As with every season, there is no shortage of storylines.
The Canadian women are hopeful promising slalom skiers Erin Mielzynski and Marie-Michèle Gagnon can break out. However, the men are in a more fragile state with Manuel Osborne-Paradis and John Kucera returning from serious injuries.
American Lindsey Vonn, the most dominant female skier ever, was denied the opportunity to compete against the men and is now dealing with an intestinal injury.
CBC Sports ski analyst Keerin Lee-Gartner, the 1992 Olympic downhill champion, took time to address these topics and more:
CBCSports.ca: Let’s begin with the Canadian women. Erin Mielzynski won a World Cup slalom race last season — the first women’s victory in four years. What are your thoughts on Erin’s outlook for this season and beyond?
Lee-Gartner: One thing about Erin, even when she was a youngster, is it was very clear that she’s a hard worker and very professional as a teenager. She raced the 2010 Olympic Games as a developmental skier and she just rose so quickly. So now Erin’s challenge — now that she’s won — is going to be staying in the rhythm of the races and not putting too many expectations on herself. She is an incredible athlete and she deserves her spot on the podium any time there’s a slalom event.
CBCSports.ca: Marie-Michèle Gagnon earned a third-place finish in a World Cup slalom event one week after Mielzynski won her race. Do the Canadian women have a legitimate 1-2 punch?
Lee-Gartner: Most definitely. Although Erin was the first one to win, Gagnon was [having] Top 10 and Top 5 [finishes] in the giant slalom and slalom, and really kind of breaking away and showing the path. I think the two of them work so well together. It’s not a rivalry whatsoever. They build strength and character from each other. They build confidence from each other, and I think in that sense it’s a very powerful duo. When you put confidence with a group of girls that’s willing to work as hard as they are working, really the sky is the limit at what they can do at this point.
CBCSports.ca: Overall, what do you expect from the women this year?
Lee-Gartner: The potential on the women’s side is on the slalom and GS, where for so many years it was the speed teams that we expected the results from. With their retirements and the injury to [downhiller] Kelly VanderBeek [two years ago] we have to look at the women’s tech team, although I do hear Larisa Yurkiw is skiing very well and she’s our real speed hope for Canadians.
CBCSports.ca: Kelly VanderBeek, our CBCSports.ca blogger, missed the 2010 Vancouver Olympics because of a serious knee injury and has yet to come back at full strength. Can she make an impact this season?
Lee-Gartner: I think Kelly is a hard worker and she has not given up on that dream of hers and the Olympics. She was so close in 2006 [Torino Games] and 2010. She’s kept herself busy away from the slopes, which keeps her happy and trying not to realize how much time she’s missing away from the sport. But in the winter, if she’s not ready to race that’s a tough one and that’s a position she was in last year. It was definitely a horrific injury. She tore everything there is to tear in there and she’s worked hard to come back. The team needs her back, there’s no doubt. She’s a leader on that speed side, she’s been on the podium and I hope there comes a time where we’ll see her on a downhill course again.
CBCSports.ca: The men’s team has certainly been hit with devastating injuries over the last three years with John Kucera and Manuel Osborne-Paradis. Now Robbie Dixon is out with a serious knee injury. Who can we expect to pick up the slack?
Lee-Gartner: With Jan [Hudec] and Erik [Guay], they’re definitely the leaders on that men’s squad, and Ben Thomsen, we definitely can’t forget him. He was second in the pre-Olympic race in Sochi last year. Ben is young and eager and still learning the courses. But he is just incredibly natural on a downhill course and has no fear. And with those three — without major injury — there’s no reason not to have a couple of them in the Top 10 every single race. I expect good things from them. For Manny and John, I think the goal this year has to be getting back in the groove and be really ready for next year and the Olympics.
CBCSports.ca: Is Ben the future of this men’s team?B.C. native Ben Thomsen, who placed second in a World Cup event last season, is considered the future of the Canadian men's team. (Alessandro Trovati/Associated Press)
Lee-Gartner: I really like Ben. I like his spirit, I like the way he skis. When I watch him ski a mountain he is so relaxed and moves with the terrain. He’s not a very tall guy, he definitely doesn’t weigh the same as a lot of the big downhillers, but yet on the tough downhills like Sochi and Kitzbuhel [Austria], he can be a contender. [Swiss great] Didier Cuche, who retired last year, is not a whole lot bigger than Ben Thomsen. Ben is the future and he’s a link to the younger guys.
CBCSports.ca: Erik Guay, the 2011 world downhill champion, is only three World Cup podium finishes from tying Canadian legend Steve Podborski’s national record of 20. Can he pull even this season?
Lee-Gartner: I would expect him to be able to tie Steve’s record, no question. As long as he stays healthy and positive, Erik has the goods to be on the podium all year long — in the downhill or super-G events. It’s nice for him that he has two events that he can contend. I think Erik is a leader out there, he’s a veteran, he knows the routine, he knows how to perform on race day. He is coming back from a knee scope but he’s ready to go.
CBCSports.ca: From the international view, American Lindsey Vonn had her request to race against the men denied, and then suffered an intestinal illness. What effect will this have on her season?
Lee-Gartner: As long as it’s an illness such as a lingering flu or something like that she’ll be OK. Other than a major issue, I have no reason to believe that Vonn is not going to be as dominant as she’s ever been. Her training has been great. When you look at the speed races last year there were seven races where she won four of the super-Gs, and she won five of eight of the downhills. She is definitely the dominant skier, so I have no reason to look a whole lot further than Vonn for the overall title.
CBCSports.ca: Are there other women who could potentially challenge Vonn?
Lee-Gartner: There are two other women on the downhill side last year that won. Elisabeth Goergl from Austria is a two-time gold medallist from the last world championship [in 2011] and will be defending those titles in Austria in February so I expect her to be coming into the season gung-ho and ready to go. [Germany’s] Maria Hoefl-Riesch won the overall title two years ago and she’s always been in a battle with Lindsey. She also managed to get a win in downhill last year. She won a slalom this year already in the opening event in Levi [Finland]. She had some health issues of her own last year [where] she lost some weight and strength, so the fact that she still finished third overall when she hadn’t been well is a sign to look for her again this year.
CBCSports.ca: Is there a dominant male skier to look for this year?
Lee-Gartner: On the men’s side, the dominance is more in the slalom and GS with [Austrian] Austria Marcel Hurscher and [American] Ted Ligety. In the slalom, Hurscher, Ivica Kostelic [Croatia] and Andre Myhrer [Sweden] are all contenders. But on the speed side – the super-G and downhill – it’s very open. There were 11 downhill races last year with seven different winners. Cuche won three of those but he’s retired so that really opens up the field for [Austrians] Klaus Kroell and Hannes Reichelt. Of course, Hudec was one of the winners of those downhill races last year. On the super-G side, eight races had seven different winners. I think in Lake Louise [this weekend], without Didier Cuche being there, the door is so open to see who’s going to jump into that leader’s box and take a little bit of a commanding role in the downhill and super-Gs.