John Kucera would love nothing more than to return to the slopes as one of the best skiers in the world, but after a horrific broken leg robbed him of the last three years, his physical well-being remains the only real priority.
Ditto for Manuel Osborne-Paradis, who suffered a devastating crash in January of 2011, resulting in a broken left fibula and a torn ACL in his knee.
Two of Canada’s top skiers are back, yet while Alpine Canada trumpets their comebacks, the veterans won’t necessarily measure success this season by World Cup podium finishes.
“Honestly I just want to get through a year,” Kucera told CBCSports.ca.
“I know that if I put it together on a [given] day I can definitely be in there, so for me it’s staying healthy and building from the beginning of the season right through the end, and getting myself back where I need to be.”
The mindset is understandable as Kucera and Osborne-Paradis prepare for their season-opening races in Lake Louise, Alta., this weekend.
Kucera, a Calgary native, experienced both elation and disaster on the famed course.
“I dodged a lot of bullets in my career and it looks like it all came down on me at once,” he said.
The 28-year-old became the first Canadian male skier to win a World Cup race at Lake Louise in 2006 by capturing the super-G event.
Unfortunately, the same competition three years later was the scene of Kucera’s biggest nightmare when a frightening crash caused a grotesque compound fracture to his left leg. It was a huge blow for the 2009 world downhill champion, who was forced to miss the 2010 Vancouver Olympics as a season filled with promise was wiped out.
He then reinjured the same leg that, along with reoccurring back problems, prolonged his rehab.
'Stupid stunt' costs Osborne-Paradis
Osborne-Paradis — a three-time World Cup winner — missed half the time of his teammate, but his absence from skiing was no less frustrating. Following his initial injuries from his crash, the 28-year-old from North Vancouver suffered severe road rash to his buttocks from a fall off the back of a bus six months later — an incident he called “a stupid stunt.”
Despite the setbacks, Osborne-Paradis believes his time in seclusion erased any unrealistic expectations.
“I’m starting back in the weeds with all the young guys so I don’t think there’s a lot of pressure,” he explains. “It’s really when people will even start recognizing that I’m in the race … that will be probably when I’m skiing well enough to be talked about anyway. For me it’s not like I’m moving back. The only way for me to go up is to move forward.”
Kucera echoes those sentiments.
Targeting prized events like the 2013 world championships in Austria or the 2014 Sochi Olympics is simply looking too far ahead — a luxury the Calgarian won’t consider. For his part, Kucera is putting more emphasis on the process of preparing for races this season rather than the actual results.
“I’m not focused on any particular race,” he said. “For me every race is an important one and I just want to build on each one. I need to get going again.”
Return of the Canadian Cowboys
The return of Kucera and Osborne-Paradis sees all six “Canadian Cowboys” competing together at full strength. The moniker is reserved for those male skiers who’ve earned at least one World Cup, world championship or Olympic podium. Aside from Kucera and Osborne-Paradis, the other members include Erik Guay, Jan Hudec, Mike Janyk and Ben Thomsen.
François Bourque was part of that exclusive club up until his retirement this past summer.
The team continues to deal with devastating injuries. Just last week, veteran Robbie Dixon sustained a serious leg injury after a crash during a race in Copper Mountain, Colo. Hudec has also been battling injuries for the last couple of seasons.
But there is hope. Guay is a mainstay on the national team and is only three World Cup podium finishes away from equalling legend Steve Podposki’s all-time Canadian mark of 20.
Thomsen is an emerging talent who placed second last February at a World Cup race in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia — the alpine ski site for the 2014 Olympics. Hudec won a men’s World Cup downhill event in France, and placed second in a super-G event last season.
These are the racers the Canadian team will rely on while Kucera and Osborne-Paradis gradually regain their form.
“It varies,” said Osbourne-Paradis, referring to the different individual stages of the men’s squad. “Johnny and I think we’re on the same page with where we want to be [and] where we’re starting. I think [those are] realistic expectations.
“And then you have Jan with a couple of podiums last year, Ben with a podium, Erik, I mean he’s always up in the forefront. So really I think those guys' goals will definitely be the same: consistently in the top 10 [in training] and those top 10s on a good day will just move into a podium result.
"For me and John it’s top 30s, and a good run will translate into a top 10.”