Life lessons and sense of belonging to a team vault ski racer to places he’d only dreamed of
BY: Michael Janyk
At times in my ski racing career, I felt like the entirety of my success hinged on my next push from the start gate. In these moments, my confidence was like a tarp flapping in the wind rather than a full sail. I’d stand in the start gate tight, scared and unwilling to take risks, just hoping that by some magic I would have a great run. That magic never came when I wanted it the most; rather, it came when I least expected it, getting me back on track to show me what was possible.
Growing up in Whistler, I was constantly surrounded by phenomenal talent, starting with my mom, who taught me how to ski. My own natural talent and love for the sport grew as I chased her and my older sister down the mountain. When I moved into an organized program at the Whistler Mountain Ski Club, the talent level went up and the pool I was in deepened. This filled me with both excitement and frustration. It was intimidating at first to be around such amazing talent, but once I grew more familiar with my teammates and became more sure of who I was, the extraordinary became the norm. The chance to go beyond myself was intoxicating, and my teammates’ performances became my inspiration.
For example, at 13, I watched a teammate ripping the first half of the GS training course only to peel out halfway down and hit a jump at full speed. He aired a nice laid-out backflip, landed, turned back towards the course and finished the last few gates. It put “just skiing the training course” into a different perspective.
Moments like these gave me the fuel I needed to commit to the time and hard work I knew were necessary for the success I craved. In these waves of inspiration, the choice to take on more runs, an extra dryland session, a faster pace or higher intensity were easy to make and felt effortless and fun.
I continued to be surrounded by talent when I moved onto the B.C. ski team. It was electrifying to find myself among the province’s best racers. I knew most of them, either from my home club or from racing against them and watching them stand on top of the podium. In such a rich environment, my drive found an endless source of fuel, igniting my skiing and taking it to a whole new level. The next two seasons were an absolute dream.
In 2000, I was launched onto the national ski team along with five peers from the west. We joined with the best ski racers of our age from the east to make up the national development team. If B.C. was a talent hotbed, then Quebec was on fire! Led by the likes of Erik Guay on the men’s side, they came from a movement that brought Canada its best skiers of this generation. Where the B.C. team felt electrifying, this felt like I had joined my first ski club all over again. It was too big to comprehend and too intimidating to be inspiring – I was swallowed up in their greatness.
How could I relate to their talent if I couldn’t see myself as being anywhere near them? In that first year, the work went back to feeling like a grind and my dream of becoming a World Cup skier fogged over.
The following year, in January 2001, the team and I were in the middle of a European swing, competing in some mid-level FIS and European Cup races. On this particular day, we were in Chamonix, France, racing against some of the best the French had to offer. The top of the field was older than us, which meant the race had great points, but the depth of competition was shallower than at the Europa Cup, giving us the chance to start with bib numbers in the 30s rather than near 100. It was a great opportunity to make a big splash in a European race.
I stood in the start gate more wishful than confident about my potential performance. It was more like throwing mud against a wall to see what would stick than setting out to paint a masterpiece. With this mindset, it was little surprise that my hopes didn’t materialize and my race ended with a straddle in the second run.
Sliding over to the sidelines, I sulked over my poles and watched the rest of the race unfold. Most of my teammates raced in a similar fashion, with three of them joining me in the DNF circle and another finishing 16th. The last Canadian to come down was Ryan Semple, and after a great first run, he lit it up again and finished in second place. This was his best result of the season and the second-best of his career to that date.
Our spirits were lifted from watching our friend and teammate put it on the line to stand with the top racers of the day. We came together in the finish corral and enjoyed the moment of victory with some high fives and celebratory hugs. As I skied away, though, lapping back around to the start to collect my gear, the joy I felt faded and the disappointment of my own result set in.
Back at the hotel an hour later, our coach, Mark Gagnon, stopped us as we crossed the lobby to our rooms. “Guys,” he said, “this was an awesome day for Ryan and for everyone here. It shows me what all of you are capable of and that the hard work is paying off. It’s Ryan today and it could be any one of you tomorrow.”
A response of “Yeah, whatever!” rattled through my head. As much as I wanted to believe him, his words fell flat. Any positivity that could have been gained from the day was engulfed by my own frustrations.
Before letting us go, Mark told us there would be an awards ceremony in town later that afternoon. He encouraged us to join him and Ryan, but ultimately left the choice to us.
With travel planned for the next day, most of the team’s attention was on packing our gear to move to the next hotel rather than the ceremony. I was in this camp and wanted to stay behind.Why should I go? What good is it for me? Aren’t I better off staying behind to get some rest? I can fit in a good dryland session for recovery! This was the argument I was having with myself back in my room.
But Mark’s words hung in my mind. I could also hear my mom saying something like “It’s more important to be a good sportsman than a champion” followed by my old B.C. team coach telling me in his Slovenian accent, “We are a team, dammit! We all go to the awards!” The feeling that I should go and support Ryan sat like a stubborn rock that would not move. Whether it was this or my own superstition that I would be upsetting the ski gods, I decided to join Mark and Ryan for the awards ceremony.
As we walked into the gymnasium of the small elementary school in town, I started to feel my mood lighten. Ryan’s excitement and happiness were contagious, and I had enjoyed joking around with him on the ride down. We settled into a light conversation with some French racers. Well, more accurately, Ryan did, and I hung on the edge of the circle trying to keep up by smiling and nodding along with the laughter. Even though I only understood about 30 percent of what was being said, it was awesome! I felt part of the bigger ski racing circuit and was enjoying the international culture. Maybe Mark was right – this was a day for all of us to celebrate.
The organizers started to gather near the stage, signaling the awards were about to begin. Ryan casually made his way toward them, and my attention moved with him until I saw Jean-Pierre Vidal standing beside the podium. JP was still a year away from winning his slalom gold medal at the Salt Lake Olympic Games, but he was already a local hero and World Cup star who had come back to race and speak at the event. I remained in the middle of the room with Mark listening to the speakers and watching Ryan stand with the other winners preparing their skis for that all-important podium sponsor shot.
With this scene in front of me, I was unexpectedly hit with a wave of sadness and pointless questions. Why couldn’t it be me up there? Why couldn’t I perform like Ryan did? I want it more than he does! What more do I have to do so it’s me up there?
I instantly went from feeling like I had won a medal too to feeling like my dreams would never be. I can see why part of me didn’t want to come to the awards – it was making me face the reality of my own fears.
Nothing good was happening while I was lost in my mind, so thankfully the announcer’s voice over the microphone pulled me back into the room. “Et en deuxième position, Ryan Semple!” The noise in my head quieted as I watched my teammate climb onto the podium, remove his hat and receive his medal plus a kiss on each cheek. He stood with a proud smile, and I stood watching in complete silence.
As the winners lifted their skis high in celebration, applause from the crowd of 50 or so parents, coaches, teammates and volunteers filled the room. Amid the cheers, my sadness, questions and doubts finally melted away. My teammate, training partner, roommate and friend had done it! I stood in this room with him, joked with him, raced and had successes and failures with him. He was one of us, and we were one with him. In the light of Ryan’s success, I could once again see what was possible, and I started to believe again in my own dreams.