First Person: Ken Read 

Ski team on track. Despite injuries, 2004 was a good for Canadian ski racers

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The Canadian Alpine Ski Team is taking a short but well-deserved break before the summer training sessions begin.

The training camps start in less than two weeks and run pretty much back to back until the 2004-05 season kicks off at the end of October. It’s going to be a big year with the World Championships in February, and athletes competing for berths at the 2006 Winter Olympics.

While it’s been a season of ups and downs for the young team, there is also a sense that Canadian skiers are on the verge of a breakthrough. A few shining moments, milestones on the World Cup circuit, helped athletes to see that they are ready to compete against the best in the world.

Part of the reason for this optimism is in the results – three Canadians made World Cup podiums this season, two of them making history in the process. More athletes were qualifying for second runs than in past years. And although injuries took a toll, athletes like Fernie’s Emily Brydon showed that you can come back better than ever.

The other part of this optimism is the strength of the national program. After a disappointing 2002 Winter Games, the team has been rebuilding under the guidance of Ken Read, a former downhiller and Crazy Canuck who was named as president of Alpine Canada Alpin following the Games. From the beginning Read’s goal has been to put Canada back on top among the top alpine nations in the world by giving athletes the financial, technical and human resources they needed to succeed.

Less than a year after he started his Podium 2010 program showed signs of success. At the 2003 World Championships, Melanie Turgeon won the downhill and Allison Forsyth the bronze medal in the giant slalom, something that hadn’t been accomplished since 1982 and 1952. Five Canadians also posted top-seven finishes, which was a first for the team.

Heading into this season, it looked like Canada would be able to build on that momentum. Things changed when Turgeon suffered a back injury in training that left her sidelined for the rest of the season. Allison Forsyth suffered tendonitis in her hips, and wasn’t able to race to her usual standards.

However, Erik Guay made history when he finished second at Lake Louise, becoming only the second Canadian male to medal in the downhill on home turf; the first was Whistler’s Rob Boyd in 1989. He was also the first Canadian ever to be on the podium at a Lake Louise World Cup.

Guay was injured in training just three weeks later and missed the rest of the season. Injuries also impacted Britt Janyk, Genevieve Simard, Jeff Hume, Jan Hudec and others over the course of the season.

Still, the Canadians walked away from the season with a few more milestones and in a better position than they were the year before.

Pique talked with Ken Read about the success of the Canadian Alpine Ski Team, and his plans for the future.

Pique: What is your overall impression of this past season? It’s been a pretty crazy year with all of the injuries, but you’ve had a few successes as well.

Ken Read: The overall impression I have is that I’m really pleased with the way the team responded this year.

Some of the goals were, number one, to obviously keep trying to push those who were in a position to challenge to be able to do so, the Thomas Grandis the Erik Guays, the Genevieve Simards, and I think we were successful.

We had another objective this year, which was to increase our number of quota positions in World Cups, because that was a weak point for us – without quotas, you can’t start athletes. And we were able to increase our quotas, in some cases quite substantially, in all disciplines except for women’s slalom. At the Nor-Am level, when you look down into the system, we got the majority of the Nor-Am spots that come with the Nor-Am races in head-to-head competition with the Americans.

And the third part was the performance of the World Junior Team, and it was pretty gratifying to see the depth out there. There were medals, but also good performances from athletes that were close but didn’t get to the podium.

Our success was amazing, especially in light of the fact that early on we had the injury plague…

Pique : I guess you can’t really describe the kind of season it was or your success without getting into all the injuries.

KR: Yes, and I think that showed great character on the part of the athletes that we had that going on and yet other athletes stepped up and performed well. And from the athletes that got injured, the level of support for those that were still out there on the road was a really nice thing to see.

I think it showed a lot of character and showed the depth that we’re trying to build, that we would have a couple of key performers like Melanie Turgeon and Erik Guay, and lose them for the year, and still have others stepping up with good performances.

Pique : Back when you were with the Crazy Canucks, you guys had the reputation for skiing on the edge, that you either won or wound up off course or crashing. Are the injuries a sign that the athletes are pushing themselves harder?

KR : There’s no question the athletes are pushing themselves harder. You’re referring to a reputation that is actually a pretty false impression of us because skiing on edge is just the nature of ski racing. There were the occasional crashes, but for the most part the team always has and always will try to ski sensibly.

I don’t think anybody is taking unnecessary risks, but what does happen is when you start to come into the top level – and this is a reflection of a young team gaining experience – and begin to realize that you are able to win, that’s when you need to build and experience base because you are pushing hard, you’re charged up to know that you’re skiing against the best. All athletes have to go through that, it doesn’t matter what country you’re from. It’s just a learning curve you go through to gain that experience of when and where to push, and how far to push. Ultimately, when you look at very experienced competitors, they’re shrewd about the work they have to invest, the way they have to ski. With each year you become more efficient in your preparation, in the quality of your skiing, and the quality of your competition. It’s something every athlete has to learn

Pique : This upcoming season is pretty important as a World Championship year and a qualifier year for the Olympics, is there anything you guys are planning to do differently to ramp up for it?

KR : A little differently in that there’s going to be a significant focus on physical conditioning this year. We’re trying a system that will start with the national team, and that will be reflected all the way down. The team will start off as usual and then in June and July we’ll be 100 per cent dedicated to dryland training.

And that’s something, too, that we feel we need to build, the physical capacity you want in order to be able to compete with the best. I mean you look at a guy like Hermann Maier, he has his own personal trainer to ensure that he is in absolute top physical condition and is always at the cutting edge of what he needs. We’re trying now to develop the same kind of thing for our athletes.

It’s something we want to emphasize so that it’s not just something you focus enormous amounts of time and energy to once you reach the top, it’s something you should be doing all the way along, really from K1, age 11, all the way up to the top.

Dealing with K1’s of course you’re just giving them instruction, giving them the tools of what you need to do, and the techniques to train. In K2 you start to use weights and get into training regimens and so on. It’s something that other teams do and we need to do the same.

Pique : The team obviously overcame a lot of obstacles this year, and also managed to hit a few milestones along the way, a bunch of new Canadian records. Were these milestones important to the team as a whole?

KR : Any milestone, any time, whether it’s an athlete’s personal best or something that’s a true breakthrough… that’s something that’s an enormous confidence booster to every single athlete. I have to single out Thomas Grandi’s hitting the podium at Kitzbuehel, that was a breakthrough. That was something that hadn’t been done before, and in my view it underscored the fact that we can.

The girls do have a history of success in the technical side, but on the men’s side when you’ve never done it, there’s always a lingering doubt because you haven’t broken into that territory. Now that it’s been broken the objective is not just to be on the podium but actually to win.

And we start to believe that we can. We saw Grandi, and then we saw (Julien) Cousineau and (Jean-Philippe) Roy, and towards the end we saw (Mike) Janyk and (Ryan) Semple really coming on, as well as some of the younger athletes like Paul Stutz. I remember (Stutz’s) comment at Kitzbuehel that it was not only cool to be in the race, but to be there when a Canadian does so well. Those are the valuable assets that come with good performances.

Beyond that, when you see five girls qualifying for a second run in Are (Sweden), and their belief in coming out and saying ‘one of us could have won this’.

Or Emily Brydon and the consistency that she started to show, and her coming to the end of the year saying ‘I know I could have done better’. It’s the kind of thing that you wait for, you want to hear it coming from the athlete.

That’s the kind of building block you need, and I think that’s a testament to the program Max Gartner (vice president, athletics) is building with his coaching staff, and they’re the one’s who deserve all the credit, working with the athletes to get the kind of results that we’re getting.

Pique : How important are sponsors and new sources of funding to success?

KR : This past year we didn’t really have too much in the way of significant new sponsors, so once again it comes back to the commitment that some of our major sponsors, especially CIBC and General Motors, made by stepping up early.

With that I say that we’re into year two of the rebuilding process, and that process has been enabled because so many of these commercial partners stepped up early. They didn’t wait until the Olympics, they came in right after the Olympics and that’s a really gratifying part of those relationships, the recognition of the time it takes and the patience it takes to invest in our athletes, of not expecting an immediate payout.

Pique : You can see that the team is improving slowly with the program, but I was wondering if you had any goals for the upcoming season?

KR : The coming season we will continue to try and build momentum, we know we still have a lot of work to do.

The number one goal, as always, is to make sure that we have the resources and are delivering the resources to our top team to ensure that they are able to perform.

We’re trying to build a much bigger emphasis on sport sciences and information so that we move another step beyond what is currently being offered, to continue to look for those last few hundredths of a second for our athletes.

Our second big goal is to continue to build the athlete development system, which we know is the foundation of ensuring that we have a successful team in 2010. Right now I estimate that we have no more than half of the athletes on the team that would be on our Olympic team in 2010. The other half are going to come from the provinces and the ski club programs, so that’s why it’s important to continue to build up from a sensible ski race calendar with a strong program that’s reaching down with coaching education and resources as we can direct them.

The third goal is that we want to start working more closely with our events people, beyond just simply having the World Cups in Lake Louise. We have to start training officials for events, and really look towards being prepared in 2010. In that respect we’re looking to work closely with our provincial support organizations, in particular B.C. Alpine, to make sure that we do a good job.

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