Steve Podborski: A downhill daredevil’s surprising 2nd act

Steve Podborski: A downhill daredevil’s surprising 2nd act


Canadian ski legend hurled himself down mountains — now he takes care of people

By Steve Podborski for CBC Sports
November 15, 2017
 

It all became clear to me one day in the starting gate.

This is the area where the athletes are marshalled prior to the start of the skiing race. The fences keep the spectators back but it is effectively a fishbowl on top of a mountain. 

As a member of the famed As a member of the famed "Crazy Canucks," Steve Podborski, left, relished competing against the best. (Mike Slaughter/Getty Images)

Snow and ice. Wind and clouds go by. Endless sky but three kilometres to the finish line. One hundred and twenty seconds of racing. No place for deep thoughts. A place to choose.

Are you a winner? Are you hoping to win? Have you planned the win?

This was the day I realized that I could make that plan. Because everyone was afraid. Everyone but me. They were afraid with good reason. One of the very best downhill ski racers in the world had crashed off one of the jumps in the last training run the day before. We all knew him. Great guy. He had flown off the jump, a 10-metre drop, and landed on the flats. Sort of like jumping out of a third-floor window. His knee had been catastrophically destroyed. He never raced again.

Because he was going just a bit faster than the others that last training run, he was the first man to go down, but we all were going to go faster on race day and we were all going to land on the flats. Probably. Maybe. Maybe not.

I was not going to fall. I was going to go faster. I wanted to. I had trained so hard that I knew my physical strength and balance and skiing ability would allow me to make it to the finish of the race. I knew.

 

I planned to win, by investing in the most appropriate way. Injury proofing. Mistake proofing. Success planning. I was so strong and skilled that I was going to make it. And because this day in the start I saw they were afraid, I knew I did not have to ski any faster than I could, and I would win.

 
 

‘I ate talented racers for lunch’

Up until then in that year, I was trying to ski a bit faster than I could, and I was ending up in nets along the side of race courses from Austria to Italy to France. Today though, in Switzerland, I was going to make it and I was going to win.

That is what happened.

Podborski suffered a knee injury that forced him to miss the 1976 Olympics
 in Innsbruck.
 (Ron Bull/Getty Images) Podborski suffered a knee injury that forced him to miss the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck. (Ron Bull/Getty Images)

I was 22 years old at this point. A five-year veteran racer on the World Cup, I had travelled the world with my fellow Crazy Canucks teammates, honing my skills as an elite athlete. I had wrecked my knee four years previously just 10 days before the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck and missed the Games.

As an 18-year-old, you are not prone to introspection: not until you are stuck in the basement of your suburban home in Don Mills, Ont., thousands of kilometres from the pomp and circumstance of being a racer in the Olympics and on the World Cup tour, agonizing in the darkness, alone, over your torn ligaments and shattered dreams.

The result of my enforced meditation was a promise to myself. I would commit to being the most prepared racer in the starting gate. I would be able to look around and know in every part of my being that no one was more fit and prepared to race than me.

 

This was not a trivial undertaking. Many were naturally talented athletes who also had the benefit of sophisticated national alpine sports training systems that carried them to the front in the same way Canada pops out great hockey players.

I knew I was going to have to win despite Canada not having adequate training and support for athletes like me. In the latter part of my career, when I caught myself up, I ate talented racers for lunch. At the elite level, and I mean fewer than 10 men, talent was table stakes. Deal me in.

Podborski remains the only male, non-European to win a World Cup downhill title. (Jim Russell/Getty Images) Podborski remains the only male, non-European to win a World Cup downhill title. (Jim Russell/Getty Images)

This was no more evident than in Kitzbuhel, Austria. That race is the truest measure of a downhill ski racer. There is every kind of technical test that a downhill race should have; flats, pitches, various angles in the turns. All of this is magnified by indescribably hard snow (ice that you could literally skate on) and a variety of other challenges (bad lighting, extreme steepness, transitions that pulled over three Gs, speeds in excess of 140 km/h and more) that my coach often said that everyone who made it to the finish should get a medal.

I wanted to win it.

So I planned how to do that. Win the Hahnenkahm in Kitzbuhel! I honed my skiing skills, did my gym workouts and other training when not skiing all seven days a week, worked with the ski company to fine-tune the skis they provided to me, learned about myself, my strengths and weaknesses, and one day each year I would race it.

I raced every day knowing I was the best prepared. I watched everyone in the start in Kitzbuhel and could see that most of the others were not racing. They weren’t studying the line for the fastest way. They were looking for any way to make it to the finish.

 

I took the lesson I learned in the starting gate that day in Switzerland and for the rest of my career I skied as fast as I could. I made it time and again. I had 10 races over the years at Kitzbhuhel. It was the site of my early knee-wrecking fall that cost me a berth at the Innsbruck Olympics. But later, I was second twice.

And I won it twice.

On top of that, I won the World Cup downhill skiing title in 1982. It had never been done by a non-European so it was quite a big deal. The World Cup celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017. And Steve Podborski from Canada is still the only non-European to have won the downhill title.

 

Vancouver was transformative

Let me take the story off the slopes now: In the mid 1990s, I was having dinner with John Newcombe (three-time Wimbledon Champion) and was relating to him how messed up Alpine Canada, the organization that runs Alpine Ski Racing in Canada, was. I was on a good rant and, as I took a breath to let him have more of my amazing insights, he leaned in, looked me in the eye and asked, “What are you doing about it?”

Wow. I hated him. Mainly because he was right, and I was going to have to change my life. No longer the luxury of tossing bricks hither and yon. It was time to start catching them. We had a lovely meal after that where I learned to contribute to society and, in particular, sport.

In 1998, I got a call from Charmaine Crooks, five-time Canadian Olympic runner and Olympic silver medalist. She needed me to go on an athlete advisory committee. “Sure”, I said, “but what are we advising on?”  “We are bidding for the Olympics,” she said. “What Olympics?” I asked.  “The Olympic Winter Games in 2010.”

More wow. There was something to work toward.

By the time the Games in Vancouver ended we had done several new things. Perhaps the most transformative was making it OK, possibly even cool, to stand on the street and sing Canada’s national anthem. Previously that would have caused some stricken looks and people scurrying away from the offender. Now, it led to a jolly singalong with everyone in earshot humming, singing, or flat out yelling the words.

 

As well, we broke the curse of being the only country to host the Games,  twice, and not win a gold medal. We rocketed from what was effectively last place on the all-time Olympic hosting list to first.

We  won more gold medals than any country ever has. Not even the Russians, who cheated with such breathtaking scope that few could encompass the sheer massive badness of it all, passed us in this critical measure.

 
 

Giving back

So, what do you do after that? Like a good chef, you take many elements that anyone can find and you make something new.

Give back. Make things right.

In 2016, a Canadian charity called Parachute was recruiting for the role of President and CEO.  Parachute’s most recent work is the creation of a simple, concise, and effective concussion protocol for National Sport Organizations.  It is a step-by-step process of what to do when you suspect your athlete has a concussion, right through recovery to return to school and return to sport.

Injury prevention is a big part of Podborski's  life. (Todd Korol/Reuters) Injury prevention is a big part of Podborski's life. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

But why me? I was the guy who hurled himself down mountains that fewer than a dozen people could race. But I was also the guy who wanted to win, and you can’t win when you fall and get hurt. I was an early, dedicated fan of preventing injury, especially my own.

When you take the position that you have to have a mindset for injury prevention and that you have to actively plan to avoid pitfalls, that is music to injury prevention specialist’s ears.

So, when the recruiters called, we had a robust chat about that.

Parachute is an evidence-based organization. For example, we put out a position statement on concussion baseline testing in youth and children. To date there is no evidence that it works. So, paying $90 for your kid to get tested before the hockey season does not add any value to the concussion treatment that they might have later in the season. None. Use the money for other fun stuff. People might say there is controversy. There is not. No one (no one!) can quote a study that shows it helps because it does not. You can read all about our protocol here. It works for non-athletes, as well.

 

My role at Parachute is propelling me further along the path that has been my very interesting life. A friend of mine wrote to me when I got the job: I am glad to see that you are taking care of the journey of your life.” That was great insight for me.

Take care of your life. Take care of the people and things you care about.

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