Long road ahead for women's ski team

Canada's Tess Davies navigates the course during a training run Thursday at Lake Louise in...

Canada's Tess Davies navigates the course during a training run Thursday at Lake Louise in preparation for this weekend's women's World Cup alpine ski races. (MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS)

SCOTT MITCHELL, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:52 PM ET

When Kelly VanderBeek surveys the young faces lining up to ski for Canada at Lake Louise this weekend, it’s like looking into a mirror.

The 28-year-old veteran, who is trying to return from a devastating knee injury that has kept her out of action for almost exactly two years now, was 19 once, too.

It’s easy to forget after a decorated career that has included multiple podiums and a fourth-place finish at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy. She’s endured the growing pains that tests every young skier’s mettle.

As Sarah Freeman, 19, and Tess Davies, 20, prepare for the downhill Friday and Saturday, and Madison McLeish, 19, and Marie-Michéle Gagnon, 22, wait until Sunday to line up in the super-G, VanderBeek isn’t worried about the future of the women’s alpine ski team.

“Honestly, I see myself,” VanderBeek said. “When I was 19 years old, I was starting second- to third-last, and I was finishing around 40th or so.

“I remember saying to my husband when I was 19 years old, ‘Man, I don’t think I’m ever going to make the top 30,’ and feeling really beaten down on the World Cup circuit and realizing how good the World Cup athletes are.

“When I see these girls, I see myself. I know it’s a tough road. I’m trying to let them know I’ve been there and you can get through it, but it takes work and it takes a lot of dedication and focus.

“It’s hard as a 19-year-old, 20-year-old to realize how far you’ve come and how far you still have to go. And that’s a tough point to be at.”

Freeman and Davies are starting in their first World Cup and the training results this week have indicated that.

Twice, Davies failed to finish her training runs, while Freeman ended up in 57th spot Thursday.

But that’s youth, and head coach Hugues Ansermoz knows it heading into the downhill.

“Between Larisa Yurkiw and VanderBeek coming back from injury, and the retirements we’ve had in the last year or two, there aren’t (high) expectations going into the weekend,” Ansermoz said. “We’ve got a team that’s very young, there’s no experience, and it’s going to take a few years to get some contenders.”

Expectations for Sunday’s super-G are higher, with Gagnon leading the way.

The Quebec native finished 16th overall on the World Cup giant slalom circuit last season, but her transition to the speed events has been slower, which has left Canada searching for its next downhill star with Sochi 2014 on the distant horizon.

“Right now, the short-term plan for Sochi is really about the slalom and giant slalom,” Ansermoz said. “I don’t see us having a chance for a medal in Sochi (in the downhill or super-G).”

VanderBeek might have something to say about that, as the Ontario native and B.C. resident has been doing gates for about two weeks now in her slow-going return to snow.

Sochi is on her mind.

“It totally is, that’s my motivation: 2014,” VanderBeek said. “Sochi, that’s my goal, and I’m working back for that.

“It gets me through the tough days when I want to quit, which is less and less often.”

And those days were many after her December 2009 injury at Val d Isere, France, which resulted in a complete reconstruction of her knee and a second round of surgery that was more severe than had been anticipated.

“I think a long road would be an understatement,” VanderBeek said.

She ended up with allografts — which is a donated ligament — for her MCL, ACL and PCL.

The fall also resulted in two fractures in her knee needing microfracture surgery.

While Yurkiw is expected to return to the World Cup circuit in January, VanderBeek is further behind and has no timeline set.

So while the veterans continue to mend, the youngsters have been given a chance to shine, even if much isn’t expected of them.

“Our goal will be, we hope, with the women’s team, to have one podium (in 2011-12),” Ansermoz said. “We know it’s going to be a longshot.”

scott.mitchell@sunmedia.ca


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