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Canada's downhill veterans not giving up recklessness

The Canadian Press

11/28/2013 5:07:10 PM

LAKE LOUISE, Alta. -- Manuel Osborne-Paradis talks of learning more about himself and of taking care of his body to extend his career in ski racing.

All very adult, but he hasn't completely outgrown the man who celebrated the Calgary Stampede two years ago by climbing on the back of a party bus and falling off. He sustained road rash on his bottom severe enough to put him in the hospital.

Winning downhill races requires recklessness, so Osborne-Paradis isn't willing to let the foolhardy part of himself disappear completely.

"You can't kill that," he says. "You can scrape a bit of him off, but you can't kill him."

His Canadian teammate Jan Hudec doesn't want to see it disappear either because that devil-may-care ingredient is necessary when attempting speeds that are literally breakneck.

"We all hope he has pre-road rash Manny left in him," Hudec said. "Besides the personality and the energy it brings to the team, I think it's part of his winning attitude.

"I'm a little bit the same way. I live my life pretty loosey-goosey by the seat of my pants. I don't plan ahead, but it works for me for skiing. That's how I race as well. I live in the moment. Manny is fairly similar that way."

Erik Guay, Hudec and Osborne-Paradis are the Canadian downhill team's decorated elder statesmen at the season-opening World Cup in Lake Louise, Alta. John Kucera would also be included in that group if the Calgarian wasn't sidelined with an inner ear condition.

The downhill is Saturday followed by Sunday's super-G. Training was cancelled Thursday because of a power problem affecting the lift to the start hut.

Repairs didn't leave enough time to get 91 racers from the top to the bottom, although the competitors were able to free ski the lower sections of the course. Guay had the fastest time in training Wednesday, with Osborne-Paradis and Hudec also in the top 10.

Guay and Hudec, both 32, and Osborne-Paradis, 29, have stood on World Cup podiums multiple times during their careers. They've morphed from guys who just wanted to ski fast to men running their individual ski empires of businesses, sponsorships and charities.

"Business, families, girlfriends, fiancees, wives, we didn't even know what those words were and how to use them five years ago," Osborne-Paradis says.

"You know, young and dumb. It's a different time of your life. There's guys who are 36 in the race and there's guys who are 20 and you can totally tell the difference."

How to square their adult responsibilities with a certain disregard for their own safety on the mountain is a balancing act, says Hudec.

"I think the older you get, the more cherished it becomes and you put it in your backpack in a safety deposit box and you carefully bring it to the hotel and you're like 'don't lose this. It's my recklessness. If I lose this, I'm screwed,"' Hudec explains.

"You have to leave it at home when you go to the store or your business and you're telling people to be responsible and be on time. They can't know you're that person on the hill. It's actually a really funny challenge."

Vancouver's Osborne-Paradis returned last season from a catastrophic knee injury suffered in January, 2011. Hudec, from Calgary, has undergone seven knee surgeries, including six on the same knee.

Injuries plant seeds of doubt that have to be overcome in the start hut. Bravado helps get past the mental barriers to 130 kilometres per hour.

"I think there's a lot of fear, but you learn to adapt to that," Osborne-Paradis says. "Recklessness for sure, it's the only way to win.

"You can ski pretty and have a good run and come 20th your whole career if you wanted to. To win, you need to be taking chances and you need to risk the fact that you might end up in the (safety) nets. That's the only way to win."

The 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, are just weeks away and this could be the Olympic swan song for some of Canada's veteran downhillers. Osborne-Paradis says he has never worked so hard to prepare for a season of racing.

"I've taken the initiatives and worked better with my sports psych, better with my biofeedback, better with stretching and mobility," he says. "The stuff that, as you get older, makes more a difference than going out and grunting.

"As you get older, you need to learn how to stay in the game and stay active in this sport. You take your knowledge and your history of running all the courses and use that to your advantage and build up a better mental capacity of what needs to be done at each event. To get to know yourself a little bit more makes you a better athlete."

Similar to NHL goaltenders who donate money to a charity for each shootout they earn, Osborne-Paradis has come up with a strategy for Right To Play, the international organization that empowers children facing adversity through sport.

Osborne-Paradis wears Right To Play's logo on his helmet instead of a corporate brand. Through his business contacts, he's raised an initial $25,000 for the organization. More will be donated for top-10 or podium performances he achieves this season.

A win, for example, is worth another $15,000 contribution. If Osborne-Paradis attracts a headgear sponsor this season, he intends to wear Right To Play's logo on his suit. He would exponentially increase the bonus money to the organization, so a win would be worth $30,000.

"Obviously there's the personal drive of achieving your goals, but when you're skiing for a cause bigger than yourself, the better you ski and the faster you ski and the more other people will benefit from that," he says.

"It's a great feeling and on those off days it really helps you push through the cold weather and the fear of racing or whatever."