Almost two years after a bone-crunching crash in Chamonix, France, Canadian alpine ski racer Manuel Osborne-Paradis is eager to rejoin the World Cup circuit this weekend in Lake Louise, Alta., a familiar track where he has twice stood on the podium.
Recovery from a broken fibula and torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee was hampered by a drunken ride on the back of a moving vehicle. The ride ended with a severe case of road rash that required surgery to his buttocks, prompting Osborne-Paradis to rethink rehab.
He moved to New York from Calgary for two months to work out with Rich Barretta, personal trainer to Steve Nash, the Canadian basketball star twice named the NBA's most valuable player. Far from the mountains and snow, the skier with nine World Cup podiums to his credit focused on overall body awareness in the gym.
"My body hasn't felt this good since I was 21, 22 years old, when I was a young whippersnapper still," says Osborne-Paradis, who at 28 is not quite over the hill in ski racing terms, but is staring down middle age.
"It was a huge learning experience for me," he says, "to be away from the steady grind of coming back from an injury."
During training for this weekend's races, Osborne-Paradis finished 54th on Wednesday and 45th on Thursday. He is one of Alpine Canada's crew of bionic men, a team that's in a steady state of rebuilding.
For the first time since 2009, the key veteran members of the Canadian Cowboys are all healthy enough to kick off the speed season in Lake Louise with a downhill on Saturday and super giant slalom on Sunday. Team officials have ambitious expectations – five podiums this season and a medal at the world championships in February – and a determination to be a serious threat at the Sochi Games in 2014. That's if the athletes can keep their bodies intact. Funding, of course, is tied to performance.
"It certainly gives me a lot of sleepless nights thinking about all the things that could go wrong," Max Gartner, president of Alpine Canada, says. "We've got a pretty good roster with a lot of experience going into Sochi."
Risk management, he says, is key.
"I don't say that there's a secret," adds Pete Bosinger, head coach of the men's team. "But for sure the athletes are a little older, we have to manage the volume they ski and really look at how we take care of their rehab."
But lately, the Canadian ski team must feel as if it's cursed.
Just last week, up-and-comer Robbie Dixon fractured his right leg – both fibula and tibia – while training in Colorado. This would have been the first time in five years that the 27-year-old Calgary-based athlete was entering the season completely healthy.
"Usually, every team will lose an athlete, possibly two in a season to maybe a knee injury," says John Kucera, a 28-year-old racer from Calgary. "But if I look at our group, I almost wonder if we've had a little bit of bad luck there because of the amount of athletes that we've lost to catastrophic injuries."
(During training on Thursday, a helicopter took Swiss skier Daniel Albrecht off the course with a suspected knee injury.)
Shortly before the 2010 Vancouver Games, Kucera, then reigning downhill world champion, and a favourite for an Olympic medal, badly fractured his leg during the first race of the season, at Lake Louise.
While preparing his return to action, Kucera herniated two discs in his back. His calf robbed of muscle mass, his tibia fused with tissue, his ankle now has limited mobility, which affected biomechanical function. He spent the summer building up core strength to keep his upper body stable.
Saturday's downhill will be his first World Cup race in two years.
Kucera hopes to be in the top 30 in Lake Louise – where he's twice been on the podium – and build from there to be at the top of his game for the Olympics.
"Hopefully, I put enough duct tape on this summer," Kucera says, joking about the all-purpose Canadian fix-it. "I'm just kind of hoping to finally get through one season healthy. Regardless of my results and everything, that would be a huge step in the right direction."
During training for this weekend's races, he finished 48th on Wednesday and 59th on Thursday.
Erik Guay, who some were suggesting was near the end of his prime leading into the 2010 Olympics, but went on to be the team's star performer with two fifth-place finishes, captured the Crystal Globe in Super-G in 2010, and in 2011 won the downhill world championship.
The 31-year-old from Mont-Tremblant, Que., battled a bad back last season and recently underwent arthroscopic knee surgery.
"I just want to get back on snow and see how it feels and progress from there," Guay says.
He proved to be the top Canadian this week in training, finishing fourth on Wednesday and tied for sixth the next day.
He keeps any expectations to himself, but remains realistic for the comebacks of his teammates.
Frequently injured teammate Jan Hudec, 31, of Calgary, is a top performer despite multiple major knee operations. He was 19th in the first day of training, and didn't start Thursday to rest his knee.
"I wouldn't say they're 100 per cent yet," Guay adds, "We're still a team that's limping into the year."