John Kucera’s career was shorter than he wanted but he leaves alpine ski racing knowing he achieved two firsts for Canada.
The first Canadian man to win a world downhill championship and the Canadian skier to stand atop the World Cup podium in Lake Louise, Alta., announced his retirement from ski racing Thursday.
Kucera won the men’s downhill title in Val-d’Isere, France, in 2009. He earned three career World Cup medals in super-G, including gold in Lake Louise in 2006.
“I’m just really proud I managed to take a very short career and do big things with it,” the 29-year-old Calgarian said at Alpine Canada’s headquarters in his hometown. “It was a great ride. It really was.
“I did some things in this country that I was the first to do and I’m really proud of that.”
Kucera’s first four years on the national team were successful and promising. But a broken leg followed by a frustrating inner ear condition sidelined him for four of the last five seasons and also kept him from competing in two Winter Olympics.
Vestibular neuritis — an inner ear condition causing dizziness and nausea — struck during a training camp in Chile last September and made it impossible to race through gates at 130 kilometres per hour.
Kucera wasn’t able to get back on skis to race at the Winter Games in Sochi in February.
The symptoms still linger and the uncertainty over how long they’ll remain, combined with an opportunity to join the coaching staff of the national development team, steered Kucera towards retirement.
“Truth be told, I’m not 100 per cent yet,” he said. “I think my body just told me it was time to start doing something else.
“This vestibular neuritis is tough because there is no time line. I could be good by July, but I could be good by next July and really, nobody can give me that answer. Who would’ve thought the thing that would have finally took me out was waking up dizzy one morning?”
Super giant slalom, or super-G, is shorter than downhill but there are more gates on the course. The discipline requires a combination of speed and technical ability.
At five foot nine and 185 pounds, Kucera wasn’t as beefy as the top downhill racers early in his career, so he excelled in super-G.
But on Feb. 7, 2009, he bested such heavyweights as Hermann Maier of Austria, Didier Cuche of Switzerland, Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway and American Bode Miller to win on Val-d’Isere’s difficult slope.
“Val-d’Isere was a course that obviously played into a lot of my strengths, very technical, very steep,” Kucera recalled. “That being said, I felt like every year I was becoming a better and better downhiller.
“I just hit the right track, the right conditions and the right time of my career to become a champion there.”
Kucera was the first Canadian to win in 26 years of World Cup racing at Lake Louise when he captured super-G gold in 2006.
He drew the No. 1 start bib, so after crossing the finish line, the 22-year-old stood nervously in front of television cameras watching as skier after skier came down the mountain.
“I remember being really cold. I think it was -35 C that day,” Kucera said. “Coming down, having that great run, freezing, watching a lot of the people I looked up to growing up and me beating them, it was pretty exciting.”
Kucera dedicated that victory to his former coach and friend, Jason Lapierre, who was hit by a car while biking and died earlier that year.
Kucera’s successes coincided with those of teammates Erik Guay, Manny Osborne-Paradis and Jan Hudec.
The “Canadian Cowboys” have given the national men’s downhill team depth it hasn’t had since Steve Podborski and Ken Read headlined the “Crazy Canucks” of the 1980s.
Guay won the men’s downhill title again for Canada in 2011, while Hudec took silver in 2007. Guay passed Podborski as Canada’s most decorated World Cup racer with 22 career medals. Guay also won the overall super-G title in 2010.
Osborne-Paradis collected nine World Cup medals, including three gold, between 2006 and 2010.
Hudec tied for third and won Olympic bronze in super-G in Sochi.
“As a group, now with Jan’s medal at the Olympics, we’ve really done it all,” Kucera said. “The only thing I guess you could say we haven’t done is we don’t have an Olympic champion yet.
“As a group, we pulled off some special things. We’ve kind of superceded the Crazy Canuck era and did something great. We’ve set the bar pretty high for the next group coming up, but I think that’s where it needs to be.”
Kucera won two World Cup medals at Lake Louise — he took silver there in 2008 — but the mountain was disastrous for him in the first race of 2009-’10.
He badly broke his left leg in the super-G and erased his chance to race in Whistler, B.C., at the 2010 Winter Games. Rehabilitation and subsequent setbacks kept him off his race skis for the next three seasons.
“Obviously the last four years hadn’t gone exactly gone the way I would have liked them to, but that being said, I felt the time was right to step away now,” Kucera said. “I’ve had a good run as an athlete.
“I’m walking away relatively healthy. That’s a good thing. I’m excited and passionate about the next group, the guys I’m going to be working with because I’m going to be working with a pretty exciting group of 17- to 19-year-olds.”
Kucera’s parents, Jan and Zdena, emigrated to Canada from the former Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s before John was born. Jan worked with the ski patrol at nearby Nakiska. John and his brother James began skiing at an early age.