"Today the smallest is the greatest."
– John Kucera, world champion
World downhill champions aren't supposed to come in John Kucera's dimensions.
At 180 pounds, the easygoing Calgarian gives away at least 20 pounds to most of his rivals in a gravity and momentum sport.
But Kucera reached the skiing summit yesterday in Val d'Isère, France, scaling a platform not even the legendary Crazy Canucks could manage – the top of the men's downhill podium at the world alpine championships.
"It was the race of my life," Kucera said after finishing in 2 minutes, 7.01 seconds, the only Canadian to finish the race. "It was nerve-wracking and exciting."
Even better, he added, is the confidence boost the entire team gets for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
"The biggest thing to come out of this is knowing we have the ability to put it together on the biggest stage after the Olympics," he said. "That's a huge boost of confidence."
Kucera, who wasn't considered anything near a favourite going into Val d'Isère, hopes his feat will inspire Canadian youngsters in the same way he was inspired by Ken Read and the Crazy Canucks years ago. "The Crazy Canucks were the first guys to put Canada in the spotlight," Kucera said of Read, Dave Irwin, Dave Murray and Steve Podborski, who put Canada on the world skiing map in the 1970s and '80s. "We're the Canadian Cowboys and hopefully we can raise the bar for a new generation."
The 24-year-old is a blue-collar skier in a sport deep in silver spoon types. His parents, who emigrated to Canada from the former Czechoslovakia in the early '80s, had to take out a second mortgage so he could stay in the sport when he showed promise as a teenager. But he was never a phenom.
The victory comes just short of one year from the Vancouver Games and dramatically increases Kucera's profile in skiing's glamour event, akin to track and field's 100 metres.
Being a world champion – the event is held every two years – is only surpassed by Olympic gold. But as Canadian head coach Paul Kristofic noted yesterday, if there is a guy on the team built to withstand that kind of pressure, it is Kucera. He is a quiet, easygoing sort who takes his sport but not himself too seriously. He's the only top Canadian skier without his own website.
This men's ski team has taken the moniker the "Canadian Cowboys" to distance themselves from the constant Crazy Canuck comparisons and the nicknames suit no one more than Kucera, whose passions are dirt bike riding and fishing.
"He's to me the optimal character to take that into the Olympics," said Kristofic, a Toronto resident. "I don't think he's going to put any extra pressure on himself. That's his nature. ... The limelight is not for him. His main focus is to win races and challenge himself and try to be the best in the world."
Kucera's parents, father Jan and mother Zdena, watched the race from the Czech Republic yesterday while visiting family. It cost them $25,000 to $30,000 a year to keep their oldest boy in skiing, something that Jan's salary as an architect was strained to support.
"They really came over with nothing but two suitcases and they never quit," Kucera told the Star earlier this season. "That's the kind of attitude they brought over to my brother and I." When his parents took out that second mortgage, Kucera committed himself to becoming the best skier in the world.
He keeps things simple.
"Skiing's a funny sport," he said. "You've got to do three or four basic things. You've got to move forward at the end of a turn. You gotta get strong pressure on the outside ski. You've got to risk it. It's these really basic things. It's funny because it's the same things you've been working on since you were 10 or 11."
Kucera actually began ski racing at age 5. His father was a volunteer ski patroller at Lake Louise and John would tag along as he went around putting up Slow signs on the hill – which he would ignore.
It was when he was 14 that he started getting more serious, qualifying for the national championships and setting his sights on a career as a professional ski racer.
"That was the goal. It wasn't school and it wasn't anything else. The goal was to make it as a ski racer and become a champion," he said.