Athletes don’t count autographs, so former world champion downhill skier Mélanie Turgeon has lost track of the number of times she’s scrawled her name on race programs, postcards, ski helmets and jackets.
At least one of those signatures – on a poster for a 10-year-old girl who wasn’t even on hand to see it – had a profound effect.
Marie-Michèle Gagnon finds herself on the national ski team, poised to slide into the starter’s booth at her second Winter Olympics, and it is at least partly due to the action photo – annotated with Turgeon’s tidy handwriting – that decorated her bedroom wall as a child.
“One of the coaches from my club went to an autograph signing and brought it back for me. I couldn’t believe my name was on it. She had written, ‘Have a good season.’ So I thought to myself, ‘You’d better have a good season,’” said Gagnon, a 24-year-old who won her first World Cup super-combined event last weekend in Austria. “She’s always been my idol, she’s from Quebec, she has a gold medal from the world championships, I’ve always wanted to follow in her footsteps.”
On Thursday, Gagnon received her official Team Canada jacket – alongside alpine ski teammate Brittany Phelan of Mont-Tremblant, Que. – and will go to the 2014 Sochi Games with realistic ambitions of reaching the podium.
Gagnon’s victory in the super-combined in Austria, where she clawed back a 1.4-second deficit from the super G leg on the slalom course, marked the first time in 30 years a Canadian woman had clambered up the top step at a World Cup combi event.
“To be honest, it was a little surprised to win,” she said. “I always imagined that to win you had to be perfect, and my super G was far from perfect.”
That’s a useful lesson for an athlete who describes herself as tightly wound and ultra-competitive; Gagnon credits a new, calmer approach for the “slow and dangerous progression” she has made this season.
“I’ve made some improvements technically. I’ve always been a pretty fierce skier, I was like to go on the attack, all out … what was missing was the technical side and mentally, I needed to have a more relaxed mindset,” she said.
Gagnon, a technical event specialist, has finished on the podium before and logged a passel of top-10 finishes in her five-year World Cup career, but her recent string of results – seven top-10s in 11 races so far this season – indicates she has reached a new level of proficiency.
And Gagnon’s not the only one.
Despite churning out a steady stream of athletes in the speed events like the downhill, Canada has endured a decades-long drought of high-end talent in the technical disciplines – the slalom, giant slalom and super G.
Suddenly, there is an abundance of talent.
In addition to Gagnon and Phelan, who recorded a top-10 World Cup finish in Russia last year, the women’s side of the national team includes Erin Mielzynski, who, in 2012, became the first Canadian woman to win a World Cup slalom event since Betsy Clifford in 1971.
Like Clifford, the new crop hails from Eastern Canada. (Mielzynski grew up in Guelph, Ont.)
Their overnight success has been a half-decade in the making.
“When we first started with them really young, we identified that’s where their strengths lie. When they first came on to the development team, we really focused on that, rather than trying to make an all-around skier too young. The idea was to be good at something, not average at everything,” Alpine Canada women’s coach Tim Gfeller said. “But I think one of the most important things is they’ve come up together and really pushed each other together. We have a great pace within the team.”
Next month in Sochi, the spotlight will doubtless follow the spirited, high-energy Gagnon – even if the super-combined will feature a downhill component, which isn’t her strongest suit.
The third of five children, Gagnon hails from Lac-Etchemin, a village in the Beauce region south of Quebec City, and learned to ski on a local hill, Mont-Orignal, whose 300-metre vertical drop seems almost comically puny compared to the mountains she has conquered on the World Cup circuit.
She went to high school in Quebec City, so Thursday’s event was a homecoming in a sense, made all the more special by the presence of Turgeon.
The poster anecdote clearly took the 37-year-old by surprise.
“When you think about the number of posters, helmets, jackets that I’ve had the pleasure of signing in ski clubs or whatever – you never imagine when you autograph something that it’s going to create a legacy of some kind. So this is, like, ‘Wow, I’ve left an impression,’” said Turgeon, a three-time Olympian.
The Alma, Que., native was a national team member at 16, and retired from skiing in 2005 because of crippling back injuries; she claims no credit for Gagnon’s success.
“She’s the one who has grabbed hold of the dream she had and did what she had to reach it, I admire that,” she said.
After the news conference wrapped up, Gagnon turned her attention to posing for photos and scratching out some autographs for a group of aspiring racers who were invited to the event.
Sometimes, all it takes to set someone on the competitive path is a signature.