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Sometimes you just have to be there: the thrill of a race against time

Posted: Monday, December 1, 2008 | 12:58 PM

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Attending a live ski race of World Cup calibre is like going to an amusement park. It’s full of thrills and chills and the kind of excitement that makes your spine tingle.

It’s the kind of experience that television can only partially capture.

Such was the case at the Lake Louise super-G as more than 60 men from all over the planet roared down the spectacular pitch, risking life and limb only to separate themselves by hundredths of a second. Winners and losers determined by less than the wink of an eye ... much less.

It’s hard not to get caught up in the sense of wonder that speed racing on skis can engender. It’s easy to find yourself gasping at the athletes as they launch themselves over the jumps and subsequently grit your teeth as they carve the edges of their chattering boards into the icy track.

All of this action occurs at speeds in excess of 120 km/hr. It is absolutely mind boggling to take it all in.

The loyalty of the European racers

At Lake Louise, which is deep in the heart of the spectacular Rocky Mountains, it is a given that there will always be snow to start the World Cup season. That knowledge inspires loyalty on the part of European racers who covet victories here. It is a sign that they can compete in the Canadian cold and, more often than not, in adverse conditions. It has become a badge of honour to win early in the campaign against this majestic and rugged backdrop.

Steve Podborski, one of the fabled Crazy Canucks, was circumspect as I rode with him on the chairlift prior to the race.

“It’s going to be slick,” Podborski said, as he hovered above the maniacally steep course. “The first 10 down the hill will have a distinct advantage because it’s so mild that the track will soon get choppy.”

I looked at him with my mouth agape. Partially because I couldn’t believe the skiers would tackle a pitch that severe - but also because I was riding to the top with one of the greatest Canadian racers of all time.

After taking a run on the “cruisers” slope beside the competition track at Lake Louise, I ventured to my broadcast position near the finish line. The crowd seemed immense, but it was small by Austrian or Swiss standards. Still, the people made a ton of noise by ringing cowbells, honking horns and just generally screaming their lungs out.

A helmet decorated like an eight ball

Before I knew it, the Canadian hope, 24-year-old John Kucera of Calgary, was on course. He wore a flashy, yellow, skin suit and black helmet decorated like an eight ball more in keeping with a billiards theme.

“I don’t know why I wear it, I just like it I guess,” Kucera had told me in reference to his headgear. “Or maybe there’s something to the theory that it’s never over until the eight ball is sunk!”

Kucera, who had won this race two years ago, is still a kid by World Cup standards, but he was attacking the course with experienced savvy. As he descended, he threw his shoulders into the turns and whacked the gates as they whipped by. Watching my monitor as well as the giant, scoreboard screen built for fans at the bottom of the hill, I became electrified.

“This is what a race horse looks like,” Kerrin Lee-Gartner enthused from the play-by-play booth. “He looks very relaxed!”

To me it seemed more like controlled mayhem and along with the partisan crowd I was on board with Kucera throughout exhorting him to get down the hill. I could tell by watching that he was giving it every bit of energy and concentration he could muster.

When he finally appeared at the top of the last hill before the finish area he was like a rapidly approaching jet and suddenly he was upon us, streaking over the line and into the lead, jamming on the brakes in a billowing cloud of snow.

I found myself roaring with approval as he danced jubilantly before the hometown faithful. It was riveting -enthralling!

“I knew it was going to be fast,” Kucera said breathlessly after the race. “I told myself I gotta gas it up top!”

The legendary Hermann Maier

Then, the Canadian kid turned to watch the next man down, the great Hermann Maier of Austria, calmly erase his lead. But Maier had not managed to capture a race in two seasons and he was hungry for this moment at Lake Louise.

Taking it in, observing the menacing Maier who had 53 World Cup wins as well as world championship and Olympic titles to his credit prior to this race, I was struck by the significance of the situation.

The young star, not yet able to eclipse the legendary figure.

“Thank you,” were the first words out of a beaming Maier’s mouth when I interviewed him once his victory was secure. “I just wanted to win again on the World Cup and I’m so happy that it came in this place and on this day.”

I was left exhausted, and completely fulfilled.

It had been a thrilling race versus the clock where the stalwart distinguished himself against the upstart by just over one half of a second. It all occurred in a blur.

I know you might have watched it on television, but I guess to understand the beauty of it all, sometimes you just have to be there.

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