"When I got that medal put around my neck - well, at some point you just can't be happier..."
Steve Podborski on being the first North American male to win an Olympic alpine medal.
As long-time Olympic followers know only too well, the avalanche of gold-medal performances at last year's Games was something of an anomaly for Canada. In fact, until very recently, Canadian athletes were hard-pressed to come home from their Olympic campaigns with any medal. And 1980 was no different.
But wait. It was different. Led by Ken Read and his Crazy Canuck stalwarts, the country's downhill team was on a roll that year. Remember? Read and company came into the Lake Placid Games riding a swell of strong results. A recent winner of the gruelling (and fearsome) Hahnenkamm Classic in Kitzbuehel, the young Calgarian was widely considered the odds-on favourite for Olympic gold.
As for his teammates, they were nipping at his heels. Everyone had tasted of the podium champagne that season. All of them were keen to perform. "We went into Lake Placid with incredibly high expectations," remembers Steve Podborski. The baby of the team - and only 22 years old - Pod was quietly coming into his own that season. He'd won his first "real" World Cup race a few weeks earlier in St. Moritz - and that, he says, had given him a huge boost in confidence. "It really turned on the switch for me."
Fortunately for Pod though, the media spotlight in northern New York State was focused firmly on his older teammates. "We were all under enormous pressure," he continues. "We were definitely in the media bull's-eye. But for Ken, it was even worse." He shrugs. "No surprise there. After all, this was at a time in our sporting development when Canada didn't have a whole lot of medal hopes at the Games..."
As always, the downhill race was the first Olympic event scheduled. "We'd done really well at the Pre-Olympics the year before," explains Pod. "So we approached the Whiteface course with a lot of confidence." Another pause. "So when I pushed into the start house, the last thing I expected was to hear bad news."
He'd barely started his pre-race prep when rumours of a shocking crash came oozing up the course. "There was this huge kerfuffle on the radio and I turned to our start coach, Toulouse [Spence] and I asked him what was going on. 'Do you really want to know?' he asked. I nodded. He told me Ken had fallen."
It could have been the straw that broke the camel's back. To a weaker-minded competitor, it might have signalled the end of his day. But Pod reacted in an entirely different way. "Strangely," he says, "a sense of relief washed over me as I made my way into the starting gate. Suddenly everything was clear. Now all I had to focus on was ski racing - and that was something I knew I was pretty good at..."
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