CALGARY – John Kucera has experienced some of his highest highs and his lowest lows while racing at Lake Louise.
So it’s with mixed feelings the Calgary skier makes his return to the World Cup there after a two-year absence.
The 2011 Lake Louise Winterstart World Cup opens Saturday with the men’s downhill followed by Sunday’s super-G.
Kucera broke his left leg during the men’s downhill at Lake Louise in 2009. It was a catastrophic injury that prevented him from competing at the 2010 Winter Olympics.
But two of Kucera’s three World Cup medals were won at the mountain resort west of Calgary. He became the first Canadian to win at Lake Louise when he took super-G gold in 2006, followed by silver in 2008.
“I think of a hill I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with right now,” Kucera admitted Monday in Calgary.
“It’s a hill I know very well. I’ve had some great success there in the past and I’m comfortable there. Obviously, I also had that brutal injury there.”
Kucera capped the 2008-09 season by winning the men’s world downhill championship in Val-d’Isere, France, which set him up nicely for the Winter Olympics the following year.
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But his Olympic aspirations ended just a few months later, when Kucera crashed going about 100 kilometres per hour at the season-opening downhill at Lake Louise.
Kucera broke his tibia and fibula and the impact of the crash pushed a bone through the back of his leg. A rod was surgically inserted through his tibia.
Just as Kucera was getting back on snow, he broke the bone again while training in Aspen, Colo., last February.
The confidence to race on the edge of danger will be slow to return for the 27-year-old.
On the bright side, Lake Louise provides a familiar venue for Kucera to start erasing doubt from his mind. The first of three scheduled training runs is Wednesday.
“Getting that confidence and getting that mental edge back, I would say it will be the most time-consuming thing,” he said. “The great thing about Lake Louise is it’s the first time I’m getting back into a world-class field.
“I’m going to run the training runs and see where I stack in. Obviously, the better it goes, the quicker that confidence comes back but I’m also prepared that it might take a little longer.”
Louise first hosted a World Cup ski race in 1980 and has done so annually since 1994.
Canada’s teams for both the men’s World Cup and the women’s races next week were introduced Monday in Calgary at Canada Olympic Park. They were ushered into a room full of excited schoolchildren, who rang cowbells and presented the athletes with hand-painted signs.
Canadians were shut out of the medals at Lake Louise in 2010 for the first time in five years. Podium prospects for 2011 are also not strong, even though there are proven performers among the men.
Erik Guay of Mont-Tremblant, Que., is the reigning world downhill champion. He backed away from heavy weight training in the off-season to deal with a chronic back problem.
He’s lost about 20 pounds. In a gravity sport, less body mass may slow him down.
“I can feel I’m struggling to keep pace with the other elite athletes,” Guay said. “We just got back from a camp in Colorado and I could see that I was playing catch-up a little bit.
“I’d expect a slow start to the season in Lake Louise, but I’m typically a slow starter anyway.”
There’s Kucera, the 2009 world champion, whose racing abilities are currently unknown. Calgary’s Jan Hudec was a silver medallist at the 2008 world championship, but a herniated disc in his back also forced him to abbreviate off-season training.
Robbie Dixon of Whistler, B.C., has posted 10 top-10 results during his career. Dixon suffered a season-ending concussion midway through last season, but says he’s symptom-free.
Manuel Osborne-Paradis of Vancouver won the super-G at Lake Louise two years ago, but he’s rehabilitating a knee injury. He’s not expected back on the World Cup circuit until January.
So men’s coach Paul Kristofic tempers expectations for Lake Louise.
“I don’t expect a huge weekend from the guys, but I expect solid skiing and good tactics,” Kristofic said.
“A lot of guys missed time on snow so from that perspective I would say we’re a touch behind schedule as far as coming into the race season completely in top form. We’re well on our way. We’ve had a great training period the last couple of months. We’re going to look to Lake Louise as a builder for us.”
The women arrive next week for downhills Dec. 2-3 followed by a super-G on Dec. 4. Canada’s medal prospects are even less for a women’s speed team decimated by injuries and retirements.
Kelly VanderBeek of Kitchener, Ont., and Larisa Yurkiw of Owen Sound, Ont., are the most experienced, but have yet to return to racing following knee injuries. Emily Brydon of Fernie, B.C., and Britt Janyk of Whistler, B.C., retired after the Olympics.
Marie-Michele Gagnon of Lac-Etchemin, Que., and Madison McLeish of Whistler, B.C. are 22 and 19 respectively. They may be joined by one or two racers from Canada’s developmental team.