Canadian skier Thomsen takes unusual route to racing World Cups
Ben Thomsen nearly fell through the cracks a few times during his ski career.
On the verge of dropping out of the sport — and sometimes encouraged to do so by those around him — Thomsen is on the Canadian team because of his own stubbornness and an assist from a teammate.
"There was a couple of times I thought 'it's absolutely not possible,"' the 25-year-old said Thursday at Lake Louise, Alta. "It was not happening. I could barely pay rent.
"It was very tough, some of the situations I was in. I kept telling myself 'It will happen. You'll break through and it will be that much better. It will make it worth it.' It has."
Thomsen was released from the B.C. provincial team at age 20. He wasn't getting the results in Nor Am races to stay on the team.
"There is criteria and I wasn't meeting that criteria, so I had to go on my own," Thomsen said. "I went into debt too when I was on my own. That kind of sucked."
A lighter racer at five foot seven and 176 pounds, Thomsen struggled on courses that favoured gliders. The belief he could excel on steeper, tougher courses if he ever got to race on them kept him in the sport.
At races, people expressed surprise he was still competing. Two years ago, Thomsen was living in a garage converted into an apartment in the industrial area of his hometown of Invermere, B.C.
Helped out by a teammate
To make the national team, he needed to attend fall training camps and pay his own way to World Cup races during the 2010-11 season to earn the necessary points.
Thomsen's job mixing concrete wasn't going to pay those bills. Canadian team skier Manny Osborne-Paradis worked out a deal with his own sponsors to funnel cash to Thomsen.
"We don't have a lot of depth in Canada and if someone has a chance to do well, I just would like to see them given that chance." Osborne-Paradis explained. "I think lots of people thought they'd given him the right opportunities, but every provincial ski team, Alpine Canada, they all have their own structures and their own criteria.
"You've got sponsors and a certain amount of money. They can't take everybody who thinks they've got a chance.
"Once every blue moon, I think you have to step outside the confines of your structure and go find a guy. He needed the money . . . so I helped him out."
Thomsen was 16th in a World Cup downhill in Val Gardena, Italy, that season and posted top-20 results in both downhill and super-G at the 2011 world championships.
Those results made him a funded member of the men's team in 2011-12. Thomsen finished in the top-10 four times, including a breakthrough World Cup silver on the 2014 Olympic course in Sochi, Russia.
"It's really steep, rough and turny on the top, which I'm really good at, and huge air and high speeds on the bottom, which is in my wheelhouse," Thomsen explained.
"That was a huge stepping stone for me. Two years ago, before that, I was mixing concrete and didn't know if I was going to ski race again. For things to change that much, to be ranked in the top 15 in the world, it's been a whirlwind."
Thomsen was 17th on Thursday in the second of three training runs for Saturday's season-opening World Cup downhill. Erik Guay of Mont-Tremblant, Que., was the top Canadian in sixth.
Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal finished first and Austrians Georg Streitberger and Klaus Kroell were second and third respectively. Swiss skier Daniel Albrecht crashed on the upper section of the course and was taken to hospital in Calgary with a leg and head injury.
When Thomsen looks at the rescue of his career, he can recall another turning point that brought him back from the margins.
When he was a forerunner at the Olympic downhill race in February, 2010, Thomsen begged Paul Kristofic, the Canadian ski team coach at the time, to take him to one of the final World Cups of that season.
Thomsen finished 43rd in his World Cup debut in Norway. Speed coach John McBride then invited him to a spring camp for Canada's developmental racers "even though I was too old for it," Thomsen said.
When he analyzes the near-misses of his ski career, Thomsen says he stayed in the game long enough to catch the breaks.
"I've played this game in my head many times," he said. "At the end of the day, it really doesn't matter for me. If I were to look back at it, I am a late bloomer, I am a small guy. I just needed to get on World Cup, something that was a little bit harder, steeper and on injected snow.
"I wasn't a good glider when I was younger. I was really bad at it and Nor Ams are really soft, flat courses. It was really tough for me to perform there."
He doesn't accept, however, that small men can't glide.
"We've been working on it for the last couple of years and it's getting better," Thomsen said. "There are guys like Aksel who is a huge guy and an unbelievable glider, but he can also ski really well in this [soft] stuff. I need to figure out how I can be competitive with him on any race.
"You can change the way you ski. It's all about feel and touch on the snow. You can also play with your equipment a bit and it just takes time. Once you get it, you've got to keep working at it. It is possible to be fast as a small guy."