Jack Crawford's alpine bronze medal could be start of new era for men's skiing in Canada
24-year-old's move west to Whistler paid off
Fourth place. It was in danger of becoming a tradition for the Crawford family.
In the first alpine event of these Beijing Olympics, Canada's Jack Crawford finished fourth in the men's downhill by an agonizing 0.07 seconds. He'd also finished fourth in the alpine combined at the world championships last season.
And 50 years earlier, his aunt, Judy Crawford, finished fourth in the women's slalom at the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan.
"[Judy] said no one remembers fourth place," Crawford told CBC Sports. "She knew what I was feeling. You go to the Olympics to get medals; that's what matters. To walk away with one it's crazy. It feels amazing."
So when the hundredths of seconds began falling in Jack's favour, his whole family was on edge. At their house in Georgian Peaks, Ont., about 90 minutes northwest of Toronto, the Crawford crew stayed up well into the night on Feb. 10 to see Jack ski to the podium, becoming the first Canadian to ever win a medal in the Olympic alpine combined.
"I haven't watched a lot of his races. I was a little nervous," Jack's father, Angus Crawford, told CBC Sports. "The nerves come out when you see them doing 140 or 150 kilometres an hour on these two little sticks, but with Jack, he's just solid."
WATCH | Jack Crawford skis to bronze medal in alpine combined:
The alpine combined adds the times of one downhill run, Crawford's strength, and a slalom run, which he has never raced on the World Cup level.
Crawford sat second after the downhill, just 0.02 seconds back of leader Aleksander Aamodt Kilde of Norway. Then a few hours later, Crawford's seventh-place showing in the slalom was good enough to keep him on the podium and out of that cursed fourth-place spot. Austria's Johannes Strolz won gold and Kilde took the silver.
Two ski communities pushed him toward the podium
For the Crawford family, though, the medal meant more than just stepping on the podium — it was the culmination of a life in skiing. Jack's sister, Candace, has represented Canada internationally but did not make the Canadian team for the Beijing Games, and nearly every member of the family has spent time skiing, some also competing.
Looking at the pictures on his desk, Angus remembers where Jack started, skiing at Georgian Peaks while balancing a hockey schedule at the same time. Now that little kid in the photos has an Olympic medal around his neck.
"I really thought that he was going to be a [giant slalom] skier," Angus said. "A coach [John Kucera] said, 'Your boy's a speed skier,' and I kind of I kind of giggled in my own mind because I didn't do any downhill."
At 14 years old, Crawford left Georgian Peaks for Whistler, B.C. and the Whistler Mountain Ski Club, looking to push himself to the next level.
When he moved to Whistler, he didn't know anybody his age and didn't start school immediately. Coming from the small hills in Ontario, he didn't realize the other aspects of skiing either.
"Maybe it was a blessing in disguise," he said. "I didn't know what I was doing, but really I was just practising and getting better at a sport that I didn't fully know I was going to be so invested in down the line."
Although Ontario's slopes don't offer vast alpine areas like Alberta and British Columbia, they offer a place to get started, and it's proven suitable throughout the history of the Canadian program. Legendary names like Steve Podborski, Todd Brooker and the brother-sister tandem of Karen and Brian Stemmle are among many who have got their starts on southern Ontario ski hills.
"They are these small hills, but they help develop a love for the sport," said Nick Hamilton, president of Georgian Peaks Ski Club. "You can get good enough so that when you're ready, you can go out to the big mountains, and you can get more exposure to the sport."
Once Crawford joined the Whistler Mountain Ski Club, he entered one of the best development clubs in Canada. Three members of the Olympic alpine team skied with Whistler, while Crawford and Erin Mielzynski spent time at Georgian Peaks.
A new era of Canadian men's speed skiers
Canadian ski racing rides a wave. There's a golden generation, a lull, and another upswing. Broderick Thompson's World Cup medal in Beaver Creek Colo. in November, and Crawford's Olympic podium could be the start of the latest stellar era.
"I definitely thought a medal was possible," Crawford said of the Olympics. "I was pretty happy that it happened after the downhill and super-G. I kind of thought maybe I just wasn't quite there yet."
The "Canadian Cowboys" of John Kucera, Erik Guay, Manny Osborne-Paradis, Jan Hudec and Ben Thomsen never reached the heights of the "Crazy Canucks," of the 1980s and 90s. Still, it was the last group of skiers to show the world how fast Canadians could ski.
WATCH | Jack Crawford reflects on his Olympics:
Before Crawford, the last time Canadians won a medal at a major race was at the 2017 world championships when Guay and Osborne-Paradis won medals.
"With Jack showing that he can ski three days in a row, and three events, the way he did at the Olympics, it shows that it's sustainable skiing," Osborne-Paradis told CBC Sports. "They need to find their confidence within that. This was a great result at a big competition where they learned a lot about themselves that they can bring forward."
When Jack Crawford stepped onto the podium and raised his medal above his head, he shed his family's fourth place woes and lofted Canadian ski racing into a new era.
"I hope it shows what ski racing can be. It's an amazing sport. It's a lot of fun, very competitive," Crawford said. "I hope our group can be good role models to get that next group of guys to come up."