Erik Guay is fast – faster than he was at the Vancouver Winter Olympics four years ago. He says his brother, Stefan, made him that way.
Canada’s top contender for an alpine ski medal at the Sochi Olympics, which start next month, missed the podium by a few hundredths of a second in Vancouver; he had two fifth-place finishes. Since then, Guay has been obsessed with closing a gap so ridiculously small it makes the blink of the eye seem glacial.
But it’s a gap that can separate gold from silver and bronze from obscurity. At 100 kilometres an hour, a downhill racer would cover almost 28 metres in one second – the height of a seven-storey building; in a hundredth of a second, he would cover almost 28 centimetres.
At the Olympics, a distance that short can be the equivalent of a football field.
Enter Stefan, Erik Guay’s 27-year-old brother. All athletes at the top of their game, and who are well-funded, work with several coaches. But typically only one of them watches the athlete’s every move all the time, analyzes it on video and more or less manages his or her career. That’s Stefan.
“He’s my coach, my go-to guy,” says Erik, 32. “He has a great ability to coach on the technical side.”
Stefan himself was once a hot-shot skier, so good he might have been an Olympic-medal contender. In 2006, he was the world junior champion in giant slalom and nailed four wins at the Nor-Am Cup. Then, disaster struck. On a training run that same year on the notoriously bumpy Saslong run at Val Gardena, Italy, Stefan tore his knee apart.
He tried to make a comeback but the knee problems wouldn’t go away and he shut down his racing career in 2009. That’s when he went into coaching. He now works for B2ten, the privately funded operation that augments existing athlete programs with the goal of turning top-level athletes into Olympic champions.
Stefan comes by his coaching career honestly. His mother, Ellen, was a ski instructor at Mont-Tremblant, Que. It was she who first guided Erik onto the slopes when he was 18 months old. His father, Conrad, was a successful ski coach and took Stefan, Erik and Kristian, the oldest of the three Guay boys, under his wing (Kristian would also join the national ski team).
“Conrad was very crucial to Erik’s development,” says Max Gartner, the former boss of Alpine Canada. “Now, Stefan works very closely with Erik. I think this is very good for Erik as he completely trusts Stefan.”
In the early part of Erik’s World Cup career, Burkhard Schaffer, now the head coach for the powerhouse Austrian team, was his dominant coaching force. Now, it’s Stefan’s turn.
Stefan began working with his brother two years ago, and they have barely left one another’s sight since then. Technical coaching as been Stefan’s main job, and Erik says it appears the two have already made a breakthrough. Stefan’s tech-laden analysis determined Erik was blasting into his turns a tad too light – he wasn’t putting enough pressure on the outside ski.
“He wanted me to roll onto my big toe,” Erik says. “If you’re not putting enough pressure on the outside ski at the top of the turn, you can lose control in rough terrain. … Stefan brought this to my attention. This is a sport where you’re playing with hundredths of a second.”
Erik says Stefan’s coaching, combined with the physiotherapy, relentless training and psychological counselling, have upped his game since the Vancouver Olympics. “I feel all around that I am a better athlete. I know I am competitive.”
No doubt he is. On Dec. 21, 2013, on the same run that wrecked his brother’s career – Saslong – Erik won the downhill, handing him his fourth career World Cup victory. A week later, he took third in the downhill at Bormio, Italy.
The Bormio bronze was actually the sweeter victory because it made Canadian skiing history: It gave Erik his 21st World Cup podium appearance, beating the 20-podium mark set by Steve Podborski, one of the “Crazy Canucks” who retired in glory after the 1984 season. “It was huge to be able to tie Steve Podborski’s record and to be able to beat it a week later is really special,” he told The Canadian Press at the time.
Erik Guay’s trophy case is brimming with hardware after 10 years on the boards. He won the World Cup season title in super G in 2010, and was the world champion downhiller a year later.
What is missing, of course, is an Olympic medal of any colour. The last Canadian Olympic alpine medal came in 1994, when Ed Podivinsky won bronze in the downhill. The last alpine gold, also in the downhill, was won by Kerrin Lee-Gartner in 1992.
Guay’s only goal is to end the medal drought. “I won’t be satisfied if I don’t walk away with a medal,” he says.
Two potential problems: The first is a slightly damaged meniscus in his left knee, the result of a fall in Wengen, Switzerland, on Jan. 18. By the middle of this week, his knee had healed to the point he was ready to race again. “I’d by lying if I said it’s perfect, but I’m confident it’s going to be okay.”
The second is nerves. All the Canadian athletes suffered horrendous host-country pressure in Vancouver; Guay handled it better than most. This time, that pressure is off, only to be replaced (in Guay’s case, as least) by the pressure to win that elusive medal. Guay is 32; Sochi may be his last chance to get on the Olympic podium, even if he insists he’s nowhere near ready to hang up his boots.
Ken Read, the winner of five World Cup downhill races in the late 1970s and two-time Olympian, won’t comment directly on how Guay might handle the Sochi pressure, but says the more Olympic experience the better. “I recall my first Games as a blur, the second go-around I was ready,” he says.
The implication is Guay will soar in Sochi. And if he does, his brother, Stefan, will be cheering louder than most and running over with his arms wide open.
“Stefan is always the first one to come down and give me a hug after a race,” Guay says.
Get all the latest Globe and Mail Olympic coverage on Twitter: @GlobeOlympicsReport Typo/Error