Canadian world ski championship podium finishes
1956: Lucile Wheeler*, Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, 3rd DH
1958: Lucile Wheeler, Bad Gastein, Austria, 1st DH-GS, 2nd C
1960: Anne Heggtveit*, Squaw Valley, U.S., 1st SL, C
1968: Nancy Greene*, Grenoble, France, 1st GS-SL
1970: Betsy Clifford, Val Gardena, Italy, 1st GS
1972: Jim Hunter, Sapporo, Japan, 3rd C
1974: Betsy Clifford, St. Moritz, Switzerland, 2nd DH
1976: Kathy Kreiner*, Innsbruck, Austria, 1st GS
1980: Steve Podborski*, Lake Placid, U.S., 3rd DH
1982: Gerry Sorensen, Schladming, Austria, 1st DH; Laurie Graham, Schladming, Austria, 3rd DH
1989: Karen Percy, Vail, U.S., 2nd DH
1993Kate Pace, Morioka, Japan, 1st DH
2003: Mélanie Turgeon, St. Moritz, Switzerland, 1st DH; Allison Forsyth, St. Moritz, Switzerland, 3rd GS
2007: Jan Hudec, Are, Sweden, 2nd DH
Source: Alpine Canada
Key: DH — downhill; GS — giant slalom; SL — slalom; C — combined
*Until a rule change that took effect after 1980, Olympic medallists were also considered world championship medallists
VANCOUVER – Work ethic was never a problem for John Kucera. The son of immigrants who took out a second mortgage so he could pursue his dream of a ski racing career, he never had the luxury of taking anything for granted.
But it was a young and scrappy coach named Jason Lapierre who instilled a competitive fire in the slightly built Kucera, one that helped him become Canada's first ever men's downhill world champion at Val d'Isere, France, yesterday. It was a shocking win by someone who had never been on a World Cup downhill podium.
Ask Kucera about his most formative influence as a ski racer and he doesn't hesitate to mention Lapierre, who died tragically in the summer of 2006 when his bike was hit by a car. Kucera dedicated his first World Cup win (a super-G race in Lake Louise) that winter to Lapierre's memory.
"He was a guy who was quite small in stature as well and he never let that hold him back in whichever sporting endeavours he took on," Kucera told the Star earlier this season. "You can really learn from somebody like that.
"Having a big heart and a lot of pride is just as big an advantage as being somebody who's bigger. He really taught me to fight for it and to really go for the top."
Not even the Crazy Canucks managed a world title in their glory days. Their best was a bronze by Steve Podborski at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, which doubled as a world championship back then.
Among those watching on TV as Kucera cut an impressive swath yesterday on a demanding layout in Val d'Isere was Podborski at his home in Whistler, B.C.
"It was a tour de force by a superb technical skier," Canada's most decorated downhiller said. "It was quite a phenomenal run."
There was much said about how the weather conditions favoured Kucera, who was second out of the gate when visibility was very good only to deteriorate badly later because of fog and clouds.
But Podborski said the 24-year-old Calgarian was full measure for the victory.
"He's not the best downhiller in the world, yet he's the world champion," Podborski said. "He took a situation that was as close to good as it's going to get and he capitalized on it. Some people will point to a good start, but that's exactly when you have to do it. A bunch of people didn't make it down. He's got the right stuff to be great.
"If you believe that hard work and application and focus and taking your talents and making the most of them should win the day, then he's the guy to pick."
Kucera gives Lapierre a lot of credit for that.
"A bit of that you're born with and my parents definitely instilled a little of that in me as well, but then he just set the fire a little bit so that's something that's a huge part of me," said Kucera, whose parents came to Canada from the Czech Republic in the early '80s.
Kucera remembers how one day in the gym he was doing weights with a teammate and they felt they'd reached the maximum limit, only to have Lapierre convince them they were capable of more.
"I remember him throwing on another completely obscene amount of weight and I didn't think there was any way I was going to do it," he said. "I thought I was just aiming for failure. But he just kept pushing us.
"It really showed us what pushing your limits can really accomplish."
Kucera got the call telling him that Lapierre had died on the morning he was supposed to fly out to a summer camp in Chile.
"It was probably one of the worst days of my life, to be honest with you," he said.
Yesterday was surely one of the best. Kucera blazed to a time of 2 minutes, 7.01 seconds on the thigh-burning course used for the 1992 Albertville Olympics, beating out reigning World Cup downhill champion Didier Cuche of Switzerland by 4/100ths of a second.
"It was the race of my life," said Kucera, whose previous best World Cup downhill finish was a seventh in 2007 at Lake Louise.
Not all the news was good for Canada. Jan Hudec of Calgary, winner of the downhill silver two years ago at the worlds and in the midst of a comeback after tearing up his right knee for a third time last year, crashed and hurt his left knee. There's no diagnosis yet, but it doesn't look good.
Neither Erik Guay of Mont Tremblant, Que., nor Manuel Osborne-Paradis of Vancouver finished the race.
There didn't appear to be much whinging about the conditions. Not even the likes of American star Bode Miller, who was eighth after skiing on a course shrouded in fog in the top half, begrudged Kucera the victory.