Skier mistakenly told he was in Olympics
'I’m never going to be an Olympian and that hurts'
By Terry Farrell, QMI Agency
Canada's Ryan Blais reacts to his third-place finish in mens' aerials during World Cup freestyle skiing in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Friday, Jan. 22. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
Ryan Blais stood in the winner’s area at Lake Placid last Friday with tears in his eyes.
They were not tears of joy. They were tears of anguish.
Despite winning a bronze medal after landing the most difficult jump of his career – and being the first athlete to ever cleanly land such a jump on the World Cup circuit – he knew his Olympic dream was over.
What he didn’t realize was that the nightmare was just about to begin.
This gut-wrenching story did not start in Lake Placid on Friday.
It started in Lake Placid four years ago, almost to the date, on the very same podium.
It was January of 2006, when Blais won his second career freestyle skiing aerials World Cup gold medal, in Lake Placid. That day he stood on the podium, with tears in his eyes, looking at the silver medalist next to him who had just taken his Olympic spot away from him.
Blais landed the jump of his life that day. So did his teammate, Jeff Bean.
Bean’s jump wasn’t as good as Blais’s, but it was better than anyone else’s. Bean finished second overall, which was just enough to take the final Canadian men’s aerialist berth at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Italy.
For four years Blais has dealt with his own demons regarding that day.
For four years, Blais has focused on atoning for those shortcomings, by qualifying for the 2010 Olympics.
It all came down to last Friday, same time, same place.
Only the names had changed.
Or at least one name.
This time around, it was Olivier Rochon battling Blais for the spot on the Olympic team.
“It was a little bit different circumstances than the last time around,” said Blais. “In ‘06, we were the last discipline to compete and the competition was the last night of qualifying. So I knew I needed a gold or a silver. This time it’s more complicated, because the ski-cross men and women still have to compete.”
(Sunday’s ski-cross results would ultimately determine how many men and women qualify for each of the three freestyle disciplines – aerials, ski-cross and moguls. There are a total of 18 Canadian berths to be awarded. Rochon’s berth is the No. 4 position in men’s aerials, which could have been dropped, based on the Canadian results at the Lake Placid ski-cross. See sidebar article Page 12.)
“I knew what I had to do in terms of passing ahead of Olivier Rochon,“ said Blais of his situation this past weekend. “The conversation (between Blais and his coach, Daniel Murphy) was that we can’t worry about ski-cross because we can’t control what they are going to do. But we know at a minimum I need a sixth, to get ahead of Olivier. But then if Olivier gets into the finals, well, you’d better hope you are on the podium.”
It was a tall order. Blais had only advanced to the finals once this World Cup season and had yet to crack the top-10. His best finish was an 11th, at the season-opener in China last month.
There was only option for Blais. It was time for him to pull out his “show-stopper”.
Blais had been working on, and had perfected – in practice, at any rate – a rare full/full/double full: A triple back flip consisting of 360-degree twists on the first two flips and a 720 on the third.
It’s a jump that has never been successfully landed on the World Cup circuit.
Blais nailed it.
“I put down a great one and I scored 126-something with it and that put me on the podium with a really high score (250.80),” said Blais. “A 250 is quite often enough to win a World Cup event but on that day it was enough for third.”
Blais then waited and watched.
Rochon jumped shortly thereafter and scored 116 on a conservative degree-of-difficulty jump, giving him a total of 245.29. That placed him fourth, right behind Blais at that time.
“I knew that his score was one that would probably end up placing him, depending on how other people did, probably anywhere between fifth and eighth position. So there was that grey zone where maybe I’d bumped him, maybe I hadn’t. But in my heart, at that moment, I felt that I did what I needed to do but I did not put enough space between me and him.”
At that point, Blais went over to Rochon (who ultimately finished sixth) and congratulated him on making the Canadian Olympic team.
Blais headed to the winner’s corral (where the leaders stay until the results are made official), where he was eventually declared the bronze medalist.
“I was an emotional wreck,” said Blais. “I was crying, because at that point I was pretty sure I had not qualified (for Olympics). So I was really upset. In my mind I was like ‘I can’t believe this has happened again’.
But it was indeed happening again. It was so eerily similar to 2006, it was as if the weekend was a script dreamed up by a mind with a twisted sense of torture.
“I thought the situation the way it played out in ‘06 was crazy, coming down to the wire, having to reach the podium on that day, then having Jeff just lurking behind and then grabbing the last spot. It came down to even crazier circumstances this year,” said Blais, comparing the two scenarios. “I needed to be on the podium. I didn’t know exactly what, but I knew to be on the podium I needed to do a new trick for the first time, one that’s unproven on the World Cup tour.
“I’m the first athlete in history to land one (full/full/double full) cleanly and to be on the podium with. It’s a career best performance, by a long shot. And it still wasn’t enough.
“I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? These things don’t happen to athletes!’
“I have plenty of teammates that didn’t qualify, but it isn’t under these circumstances. They crashed and didn’t qualify, or it was tight but they didn’t qualify. But no one stands on the podium, or wins, or does a new trick for the first time and kind of helps to change the sport and still doesn’t qualify.”
What happened next was almost unfathomable.
Once the Lake Placid results became official, Blais and Rochon were tied in the overall standings to determine Canada’s Olympic team. (Each skier’s top four World Cup finishes are tabulated to determine Olympic qualifying points.)
A tiebreaking method had to be used to determine who was heading to Vancouver.
A bombshell was dropped on Blais’s lap.
“Our media girl came up to me and said ‘congratulations Ryan, I think you’ve got it.’ I told her I didn’t think so but she said they’d been crunching the numbers and it looked like it was enough,” said Blais.
“I said, ‘what do you mean, looks like? Either it is or it isn’t. Don’t toy with me.’”
See BLAIS, Page 12
His media liaison explained to him that the tiebreaker used is podium placements in the Olympic year. Rochon has not had a World Cup podium placement, meaning Blais’s third-place finish, in this, the final event prior to Olympics, was enough to put him through.
He was an Olympian.
Or so he thought.
“I couldn’t believe it. I’d talked to my coach, Murph, earlier, and we’d done the math... Murph was at the top and he said ‘Ryan, I’m sorry’ and gave me a hug. So my instincts were to trust him. But everyone else was congratulating me. Then the media started coming by and the message from our team is that I overtook Olivier and I had qualified, albeit I still had to wait until the results of the ski-cross. But they were like, ‘you’re sitting good with this podium and you probably won’t be touched’, so I started buying into it and believing it.
“The cameras are on, I am doing interviews. I’m in the finish area, get off the podium, there’s a camera in my face, I do another interview. By the time all is said and done I’ve done about six or seven interviews and all of them were under the context that I had qualified.
“I remember during all of them, I was in such disbelief. I even said in one, ‘I’m not trying to be a pessimist... everything I needed to do I did, but I’ve been stung before, in 2006, and I feel like I am about to get stung again.’”
Talk about your self-fulfilling prophecies.
As Blais wrapped up an interview, Canadian officials pulled him aside, along with his sports psychologist, Penny Werthner.
“I was like, ‘why are they calling Penny over here?’ and then a light went off. It was like they were thinking ‘we’re about to break his heart, we’d better make sure his psychologist is right there.’ Then they told me I didn’t qualify, that the tiebreaker used is a different tiebreaker.”
The correct tiebreaker is the top two finishes from the Olympic season. Blais’s top two finishes were a third and an 11th. Rochon has two sixth-place finishes.
“They tried to explain more, but I didn’t care,” said Blais. “I skipped out on the (podium winners) press conference afterwards. I was extremely angry. I was an Olympian and then they took it away from me.”
Blais knows that, at two months shy of his 31st birthday, this was his last chance at making an Olympic team.
“It’s over. I’m never going to be an Olympian and that hurts,” he said. “This was my last chance and I have known that for the last four years. I knew after ‘06 that, as painful as that was, that I would have another chance. But I am definitely not going to 2014.”
As colossal of an error as it was, Blais has made peace with the team officials responsible. He hinted that, had it been anyone else other than him in the situation, it may not have even played out the same way. He suggested that because so many members of the Canadian team were there in 2006, when his heart was broken the first time, that possibly subconsciously, they were cheering a little harder for him and were wanting so much for him to qualify for Vancouver that they fooled themselves into believing it had happened.
“It’s tough, because they were all rooting for me, because they all know what I went through in 2006,” he said. “I know that they want everyone on the team to do well, but I know that they were very excited for me and it was just human error. They let their excitement get to them and they told me before double-checking their numbers and confirming their (conclusions).
“Sure, they regret it, and I was sure to yell at them. They know how disappointed I was, I am, with them. But at the same time, I forgave them that night. I know they feel horrible for what they put me through.”