At 35, Erik Guay was already the most decorated ski racer in Canadian history, with 24 World Cup podium finishes and the 2010 World Cup title in men's super G. But on Wednesday, Guay carved out a new piece of skiing history by becoming the oldest gold medalist ever at the world championships with a win in the super G race in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
The victory brought Guay's distinguished career full circle and had him momentarily in tears in the finish area.
"Luckily, I had my goggles on, so nobody could see that," he said in a telephone interview. "But my first world championships were here in 2003, so you can imagine, 14 years later, coming back to the same event – it is a special feeling.
"In any sport, if you're able to hang around until your mid-30s or later, it's a testament to your will and determination. So I'm proud of the fact that I can still compete with the young guys – and I'm certainly proud that I'm able to stay ahead of them."
It was a memorable day for both Guay and his long-time teammate on the Canadian men's speed team, Manuel Osborne-Paradis, who celebrated his 33rd birthday in style, capturing the bronze medal after starting the race from the 26th position. His late-day heroics knocked Norway's Aleksander Aamodt Kilde off the podium.
According to Osborne-Paradis, it was a telephone call from Guay shortly before he entered the starting gate that helped fuel his energy levels for the run.
"To be honest, I was feeling a little lethargic at the start," said Osborne-Paradis of Invermere, B.C. "Then I watched him on TV and got super-jazzed. He phoned me four minutes before I pushed out of the gate, and we talked about the course. He gave me the lowdown on how it was feeling and what I should be thinking.
"Without that phone call, and without him inspiring me, there's no chance. I mean, super G is not my main event. I kind of found an inner-self there to do that. As individual as this sport is, he did that for me and I could have beaten him, but this is how it works. You have to be a team to win individually, and that's totally what happened today."
Guay of Mont-Tremblant, Que., edged Olympic super G champion Kjetil Jansrud of Norway by 0.45 seconds to record his first victory in almost three years. Jansrud, the silver medalist, was at 31 the youngest man on the podium.
Remarkably, Guay was less than two weeks removed from a spectacular crash at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in which the airbags in his race suit saved him from suffering more serious injuries.
According to Guay, he emerged from the spill relatively unscathed: "When I did my roll, the airbag went off and I landed on the airbag and it protected me from the majority of the injuries. I still had some major hematomas on my butt, but everything else was good."
The 1-3 finish for the Canadian men at a major event, with the men's downhill still to be run on Saturday, could greatly enhance the profile of Canada's alpine skiing team, which is trying to find its place in a crowded national sporting landscape.
"What makes Canada unique is we are a winter sports nation with a real legacy of being competitive in many summer sports," said Ken Read, who along with the other Crazy Canucks of the 1970s – Steve Podborski, Dave Irwin, Dave Murray and Jim Hunter – helped put Canada on the international skiing map. (Read is still an International Ski Federation technical delegate, and his son, Erik, is on the men's national technical team.)
"With a population base of about 35 million, we won 25 medals in Sochi and 22 in Rio. No other country of our size is like that. So yes, that makes the Canadian sport landscape very crowded. Within Canada, what's happened is you've got to be a podium performer if you want to get any attention."
Read retired from competitive skiing at the age of 27, which was more commonplace in his day. Now, careers are lasting far longer, for a variety of reasons – from the financial to the technical.
"The inherent nature of sport is to push boundaries, so it's no surprise that the boundary of age gets pushed as well," Read said. "People train better and they train smarter. Sport continues to evolve. In swimming, it used to be thought you were done in your 20s. How old is Michael Phelps now? It's been a good month for older athletes – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Tom Brady.
"In alpine skiing, there has always been a handful of athletes who stayed a long time. Karl Schranz was forced to retire at 34, which doesn't put him too far off where the top guys are now.
"But on the other side, you had Jean-Claude Killy and Nancy Greene stop at 24, and no one thought that was unusual. They retired and then went on to make their fortunes, which is how it used to be. Now, with prize money and sponsorships, it's all an integrated package."
According to Osborne-Paradis, longevity on the so-called White Circus has been enhanced by changes in course preparation to promote safety.
"The courses are not as icy," he said. "It's grippier snow. The fencing is safer. The equipment for sure is safer. It's way easier to fall – your bindings release, grab you better. We wear airbags now. Three years ago, when we couldn't wear airbags, Erik probably couldn't have walked away from his crash at Garmisch last week. He would have had a broken collarbone, shoulder – everything. Now, he can fall like that, get up and, a week later, win a medal.
"Just our doctors, and the improvements in sport science and medicine – all those things have allowed us to go on longer."
With the downhill still looming on the world championship schedule, Guay said he was planning to hold off on the celebration for a few more days.
"Obviously, you have to enjoy the moment, but we still have a job to do and we're still here for a couple more days, so we want to do everything possible to get back up on the podium Saturday," he said. "Today, in the starting gate, I was nervous, but in the two-minute lead-up, I was able to calm myself down and I felt really focused. I knew in my head what I wanted to do – take chances where I needed to and not leave anything on the hill.
"We say that quite a bit – 'Don't have any regrets when you get to the finish line' – and I certainly didn't have any today."