'I feel like myself again': Grenier returns to World Cup super-G 4 years after leg injury
Places 31st in 1st race in Lake Louise, Alta., since 2018
It's late morning during the pre-season grind for alpine skier Valérie Grenier, who enjoys sipping coffee following an extended sleep on her day off in Colorado. An afternoon of rest is planned after a walk and grocery shopping in Silverthorne with her Canadian women's teammates.
Grenier is upbeat and relieved near the end of another pain-free training camp in 2022, a big deal for those who have followed her career.
"I feel I'm doing [the same] volume as everyone else and I can go all-out every day," Grenier said over the phone recently. "I feel so good and I'm grateful for that because I haven't felt this way in a long time."
Unfortunately, Grenier had yet to complete a World Cup race this season after appearing to lose an edge on Nov. 26 during her opening run of the women's giant slalom in Killington, Vt. In November, she was set to race a GS at the World Cup opener that was cancelled due to rain and warm weather in Sölden, Austria.
Grenier returned to Canada in early December and finished 31st in Lake Louise, Alta. The 26-year-old hadn't raced super-G at the mountain resort in Banff National Park since 2018 when she was fifth and 5-100ths of a second behind bronze medallist Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany.
Two months later, Grenier broke her right leg in four places and her right ankle travelling about 130 kilometres per hour in a downhill training run at the world championships in Åre, Sweden. She needed a second surgery five months later when the bone wasn't healing properly.
Nearly four years after the crash, Grenier was ready to return to speed racing "for real" after a few unsuccessful attempts. She was back on skis Oct. 17, 2020 following multiple surgeries, physiotherapy and COVID-19, finishing 25th in giant slalom in Sölden. But it was a different story a month earlier when Grenier stood at the top of a mountain for her first training run post-injury and couldn't push out of the gate in Zermatt, Switzerland. The crash kept replaying in her head.
WATCH | Grenier suffers mental block upon return from injury:
The mental challenges forced Grenier to abandon thoughts of downhill or super-G and shift to giant slalom, a more technical and slower discipline. She raced 13 times before a disqualification at her second Olympics last February in Beijing after getting caught on a gate just seconds from the end of her first run.
When she attempted a super-G on March 5, a "crazy scared" Grenier pulled up halfway down an icy and bumpy course in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.
"As much as I wanted to fight through it, you can't when you don't feel 100 per cent and you're going that fast," said Grenier, who grew up in the Ontario farming community of St. Isidore, east of Ottawa. "It was hard [mentally] to [stop] because that's not me. I'll keep going through anything, but at that moment there was no way.
"For a long time, it seemed I wasn't going to get back to my old self. Before my injury, I was the crazy one. I would give it my all and not think about the consequences."
After Alpine Canada hired Karin Harjo in April to coach the women, she told Grenier and her teammates to spend the summer at home after a long season. Grenier, who finished 12th in the World Cup GS standings, was soon back in the gym to get herself physically stronger for the 2022-23 campaign. She also did mental exercises to help maintain her focus through an entire race that had plagued her late in previous seasons.
In Colorado, Grenier continued her GS training while adding a healthy diet of super-G to get accustomed to speed again and how the terrain "pushes you around," Harjo told CBC Sports. Grenier felt strong, didn't suffer a setback from back issues that bothered her last season and noted "huge progress" from a mental perspective.
"It has been so hard since my injury, up and down," said Grenier, whose only reminder of the crash is having to loosen a stiff ankle each morning or feeling discomfort in her ski boot. "I felt so good in Colorado. Even if it's dark [when] you can't see holes in the snow, I don't think twice about [it].
I'm looking forward to going all-out, taking chances and risks and seeing what happens.— Canada's Valérie Grenier on racing super-G in Lake Louise, Alta.
"Being scared is not in my head. I'm having fun and thinking about what I'm working on. I feel like myself again."
Grenier believes the 20-month layoff made her a better athlete. She is more aware about the potential for injury while the risks she takes during competition are more calculated.
"I'm looking forward to going all-out, taking chances and risks and seeing what happens. I'm ready," said Grenier, who raced two FIS-level super-G events last month at Copper Mountain in Summit County, Colo.
WATCH | Grenier ties career-best finish in Slovenia in January of 2022:
Harjo, who spent each of the previous five seasons as an assistant coach of the United States women's downhill team, admires Grenier's grit and confidence.
"She's so acutely aware of space and time [on the hill] which is good in this sport," said Harjo, who also worked as an assistant of the American women's slalom and giant slalom teams from 2015 to 2017. "Her ability to ramp it up when it's time and have that confidence to push without anything in the back of her mind is amazing."
The Lake Louise super-G was contested nearly eight years to the day of Grenier's World Cup debut at Lake Louise on Dec. 7, 2014, where she was 32nd.
Grenier has yet to medal in six-and-a-half seasons on the circuit, placing fourth in GS last January in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, to match her career-best result from a January 2019 super-G in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy.
Grenier placed fifth in 2:04.36 in Wednesday's giant slalom, the lone Canadian to advance past the first run in Semmering, Austria. A day earlier, she was disqualified after leaving the start house early while in podium contention after placing fourth in her opening run.
Grenier earned some redemption Wednesday by posting the fastest second-run time to climb from 12th spot. A week after Lake Louise, she was 12th in a giant slalom in Sestriere, Italy.