Some time away from the slopes has done Dave Duncan plenty of good.
After a barrage of injuries, the 34-year-old Whistler-based ski-cross racer sat out the second half of the 2015-16 season to recover. These days, he feels like a new man, hitting the FIS World Cup top 10 for the first time in two years as he feels like he's on the verge of medalling for the first time since January 2014.
After suffering a concussion in a crash at Val Thorens, France in early 2015, Duncan didn't feel quite like himself when he returned for the season's final two races. The nagging injuries continued to pile on from there.
"My body hasn't felt this good in a long time. With that period of continual injuries, it was almost like a staircase walking down. I'd go from one injury to the next to the next, never getting back to where I started from. It wasn't until last December where I had minor damage to my meniscus that I was like, 'This is enough. I've got to make a change. What I'm doing isn't working and if I don't make a change, then my career is going to pretty much be over,'" he said. "I took the rest of last season off to truly get healthy and truly recover and make gains. I hadn't made gains in forever."
So far in 2016-17, Duncan has certainly made some progress, taking sixth-place finishes in Val Thorens and Montafon, Austria before reaching the final in Innichen, Italy, where he placed fourth.
While the milestone was appreciated, Duncan said he'd have liked to have taken some hardware in Innichen, especially with the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea just over a year away.
"I'm feeling good about it. Basically coming back from two years of revolving injuries, if you would have told me at the start of December I'd walk away with a fourth and two sixths, I'd be pretty happy, but looking back, maybe there were a couple missed opportunities I didn't take advantage of in that December block," he said. "Anytime you make it to the final and you finish fourth, it feels like a missed opportunity. You really shouldn't finish fourth in a heat but I did and that's just the way it goes. I'd have much rather had a first, second or third."
That said, Duncan noted he's feeling ahead of schedule as he expected a bit more of an adjustment getting back to high-level competition.
"Going into the season, I was targeting January or February as when I would hit my full stride. We're ahead of the game. December showed I'm right there and I'm ready to compete. The speed is there and I just have to execute," he said. "I have no doubt that the podium is coming, no matter what position it is.
"It's coming. It's just a matter of when."
One of Duncan's major hurdles came after the Val Thorens crash and subsequent concussion. Though he was ostensibly good to go, he was still feeling just a little bit off.
"I went through all the concussion protocol and everything looked good. All that baseline stuff was good, but then I got out on the slope trying to compete. I was forerunning with the team, not quite competing, because something still wasn't quite right and it wasn't until after the season that I was able to get in and see a vision doctor," he said. "My everyday vision, we checked that, and it was fine.
"It wasn't until we got into sport vision — being able to recognize things quickly and adjust, near or far — I was flunking it terribly.
"That's what I was feeling with the lag time. I would have a jump approaching and you usually have to absorb it or make a move, and I wasn't able to get my timing down. I was going through the air quite a bit higher than I normally would because I missed my timing."
Duncan spent an entire summer working on his sport vision by training his eyes, focusing on objects near and far, using ocular aids and even tying string to his nose and working with that. He noted even his wife chuckled at some of the exercises, but they've ultimately proved to be worthwhile.
"I took my eyes for granted. We all do," he said. "Basically, I've got a little toolbox of vision improvement tools."
Duncan hopes his road to recovery ultimately leads him to South Korea in just over a year, but with a strong ski-cross team and only so many freestyle skiing slots to go around, he knows he has plenty of work to do to prove he should once again wear the maple leaf on the world's top stage.
"It's never going to be easy, but I know myself, I know my desires and I know what I'm going to put into it," Duncan said.