She felt an unmistakable snap. She knew immediately, from painful experience, what it was.
Kaya Turski, a slopestyle skier and winner of three consecutive gold medals at X Games, had blown the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. It was early August, during training on the summer snow at Mount Hood in Oregon, and Turski didn’t complete the full two rotations of a 720-degree spin. She hit the ground before she was ready. Snap.
In the cold echo, Turski’s Olympic dream was apparently dead. The 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, were exactly six months away. The 25-year-old had blown ACLs before, and she knew the months and months of convalescence. A comeback in time seemed impossible.
But elite sport in Canada has changed, a legacy of the success at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, where an infusion of government and corporate money coupled with ambition produced Canada’s best Olympics: 14 golds, the most of any country in the history of the Winter Games.
For Turski, a swirl of cash and medical support coalesced, the type that did not exist a decade ago.
Led by the privately backed B2ten and supported by government money through the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association and Own the Podium, the slopestyle skier is in the midst of an extraordinary recovery.
In fact, after the glow of victory faded in Vancouver and the cheering crowds dissipated, Own the Podium – the program at the centre of the push to victory – redoubled its efforts.
While corporate funding fell off, the federal government poured more money in: Canada has staked a larger pile of cash to reach the podium in Sochi through Own the Podium than in Vancouver.
Counting the rest of the money Ottawa spends on winter athletes and organizations, more than $100-million has gone to the push toward Sochi.
The investment promises to pay big dividends again. Infostrada, a sports-data consultancy in the Netherlands, predicts Canada will be third in medals, the same as Vancouver – but with a total of 34, eight more than 2010, ranking ahead of the United States and behind Norway and Germany.
Such a result would solidify Canada’s position among the very top winter sports countries, even as larger competitors such as the U.S. and Germany spend greater sums for similar outcomes.
There is, however, a worrisome undercurrent Canadians will not see when they watch the Games on television. There are cracks.
Elite-level funding remains robust, but as winter sports groups have failed to attract new dollars from corporations, there is far less money to support younger athletes.
The medal piles of 2010 and 2014 may be a distant memory in 2018, when the Winter Olympics move to Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“At the elite level, we’re in the ballpark but at the bottom end – that’s the reality,” says Ken Read, the former downhill skier who was director of winter sport at Own the Podium from spring of 2010 through last March. “Sochi will be positive. Canadians will be pleased. But if you look deeper, there’s reason to be very concerned.”
For now, for Canada’s best, the money is there. And it has lifted Turski from the vise grip of a season-ending injury. After she went down at Mount Hood, she undertook a novel surgery, involving a synthetic ligament inside a graft of tissues from a cadaver, conducted by Robert Litchfield in London, Ont.
Turski then relocated to Vancouver from her Montreal home and, backed by a team of therapists at the newly opened Fortius Sport & Health facility, is in a full-time accelerated comeback. The plan is to be back on snow in December, and atop the slopestyle course in the Caucasus Mountains near Sochi in mid-February.
Just getting to that point would be an amazing result for a woman who was one of Canada’s top gold-medal favourites before she was injured.
“I’m working with some of the greatest minds in Canada,” Turski says. “It’s something I’m grateful for every day.”
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