Ken Read takes stock of Alpine Canada at mid-season{mosimage}Ken Read, the president of Alpine Canada, came to Kitzbuehel, Austria, this year to watch the races and do business on behalf of the program he oversees.

A former downhiller, Read won the Kitzbuehel downhill in 1980, and as a member of the “Crazy Canucks” he participated in the golden age of the Candian speed program.

The team has had mixed fortunes in the past year. In July they learned that Vancouver would host the 2010 Winter Olympics. But a long series of injuries to elite athletes has left the team depleted of some of its best talent. At Garmisch, one week after the interview below was conducted, only one Canadian man was entered in the World Cup downhill.

Ski Racing sat down with Read on the morning of the Hahnenkamm downhill and asked him to take stock of his team.

Ski Racing: How is it to be back in Kitzbuehel?
Ken Read: It’s old home week. You get back and you reacquaint yourself with the Streif and see old friends. Schnapps with Hansi Hinterseer and coffee with Franz. There are lots of people in town I got to know through the organizing committee.

SR: Have you come back here every year since you won in 1980?
KR: No, no. I raced here until 1983, and after that I just came back when they had their major events. Now, since I’ve become president of Alpine Canada, I come because it’s really the mid-point in the season and everybody comes. It’s a good forum for doing business. A lot of FIS Council members are here. The [FIS] president is here. You have other organizers, ski industry, sponsors, marketing groups, the leadership of our team (our chairman has come to take it in). It’s really indispensable. Outside of the meetings in the fall and spring for the FIS, [it’s the place] you can catch everybody, and this is a point in the season when you can also catch everybody and start discussions about next year.

SR: How is the men’s team? You lost Erik Guay just as he was breaking through, and you lost Jan Hudek.
KR: There’s two sides to that. The obvious side that everyone looks at is the speed group, which started off very, very well with Erik and Jan Hudek. Erik blew his knee, and right before that Jan did at the NorAms in Beaver Creek. It was definitely a step back, but on the other hand, the men’s tech team has really stepped forward for us. Before Wengen, we’d never had two Canadians in the top 10 in a slalom before. Let along one-two in the second run. Thomas Grandi is having his best season ever. Julian Cousineau is starting to step up, and J.P. Roy is coming out from a big hole last season, with his injuries. We see momentum happening there.

Regrettably, that’s one of the things about this sport though, quite often when young developing athletes are really pushing for the first time, they start to realize that they are among the best. They start to take those extra risks. It’s part of the learning process. You hope that you can guide them through relatively unscathed. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

The very best guys, especially nowadays, guys like [Stephan] Eberharter and [Lasse] Kjus, they’ve got a rarified sense of when they can take the risk and when they can’t. Eberharter had his knee injuries too. So he had to learn the hard way. They’re racing in optimal conditions, they’ve got the optimal support and they’ve got the depth of experience. And then you’ve got a youngster who comes charging on. They have that paradigm shift in the head, and they realize they’re amongst the best now. If I push it, I can win. And so you start to push the limits and take risks, but without that same refined sense of when and where. Once you’ve either been close or on the podium, you want to charge and you want to win the next race.

In our sport, the ones that make it through and become the real championships are steady. [Kalle] Palander, Eberharter and Kjus are steady, steady, steady. And you know that even though they’re the most consistent winners. They have their days when they’re off. Kjus is a good example of a guy who says, I’m sick, I can’t do well, I need a few days off, I’m going to go home. I’m going to have the confidence in myself to say that it’s better for me to not even bother trying. I’ll wait until I’m healthy and then I’ll come back. It’s a model that pays off. It takes a lot of self-confidence to take a pass on a hundred World Cup points. At the end of the season it probably won’t even matter. Some develop it within themselves.

The way I look at it, the whole echelon that was the next wave behind [Daron] Rahlves and [Boder] Miller is out. Scott Macartney and Marco Sullivan. They’re very much the same age and tracking along quite closely with Erik and Jan. And they’re all gone. What it does underscore is that as we build this team, we need to have depth. You can’t rely just on a couple of athletes. As we aim for 2010, we’ve got to have 50 athletes aiming for 24 spots, all competing, because you can very quickly have your ranks depleted by misfortune. But overall, I think we’ve handled it pretty well. Jan and Erik will be rehabbing together. Our physiotherapist is back with them through these crucial early weeks to make sure that they understand the amount of work they’re going to have to do to get back on track.

The silver lining of all this for us is that while we’d have liked to have the leaders moving up and the younger guys trying to earn their spots, now the focus is solely on them. I know that it’s emotionally a bit of a challenge for our coaching staff, because they’ve already done it once. Vincent Lavoie has been another quota spot. When you’re down that low, and you have to earn your way back, it’s not an easy game. You have to come from the back, get into the top 30, get points and get quota spots. That’s a painstakingly slow process, but it is happening.

SR: How has the financial and athletic outlook changed since the announcement of the Vancouver Olympics.
KR: It’s had some interesting impacts. If anything, we’ve got to continue to send out a very clear message that while 2010 is out there and is an important stimulus for our program, we’re still focused on the here and now. The number one priority is making sure we are delivering the resources to the athletes. So while it’s nice that it helps motivate people and energize people, you’ve got to make sure that you don’t allow it to distract people as well. We’ve got a young team. And we’ve got to stop always having a young team. We have to have a blend of older and younger athletes. And stop coming back every year with a promising young team. You can’t do that for 10 years. You’ve got to get people to stay with you and mature. This is one of the tools to help that happen. For an athlete at the top, like Thomas Grandi or a Melanie Turgeon or an Alison Forsyth or a Genevieve Simard æ you’ve got to support those athletes. Whether they are going to be around in six seasons or not. In many cases they’re not going to be. But it’s the next group down, that hasn’t made that hurdle from the NorAm and Europa Cup level to the World Cup. It’s not something every athlete does quickly. Sometimes it takes years. It can be a frustratingly slow process. Gaining experience, working out your rankings. You don’t want an athlete to make a snap decision, to try to make it for a year and then move on. Some move quickly, which can be frustrating for the one who is a bit of a turtle. That’s where it’s helpful to have the Olympics. The lure of representing Canada in a major competition in Canada is pretty powerful. Certainly, I look at the group that are going to make up the core, and most of them are 15 or 16 or 17 into the early twenties, now they’ve got something they can really look forward to.

Financially, it’s helped bring a lot of focus for those who are already with us. The sponsors are seeing value in the relationship. The fact that they committed to us before the announcement last summer is a bit of a reward. They know they have this t
angible thing in Canada.

One of the frustrations is that it seems like we have six years to 2010, but in fact we only have four. If you really start whittling away, we’re already into planning for the 2004-2005 season. We’re not going to have any significant changes to the funding we get. So that’s not going to drastically alter or enhance what we’re going to do moving forward. You effectively have to discount the Olympic year as well, because the 2009-10 season almost doesn’t count. I don’t think a lot of our funding partners — the Olympic committee and Sport Canada and some of the other partners — realize that the clock is ticking very, very, very fast if you want to have a direct and meaningful impact in enabling the organizations to deliver.

So I know there are a lot of people talking about what to do, but the frustrating part is that we should have been moving six months ago. We should have already had some discussions going on. So what we’re doing as an organization is not waiting. We’re doing. We’re moving forward because we can’t afford to wait. Nor should anybody. But that’s my message to them. To say, you better catch up with us, because if you really want to have a profound impact and assist us in 2010, then pitter-patter, let’s get at her. Time is moving on very steadily.

Fortunately, we already had some dramatic changes that were in place already. We had our summer glacier-training project, and we were working closely with the University of Calgary on a sports science project. So we were going ahead with things we had to do anyway. It’s that extra ten to fifteen percent that take us from where we compete with, to where we get ahead of, the competition. So it’s a great focus. We have great relationships with the supporters. But we really want people to realize that we’ve got to get going.

SR: There’s a rumor out there that Canada’s not going to vote for Vail 2009. That Canada’s going to vote for France.
KR, laughing : For France? That’s news to me. We’re not going to publicly comment on how our council member will vote. The considerations of where you lend your support are complicated. We’ve been in active discussions with some æ not all æ of the bid committees, and the bib committees know where we stand.

SR: They say Canada’s voting for France because you’re such good friends with Jean-Claude Killy.
KR, laughing: I’m equally good friends with Peter Stroecksnadel of the Austrian Ski Federation, of Ceil Folz of the Vail Valley Foundation and John Garnsey of Beaver Creek. Probably the one group that I don’t know that well is Garmisch, although I know Peter Roth because I raced with him. The ski community is way too small. The rumors probably come from the FIS meetings this fall. I sat with Jean-Claude right in the meal area right smack in the middle of the hotel. We had a long conversation that covered a whole range of things. Jean-Claude and I go back a couple of decades, and he’s not only very actively involved in the Val d’Isere bid, but he’s also quite close to Rene Fasel, who is chair of the coordinating commission of Vancouver 2010. So the conversation we had ranged over a pretty broad agenda of topics, not just Val d’Isere. And we have to due our due diligence with finding out what everyone is doing with their bids, and so that was part of what we were doing there. As far as Canada’s commitment, it’s a private vote. But certainly the committees we’ve spoken to know where we stand.

SR: How are Melanie Turgeon and Allison Forsyth doing?
KR: The girls’ side in general has had a real interesting year. They’re coming along. They’ve had some challenges with Melanie out for the entire year. That was not something that we anticipated, and is a huge whole. We have our world champion unable to compete. Within that, we’ve got Max Gartner working very actively with her to make sure she has the support she needs because that’s what’s needed now is to make sure she’s got what she needs to get healthy. We’re making sure we work closely with her rehab and so on, so she’s prepared for next year. When you have that sort of circumstance, it’s worrisome for us and for her. We certainly don’t want a career to fizzle out. We want her to have all the support she needs.

And Allison, in a different sense, is having the challenges with her tendonitis in her hips. What it has done for us is indicate that we need to have a different approach to dryland training. A hands-on, individual approach, to make sure that each athlete is getting what they need, and not fitting them into a box of ‘here’s how it works, away you go.’ So in the next season, I think that’s a change that’s going to be a positive one overall æ a silver lining again. The way the rest of the team responded to losing their leader.

Allison had cortisone injections, and according to doctors, she’s responding positively. So hopefully now the remainder of the season will work really well for her. The rest of the team steps up. Sometimes that happens when the focus suddenly shifts. To see the way Genevieve Simard and Emily Brydon and Kelly Vanderbeek have all had their best results or close and are showing a whole new level of competition. Anne-Marie Lefrancois is coming back from a knee injury and is doing remarkably well, showing a kind of performance you’d want to see in a confidence-rebuilding year. Down in the younger ranks we’ve seen very positive results at the NorAm level. That’s the kind of thing you need to see. Depth and rebuilding. Gen’s win is the first win in four years for the team. We’ve broken that jinx. And for her it’s a whole new level. She now is a winner. She’s been on the podium twice. Her confidence level has changed dramatically.

To me it’s an affirmation of the change we put in place in our coaching structure, putting Stephan Kurtz in the leadership position. That’s another step in individualizing the programs, making sure everyone knows who is leading them, where they stand and where they’re going. It’s a process that evolves. We’ve got Piot, who’s been with the program for many, many years. Very close relationship with Melanie. You want to be building on those kinds of things, so everything is an enhancement. You want it to benefit the individual and the program.

On the tech side, with Mark Sharp retiring, that’s a big change. We’ve very effectively deployed him. Taking that knowledge and putting it back in the system. It’s completely new for Canada. The U.S. did it with Aldo Radamus a few years ago. Having someone go back down and work with the junior levels. That’s something that Canada’s never done. The reaction’s been overwhelmingly positive. That’s an investment back in the system, to build depth, and that’s our goal right now. It will eventually help those at the top, to fill up the team and create a more competitive environment, and create better performance.

SR: Do you have any good old Kitzbuehel stories?
KR: Fortunately, the track itself hasn’t really changed. This year, in fact, is probably closer to the tough old Streif I know and love. I have a lot of appreciation for the challenge. Your skis are all over the place. You feel you’re being so precise, and then you watch an athlete come down. Precision what? A lot of the character is there. Certainly what’s around the race has changed dramatically. It’s a much bigger spectacle today than it was a few years ago. The crowds have grown. It’s much more of a corporate hosting environment. I think it’s taken on a lot more of a mystique, of being our Wimbledon or our Henley. Our Superbowl. There’s a tremendous amount of respect for the hill itself. It is the high point of the season.

I know when I come back I really appreciate the respect for history and tradition here. I see it almost every time I turn around. Whether it’s somebody recognizing you, or seeing your gondola whip by. Last year I got to ride up on my gondola. Or the way that they built this. The teahouse that’s at the top. The coaches’ platforms with the TV monitors and
the Internet live timing. There’s always a new standard being set. Trying to be ahead of the game with technology and race quality. You’ve got to respect that. The people with the Kitzbuehel Ski Club are very giving. They’ve been very supportive of our race committee at Lake Louise. Coming over as guests, sharing information. Michael Huber is fantastic to work with. They’re such an iconic location, and so supportive of the sport and others who are trying to live up to a very high standard. They welcome that and encourage that. It’s good for the sport.

Article Tags: Alpine



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