At 18, he just didn’t know what to do.
He loved skiing and was a member of the Canadian alpine development team, but most of his friends were making serious decisions, life decisions. They were headed for university or looking to start a career.
Erik Guay wondered if he should do the same.
So he sat down with his father in their Mont-Tremblant, Que., home and this is what Conrad Guay told his middle son: “You can always go back to school. Keep skiing. See how far it can take you.”
It turned out father knew best.
Thirteen years, and oh so many accomplishments later, Erik Guay stands on the brink of history as the greatest alpine racer Canada has ever produced.
He has won a Crystal Globe as the best super giant slalom skier over an entire season. He has been on the World Cup podium 19 times in his career, 13 in the downhill, six in the super G. He is a single World Cup top-three placing from tying the national mark set by Steve Podborski, legendary member of the Crazy Canucks.
And coming off a sensational second-place result at Kitzbuhel, Austria, site of the grandest downhill of them all, Guay is ideally positioned to defend the world downhill championship he earned two years ago.
To win it again this Saturday – he’ll first race in Wednesday’s super G at the 2013 worlds in Schladming, Austria – would be a remarkable feat, not only for Guay but for the Canadian team.
Jan Hudec was second in the 2007 world championship downhill; John Kucera finished first in 2009. A Canadian three-peat atop the podium would set the tempo for the next big event, the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
For Guay, it would hone a reputation he dreamed of all those years ago.
“Saying I could be the best ski racer in Canadian history, that would be a pretty special title to hold,” said Guay, who grew up listening to the exploits of Podborski, Ken Read and Todd Brooker. “I think it’s time to break those records. I hope, if I do, someone comes along later and breaks mine.”
Guay is the first to say his career has had its share of bittersweet moments – from the Olympics, where he turned in a pair of fifth-place finishes in Vancouver in 2010, to injuries, one of which to his left knee cost him an entire year. What’s carried him along has been his determination, his sound technique and attentiveness to detail. It goes back to that seminal sit-down with his father and how Guay was brought up as a young skier.
“He’s always been one of those athletes who have been about working hard, no shortcuts,” Canadian men’s head coach Peter Bosinger said. “His father was his coach for many years. From what I know – and I know Conrad – the work he did was all about development, making sure the technical factors were solid, what races to attend, managing the risk.”
Conrad Guay is 72 and still skis as often as he can. He used to head the Mont-Tremblant ski school, where his wife, Ellen, teaches. Early on, Conrad coached all three of his sons, Kristian, Erik and Stefan, each one good enough to make a national team. But Kristian eventually stopped competing and turned to coaching. Stefan suffered a serious knee injury and now coaches with the men’s national team leaving the racing to Erik, who has always been grateful for seeing just how far skiing could take him.
It’s been a journey the father has charted without getting too involved.
“It’s hard not to watch his races through the eyes of a coach,” said Conrad, whose son’s ski exploits remain the talk of their Quebec town. “But I’m quite pleased with myself. I’ve managed to successfully stop myself from calling him up and intervening in what he’s doing. … What’s important to me is that Erik feels good on his skis and that he’s happy.”
Guay is feeling assured and ready. After undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee last September, he had to rethink his plans. He worked out at B2Ten, the privately-funded operation that augments existing athlete programs. His physical conditioning improved; his recurring back troubles dissipated.
“We’ve put in a good plan for Sochi,” he said.
Guay also talked to his ski coaches and came up with an altered agenda for this season – start slowly, pick it up in January, take a charge at the worlds. Last month, right on cue, Guay put down a fourth-place finish in Wengen, Switzerland, then followed it with his knee-rattling, nerve-fraying podium placing in Kitzbuhel.
As Bosinger observed: “Erik pushed it, not by taking risks that weren’t planned – or by not preparing himself physically and mentally – but by skiing with complete confidence.”
A confidence instilled by the father and refined by the son, who has taken his skiing to the edge of greatness and a place in Canadian history.
With a file from Sean Gordon in Montreal