"Nothing is impossible. The word itself says 'I'm possible!'"
- Film actor, Audrey Hepburn
They insist it's all about giving back. And yet... "Seems that I get as much out of these camps as the skiers do," says former ACA slalom ace, Mike Janyk. "I get so soooo energized by their passion, their excitement. Makes me realize all over again just how much fun this sport can be."
It's been seven years now. Nearly 100 racers in the 15-16 year-old age category (guys and gals) have come through its doors. Still, the fully funded spring training scholarship program (for that, in essence, is what Janyk and fellow WMSC alumnus Manny Osborne Paradis have created with their Mike And Manny Camps) feels as fresh and exciting to me as the day it was created.
And why not? It's the kind of peer-to-peer talent development initiative that our country so badly needs. No government money, no organizational hand-outs — just a couple of world-class athletes taking responsibility for the future of the sport they love. Walking their talk, you know. Stepping up to inspire young ski racers at a critical time in their own careers. And it's totally entrepreneurial! I mean, this isn't just the Mike and Manny Camp. This is the Mike and Manny And Family And Friends And Teammates And Associates Camp.
"Ski racing is expensive," says Manny Osborne Paradis, in his blunt, always-to-the-point style. "That's why we set up this camp. I mean... the odds of becoming a World Cup racer are slim. This is to make ski racing fun — show the love of the sport. You know... a trigger to help young racers focus on their passion."
There's great synergy between Mike and Manny. They play off each other like an old Vaudeville Team. Janyk is the front man — high-energy, positive, words flying a mile a minute (I see a future politician there). Osborne Paradis, on the other hand, still has an outlaw's glint in his eye. There's an edge to this guy... a little bit of wildness even... he's not going to let you in to his world easily. But put him in with the young racers, and Manny totally lets his guard down. Suddenly he's just another speedster sharing anecdotes about life on The White Circus. And the kids love him for it.
The fact that the duo can bring in the Priddy brothers (Morgan and Conrad) as guest coaches, or have freestyler Mike Riddle drop in to show off his Olympic medal, or get downhill training sessions in at the Dave Murray race centre, well, that's just value-added stuff that the campers get to experience on any given year. And all for free!
It's an incredible program, no doubt about it. Exactly what the ski-racing doctor ordered. Alas, it's but a drop in the talent-development bucket. And it still begs the question: where exactly is alpine skiing headed? What with skiercross and freeride and the resurgence of freestyle, the once dominant ski discipline is quietly fading into irrelevance for many kids. So I asked the two ski stars where they thought their sport was going.
Mike is quick to take exception with my assessment. "I don't think ski racing is in such dire straits as you make it out to be," he insists. "Everything goes in cycles. It was super-popular in the 1990s — it grew with us — and now, admittedly, it's dipped a bit. The question is: how do we get the sport back to fun and exciting?"
He stops. Grabs a quick breath. "I think we got a little complacent there for a while — maybe lost touch a bit with what was going on around us... But I still believe Canadians have a special love in their heart for ski racing." Another pause. "And we saw that with Jan's (Hudec) bronze medal performance in Sochi this year. Across the country, people really celebrated that Olympic moment. It was so cool to see... I betcha it's going to spark a whole new generation of Canadian ski racers!"
Janyk is clearly a glass-half-full kind of a guy. This is a skier, let's not forget, who announced his retirement after a disappointing 2014 season... and then proceeded to win the very last run of his World Cup slalom career. "Competition is great," he continues. "It taught me how to excel in a sport I really loved. But it taught me a whole lot more too. The ski racing friends I grew up with — and not just the ones that made National Team — they all talk about the lessons they learned from the sport. Discipline, accountability, independence, confidence, team-work even." And then he laughs. "I mean, ski racing is unique that way. You know — being an individual sport with a team structure. You've got to learn how to live with a group of guys you're going to compete against on race day. It's a very complicated dynamic..."
And it isn't suited to everyone. "It's not about convincing people that ski racing is cool," he explains. "It's about celebrating whatever you do. People get drawn to things because they're excited by it — and people are attracted to people who are excited by things; you know, folks who truly love what they're doing. I mean, that's the healthiest way you can live!"
For Janyk, alpine ski racing just happened to be that activity. "I was hanging with a bunch of kids on the mountain and everybody was having fun ski racing. I never really thought about it all that much. It was just the thing to do back then." But then, as if to echo what he's already said about Hudec's Sochi performance, he adds. "I still remember in 1994, when Eddy Podivinsky won his Olympic medal in Norway. That was my impetus to get more serious about the sport. That's what motivated me to take the next step." He smiles. "So you see, things do go in cycles..."
In the end, he says, it's still all about giving back. "I was given so much in my career — heck, I got to compete against the best in the world! So for me, I want to bring some of that excitement to the sport's grassroots. " He lets a few beats go by. "I think with our camp, Manny and I are taking our passion for ski racing and giving it right back to the athletes... you know, letting them see what being an Olympian and a World Cup winner is all about. That maybe, they too can live their dream one day..."
Manny doesn't do PR. What you see is what you get with this old-school downhiller. There's no subterfuge, no playing nice... and no politically correct. Ask a question and he'll answer it straight-up... damn the torpedoes!
"Downhill used to be sexy in this country," he starts. "But it's lost its sex appeal. Why? There's all sorts of reasons. We had a long phase of bad injuries, then the dollar costs of preparing a downhill course shot through the roof... and then came more challenges: insurance and liability and safety concerns... and suddenly ski teams couldn't afford to run speed programs anymore." He sighs. Shakes his head.
And quickly changes the subject. "But then you take a day like today. We worked on jumps today... it was fun and everyone got to fly a little. But were the jumps big enough? Were we going fast enough when we hit them? I mean, compared to the terrain park and stuff... Did we make the day exciting — sexy — enough for our skiers?"
Another long sigh. "You see — that's one of our principal goals with the Mike And Manny Camps. We want to make ski racing super exciting for every last camper. We want these kids to go home so jacked up on the sport that they just can't let it go!"
Which is exactly how he felt as a kid. "I remember growing up — there was nothing else I wanted to do on the mountain. I just wanted to go fast on my skis. On the race hill, in the bumps, in the powder... didn't matter. It was all about speed."
But it wasn't just about doing one thing. "If you're just out there training gates all the time... that's not good enough." He lets a bit of smile spread across his features. "Diversity — that's what really makes a great racer. I mean, we had Goat's Gully at the bottom of our training run... and there was serious pride riding on how you skied it."
Attitude is huge, he says. "I've seen how you can create a world-class athlete. And the key to success is not 10,000 hours of training at one sport. It's 10,000 hours of fun sport's training. For example — you can learn just as much about timing and reaction from a couple of weeks of downhill mountain biking at Whistler as you can from two weeks of gate-training in South America." He looks at me to make sure I get his last point. And shrugs. "If we want to be the best in the world, we can't simply follow blindly what others are doing. We have to be creative enough (and tough enough) to devise innovative new ways to improve. Like they say — if winning were easy..."
Success, concludes Manny, comes in many different forms. But if you never try, he adds, you'll never discover what you can accomplish.
"It's all about pushing out the start gate and putting your skills on the line. That's what's real. All the rest is just talk."