Slippery slope for Gartner

The only stumbling block that could keep this year's alpine team out of the medals is the injury bug -- unfortunately, it's hit so hard that a gash on the head and possible concussion is actually considered good news

By ERIC FRANCIS, QMI AGENCY

After entering the ski season with unbridled optimism, Max Gartner admits his mindset has changed somewhat.

Watching a large portion of your team fly home from Europe in wheelchairs can do that to a guy.

"My primary objective is just to get home with everybody healthy," said Alpine Canada's chief athletics officer from his hotel in Wengen, Switzerland.

"It's to the point every time some athletes come out of the gate you worry something is going to go wrong."

After spending the last five years successfully building up the depth required to have a viable shot at Olympic and World Cup success, the Canadian Team has lost six skiers to season-ending injuries to date.

While a record 28 skiers have suffered a similar fate on the World Cup circuit, Gartner's gang is the one affected most given it'll be most under the microscope as Olympic hosts in Whistler -- especially given the success of the team the last few years.

"We always knew the biggest risk for us to not get medals was injury," said Gartner, who lost four athletes in five days in December, including world champion downhiller John Kucera as well as fourth-place finishers from Turin, Kelly VanderBeek and Francois Bourque.

"We wanted athletes to battle for sports and have inter-team rivalries and push each other. But that element falls away now. We're still very optimistic we'll have a good showing at the Olympics. There are lots of positives and we're still counting on being on home turf to boost the performance. We still have a number of athletes who have a good shot at winning medals, but not as many as we did at the start of the season."

The bright spots include a pair of wins from Whistler's Manuel Osborne-Paradis and two podium finishes from Fernie, B.C., veteran Emily Brydon. Both rank fourth in downhill.

Whistler's Michael Janyk has had some success on the technical side but his sister Britt is struggling to find the form that made her a star two seasons ago. Jan Hudec's return from his latest knee surgery has been a slow one. Even Mont-Tremblant's Erik Guay -- the third-most decorated skier in Canadian history -- is without a podium finish this winter.

The injury bug is so bad the team's most pleasant surprise of the year -- North Vancouver's Robbie Dixon -- recently returned from Europe after a slip on ice outside a training facility left him with a gash on his head and concussion-like symptoms sidelining him for a few weeks.

"Our team has been given massive obstacles that are unheard of and unimaginable, but with the hand we've been dealt we're playing really well," said Brydon on her cellphone from Europe.

"The team dynamic has changed dramatically. We used to be able to work off each other and share the pressure. But on the women's side now it feels like it's Britt and me."

The International Ski Federation (FIS) acknowledges the inordinate number of injuries on the World Cup circuit this year is cause for major concern and has struck up several committees to look at ways to reduce them in the future.

The common theory is the combination of cold, dry conditions with today's equipment is seeing athletes putting their bodies in increasingly perilous positions, prompting crashes. Gartner and many others feel it's to the point now that FIS needs to regulate equipment, which they're doing more.

Regardless, the carnage has weighed heavily on the skiers, as psychologists have been used regularly to help them cope with the delicate balance between chasing their goals and being seriously injured while doing so.

"I've almost had to desensitize myself to (all the injuries) because it will directly affect how I ski," said Brydon.

"You have to take your mind away from the potential danger. We do sign up for this but ... the sheer numbers are overwhelming. It's a part of the mental game I've never had to work on before. I'm not a scientist and I don't know what's different but something's going on."

With the Olympics less than a month away you'd think some skiers would take fewer risks to make sure they're healthy for Whistler. Not so.

"If I was to back off now I would have no chance at the games," said Brydon.

"It feels like you're playing the lottery and taking your chances and there's a huge payoff this year."

There's huge pressure too as Alpine Canada has been tabbed to win two Olympic medals -- an expectation that now falls almost squarely on the shoulders of Brydon and Osborne-Paradis.

"You can't just train and show up at the Olympics --you have to push to the limits every week to have a shot," said Gartner.

"It's those times outside that comfort zone that make you more comfortable when you are on the edge."

Easier said than done as Gartner and everyone with Alpine Canada is far from comfortable these days.

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WOMEN'S ALPINE TEAM

- Brigitte Acton

Mont-Tremblant

- Emily Brydon

Fernie, B.C.

- Britt Janyk

Whistler, B.C.

- Marie-Michele Gagnon

Lac-Etchemin, Que.

- Genevieve Simard

Val-Morin, Que.

- Kelly VanderBeek

Kitchener, Ont.

- Anna Goodman

Pointe Claire, Que.

- Shona Rubens

Canmore, Alta.

- Larisa Yurkiw

Owen Sound, Ont.

- Kelly McBroom

Canmore, Alta.

- Eve Routhier

Sherbrooke, Que.

MEN'S ALPINE TEAM

- Patrick Biggs

Orleans, Ont.

- Francois Bourque

New Richmond, Que.

- Julien Cousineau

Mont-Tremblant

- Robbie Dixon

Whistler, B.C.

- Stephan Guay

Mont-Tremblant

- Jan Hudec

Calgary, Alta.

- Trevor White

Calgary, Alta.

- Michael Janyk

Whistler, B.C.

- Louis-PierreHelie

Berthierville, Que.

- John Kucera

Calgary, Alta.

- Manuel Osborne-Paradis

Whistler, B.C.

- Jean-Philippe Roy

Ste-Flavie, Que.

- Ryan Semple

Mont-Tremblant

- Brad Spence

Calgary, Alta.

- Erik Guay

Mont-Tremblant

- Jeffrey Frisch

Mont-Tremblant

- Dustin Cook

Ottawa, Ont.

- Tyler Nella

Toronto, Ont.

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