Canadian Paralympian Mac Marcoux hopes to build on Sochi success
At 20, para alpine skier looks to add to his 3 medals from 2014
Mac Marcoux has always had a need for speed.
While growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Marcoux and his family raced around on go-carts, dirt bikes and snowmobiles. If it went fast, Marcoux wanted to be a part of it.
But that rush of zipping around hit a speed bump when he was eight years old — he was losing his vision due to a degenerative condition known as Stargardt's disease. By nine, Marcoux was legally blind.
That wasn't about to slow down Marcoux or anyone else in his family.
"We tried to look for sports the whole family could do. We all did everything together," said the 20-year-old Paralympian. "First we looked at Nordic skiing but it didn't sound like the most riveting thing coming from go-cart racing."
If it wasn't going to be Nordic skiing, then maybe alpine skiing would suffice — the lure of racing down a snowy slope surpassing 100 km/h was much more appealing to Marcoux.
"We got in touch with Alpine Canada and they reassured us it was a sport for vision impaired athletes," Marcoux recalled. "So we all jumped into a local group here."
Brothers bond over skiing
In 2011, Marcoux and his brother Billy Joe got serious about alpine skiing. They needed a way to communicate while racing down the hill together. At first they went online and bought a pair of two-way radios they mounted in their helmets so that Billy Joe could guide Mac down the hill.
The two then got in touch with Alpine Canada to find out what other guides and skiers use.
"They had older styles we looked online for, helmet to helmet radios, and we found some they use for motorcycles," Mac Marcoux said.
And off they went. The two practised relentlessly — it wasn't long until the brothers were noticed by the national team and invited to start training with them.
"We spent the next full season doing training camps as prospects," Marcoux said. "The next season in 2013 we worked with the World Cup team race by race. It turned out we ended up racing the entire World Cup season."
At just 16, Marcoux had made Canada's Paralympic team alongside his brother Billy Joe. But then the unthinkable happened, just a week and a half before the Games. Billy Joe suffered a back injury. The brothers who had spent their entire careers together for this moment wouldn't be able to live their Paralympic dream together.
"The crazy thing about Sochi was that we trained together from when I was eight until I was 16," Marcoux said. "I feel like there was a lot of pressure we put on ourselves. And then to have that happen, it was kind of a blessing because it removed all expectations."
Marcoux scrambled to find a replacement. Robin Femy stepped in last minute. Remarkably, the two joined forces to capture a gold and two bronze medals in Sochi.
New guide — great expectations
After the 2016 season Billy Joe retired leaving his brother in need of a new guide in the lead up to the 2018 Paralympics. It's not the easiest process, admitted Marcoux. There's a lot that goes into being a good guide. Both Marcoux and Alpine Canada put out the call and waited anxiously.
Former Alberta provincial team skier Jack Leith came forward and it was an immediate fit.
"I just got so lucky. He's a hell of a guy and an amazing skier," Marcoux said.
Leitch admits he wasn't too sure what he was getting into but that quickly changed the second the two got on the slopes two years ago in Chile.
"I was pretty damn nervous," Leitch said. "I wasn't sure what he was capable of. His ski ability is unbelievable. He has one of the best touches on snow I've ever seen. It's amazing."
Marcoux said there's an incredible level of trust that goes into a guide while speeding down a hill. The guide is alerting the skier to so many different things all at once that communication is crucial — what to say and what not to say is the key.
"I can't do what I do without a great guide. So I had some fear about finding that next guide," Marcoux said. "It was a much faster transition than I thought it would be. It only took us a couple days and we were going full tilt. I could trust him immediately."
The two are coming off an extraordinary season that saw them win four golds and a silver at the World Para Alpine Skiing Championships in Italy last January. Marcoux and Leitch were also crowned World Cup downhill season champions last year.
Leitch is now entering his first Paralympics as Marcoux's guide and is bursting with pride over getting to wear the Canadian colours at the pinnacle of sport.
"I've dreamed about this forever. It might not have been the road I thought I'd take to get there but I'm so grateful for this opportunity," he said.
Starting Friday night at 7:25 p.m. ET, and throughout the Paralympics, Marcoux will zip down the mountain following the careful direction of Leitch. His need for speed satiated — just not in the way he ever imagined.
"When I was a little kid and you asked me what I wanted to do I probably wouldn't have said a visually impaired ski racer. But I've been so blessed by the opportunities that have come my way."