeking "redemption."
Still, it doesn't matter how many times you remind people - as Alpine Canada's chief athletics officer Max Gartner did yesterday - that the Austrians didn't win anything in Whistler either, that the best male skier in the world this year, Didier Cuche of Switzerland, was also shut out. The spotlight shifts quickly back to the mainstream sports once the cauldron is extinguished, and accomplishments such as Guay's get lost in the shuffle.
But at least his sponsors will be happy - including Red Bull, whose deal with him is up at the end of this season. In the larger picture, with Kucera coming back, and even Jan Hudec showing some signs of a return to form, the Canadian men's team in 2010-11 ought to be the best and deepest since the heyday of the Crazy Canucks.
And in a game in which it's all about self-belief, all about the willingness to ski on the edge, Guay now knows something about himself and about his capabilities that he didn't know before. That's got to bode very, very well.Report Typo/Error
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