Olympic ski cross champs Thompson, Leman have 'will to prepare to win'
Ski cross stars remain resilient, focused on top prize despite past injuries
Nothing was going to keep Marielle Thompson from at least attempting to defend her Olympic gold medal in Pyeongchang this past February, not even a destroyed knee.
The reigning champion in women's ski cross suffered a torn ACL and MCL injury just four months before the Games during a training run in Switzerland but remained determined to leave no stone unturned if it meant having a shot to compete.
"Right from the beginning, they kind of said, 'Well, there's a chance,' and I said, 'Okay. Well if there's a chance, I'm going to at least try,'" recalls Thompson.
Thompson's team of ski coaches, conditioning coaches, physiotherapists, and massage therapists put together an accelerated rehab program to put the Whistler, B.C., native in the best possible position to return and without further risk.
They laid out a set of benchmarks that Thompson continually checked off as she progressed through her recovery.
But despite the encouraging signs, there were no guarantees the 26-year-old would line up at the start gate come competition time.
She still made the trip to South Korea and hit the ski cross course for the first time in months.
It was far from ideal, but the few training runs Thompson had in the lead-up to the event was all the convincing she and her team needed to give the green light.
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Roller-coaster of emotions
In the seeding round, Thompson surpassed all expectations after posting the fastest time only to crash out in the first elimination round after her skis got caught up with another competitor's.
It was quite the roller-coaster of emotions for Thompson, who thought her Olympic hopes were likely over in October 2017. But at the end of the day, she knows it's part of the sport and says it was definitely worth it.
"It took a lot to be able to get there … To win the qualifying [round] and know that I can be the best with very little time on snow and on a ski cross course was amazing," Thompson says.
"I didn't realize how far I could push myself so it's good to know that I can be resilient and surpass what I know is possible."
From heartbreak to euphoria
If there's one person who knows a thing about perseverance, it's fellow Canadian ski cross racer Brady Leman.
Up until the Calgary native's gold-medal triumph in Pyeongchang, the Olympics were nothing but a collection of bad memories for Leman.
In Vancouver 2010, the 32-year-old broke his leg during a training run, just a day before the competition. Four years later in Sochi, Leman finished a heartbreaking fourth after his ski clipped one of his competitors on the final turn of the race.
Nobody would've blamed Leman for throwing in the towel. But he loves the sport too much and knows he'd be foolish to let a broken leg — or in Leman's case three separate incidents — end a career that plenty aspire for.
"When I'm hurting, I'm going to do what it takes to get better because there's a lot of people that want to get that opportunity that don't," Leman says.
'The will to prepare to win'
After Sochi, Leman got a tattoo of the Olympic rings on his right bicep — a daily reminder of the prize he was striving for.
He also referenced a quote from legendary college football coach Bear Bryant that read: "It's not the will to win that matters — everyone has that. It's the will to prepare to win that matters."
Leman knew that if he was finally going to breakthrough on the Olympic stage, he needed to be just as invested in the whole training process as he was in the Games itself.
"When you put everyone in the start gate, everyone wants that gold medal. Nobody wants to win more than the next guy. Who wants to work day in and day out off the hill just to have a chance on the hill? Not a lot of people," Leman says.
"You have to want to get better outside of competition or else you're not going to have the success when it really counts."
The work begins again for both Thompson and Leman in the hopes of being in a position to add a second Olympic gold medal in four years time.
It's no secret that Thompson is undoubtedly one of the sport's best when healthy. She's a three-time Crystal Globe winner, has 20 World Cup victories (31 podiums), and a silver medal from the world championships and Winter X Games respectively.
Watch Thompson receive her third Crystal Globe:
Leman is no slouch himself with 22 World Cup podiums, two Winter X Games medals, and a pair of top-three overall finishes on the World Cup circuit.
If there's one thing that's for sure, it's that neither lacks the drive of a champion.