What was to be a swan-song season for Erik Guay ended early Thursday when the Canadian skier announced his retirement.
Guay felt some ambivalence when he arrived in Lake Louise, Alta., for Saturday’s season-opening men’s downhill.
The 37-year-old from Montreal wondered how competitive he’d be after missing most of last season with a back injury. Guay was also bracing himself for another winter away from his wife Karen and four daughters ranging in age from one to nine.
Then, before stepping into the start hut for Wednesday’s first training run, Guay heard on the race radio that veteran teammate Manuel Osborne-Paradis had crashed.
The tell-tale sound of the chopper to evacuate Osborne-Paradis from the mountain started a cascade of thoughts in Guay’s head because he’d been there: crashes, injuries, surgeries, months of rehab.
“When Manny crashed, I thought ‘I should just go take the chair lift down,'” Guay said Thursday. “It took everything for me to push out of the start gate.’
“I couldn’t focus or charge the way that I wanted to and I think that’s when I kind of knew it was time.”
Within hours of crossing the finish line in 69th, Guay made the decision to retire in the place where he won the first of 25 World Cup medals back in 2003, when he claimed downhill silver in Lake Louise.
“There were a lot of things tugging me in different directions,” Guay explained. “One is my family at home, being away from them for more than a little while is quite difficult at the moment.
“My skiing wasn’t at the level I wanted it to be. I would have been out there looking for the feeling, being far away from my family, far away from my wife for months on end, trying to break through. There were a lot of ifs. I wasn’t willing to do that one more time.”
Along with his two gold medals and one silver world championship medals, Guay is the most decorated male in Canadian ski racing history.
“He’s been one of the best downhill skiers we’ve had over the last, I would say, my generation for sure,” said reigning Olympic men’s downhill champion Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway.
Osborne-Paradis suffered broken bones in his leg and is out indefinitely, leaving the Canadian team bereft of its two most veteran skiers to start the season.
Guay was a role model for skiers on the national men’s team.
“He’s huge to the ski-racing community in Canada,” Canadian team skier Dustin Cook said. “I remember watching him as a kid.
“It’s definitely a loss for the team. We knew it was coming. It’s still a big hole to fill and big boots to fill for us. He has so much experience and leadership. It’s definitely a tough one for us.”
Less than two weeks after crashing spectacularly in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, Guay won super-G gold and downhill silver at the 2017 world alpine championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
“To be able to walk away with two medals at a world championship is quite special,” Guay said. “When you’re on, you’re on. Even big crashes like that don’t affect you. They’re motivating more than anything.
“I had a big crash in Garmisch but it was only because I was competitive and I was charging. As soon as I felt better and the bruises kind of healed, I was ready to charge again.
“I’d had just enough time to heal up between Garmisch and St. Moritz. As soon as I did my first training run there, I knew I was in a place where I could be competitive.”
But it was becoming harder to Guay to navigate the physical toll of ski racing. He took the entire 2014-15 season off after a pair of surgeries on his left knee.
The back injury limited him to just two starts last season and forced him to withdraw from February’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The three-time Olympian missed the podium by .03 seconds in 2010 in Whistler, B.C.
His first World Cup downhill win was in Garmisch in 2007. Guay claimed a coveted crystal globe in 2010 as the overall World Cup leader in super-G that season.
He also won the world men’s downhill title in 2011.
From 2006 to 2014, Guay, Osborne-Paradis, Jan Hudec and John Kucera made the Canadian downhill team an international force reminiscent of the Crazy Canucks, led by Ken Read and Steve Podborski, in the 1980s.
“When I grew up, what inspired me a lot was the legacy of the Crazy Canucks, watching them ski race,” Guay said.
“I hope I’ve inspired some young Canadians and some young athletes across the world to also be competitive and enjoy our sport. Really that’s all the legacy that I’d like to leave.”