Spence rebounds from horrific crash

By ERIC FRANCIS, QMI Agency

Brad Spence is a realist.

"In skiing, it's not if you blow your knee," began the 25-year-old Calgarian.

"It's when you blow it."

It's also how you blow it that makes Spence's tale so riveting.

Six weeks before the 2006 Torino Games, a crash while skiing at 120 km/h in Bormio, Italy, left Spence crumpled in the netting with compound fractures to his right fibia and tibia, a blown ACL and MCL, a fractured femur, torn meniscus and permanent nerve damage in his foot.

About the only thing that wasn't shattered that day were his hopes of returning to the sport.

After all, Brad Spence is a fighter.

"For six months, it was an awfully rough time as there was definitely a lot of uncertainty. I didn't know if I could ever compete again," said Spence, a product of the Panorama Ski Club and Calgary's National Sport School.

"Three separate, very serious surgeries that involved some metal and artificial things in my leg, a full rod in my tibia and a cadaver Achilles tendon for an ACL ... I knew I was going to give it everything I had to come back, but there were big questions as to whether I'd be physically and mentally strong enough to return."

Those questions took more than three years to answer, as that's how long Spence was away from competition.

During that time, he enrolled at the University of Calgary and did whatever he could to take his mind off of the sport he wasn't physically able to compete in until late 2008, when he parlayed a summer of high-level training into a spot back on the Canadian Alpine Ski team.

"I knew I was capable of making the team again, and it was just a matter of proving myself," said Spence, who drew inspiration from Flames defenceman Robyn Regehr and downhill legend Hermann Maier, who both came back from horrific off-ice leg injuries.

"I definitely don't think of myself as cocky, but I knew what I had to focus on to succeed. At the end of the day, it's me in spandex racing down a course, and I have to do it faster than other guys.

"If it didn't work out, I'd given it my best."

Despite success on the Nor-Am Cup circuit, his best still didn't seem good enough to make it to the Olympics as he'd dreamed of ever since Vancouver was awarded the Games in 2003. Despite having a slight limp, limited range in his ankle and calf and a right knee that doesn't bend quite as much as the other, he shocked even his coaches by qualifying for the Games with his second World Cup slalom top-12 three weeks ago.

"That was a pretty big day for me," said Spence, who will race in the Olympic slalom and giant slalom.

"Kitzbuehel (Austria) is the race of all races, and it was my first time racing slalom there. So to finish 12th (tying his personal best) and qualify me was definitely a day I'll never forget."

With only five top-25 finishes in his World Cup career, Spence is realistic about his medal chances.

"It would take a miracle at this stage," said Spence.

"At the beginning of the year, I wasn't on a long list to make team. I was up-and-coming. There were a lot of people ahead of me with more experience, and I bet if you asked the coaches, they wouldn't have figured it would have panned out.

"But I know if I have two solid runs, I can compete with some of the best in the world."

Regardless, Brad Spence is an inspiration.

"I've still got pictures on my computer of what my leg looked like after surgery, so when I have a bad day, it's never as bad as it was before," said Spence.

"I can look back at how far I've come."

Brad Spence is an Olympian.

And nothing could mean more to him than that.

ERIC.FRANCIS@SUNMEDIA.CA

POLL