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Interview with Canadian alpine skiing star Kerrin Lee-Gartner

Kerrin Lee-Gartner
Kerrin Lee-GartnerRick Stewart, Getty Images/All Sport

On Tuesday, Canadian Olympic gold medallist Kerrin Lee-Gartner of Trail, British Columbia left for Sochi, Russia, where she will be the lead alpine skiing analyst for CBC's Olympic coverage.

Prior to her departure, Lee-Gartner spoke with me at Canada's Sports Hall of Fame in Calgary. Here is my interview with Lee-Gartner, who won an Olympic gold medal in the women's downhill at the 1992 Olympic Winter Games in Albertville. She was also the last Canadian woman to medal in alpine skiing at a Winter Olympics and the last Canadian to win an alpine skiing gold medal at a Winter Olympics.

It has been 20 years since a Canadian has won a medal in alpine skiing. Do you think a Canadian will be able to end the drought this time?

"In 2006 I believed Canada could end the drought. Erik Guay came so close in Torino with his fourth. He was hundredths away (a tenth of a second back of Ambrosi Hoffmann of Switzerland in the men's super giant slalom) and was fifth twice in Vancouver. I believe the drought could have been done and I believe it again. It's not just Erik Guay (for the reason why) they have such a strong team on that side. Jan Hudec has been on the podium. Manuel Osborne-Paradis has won a downhill. Ben Thomsen, who made the team at the last minute, was second in the pre-Olympic test event two years ago. This is a course he really loves. Our speed team on the men's side is very strong. On our women's technical side, they are being led by Marie-Michele Gagnon who won her first World Cup a couple of weeks ago. It's strong. There's just a history and a tradition on the women's side. They just seem to come up rosy at the Olympics. There's no reason to think that they could come away with a couple of medals."

Why do you think Canadians have struggled over the last two decades?

"After 1988 there was definitely a funding drop. Developing teams went away. There was definitely an issue with the program until the late 1990's. As soon as you pull funding away from any part of a high elite team, you are going to struggle down the road. You're not seeing that reaction right away. You're not seeing the results of struggles right away. You're seeing it ten years down the road. We were right at the peak of the rebuilding phase for 2010. So the risk now is funding once again. There isn't much funding for all the winter sports. It went away after 2010. So all these sports we are seeing great results right now. But I really think corporate Canada and those passionate about winter sports really need to make sure (the finances) are there, so we don't end up in a wave of a drought again."

If you were in charge of Alpine Canada for one day, what would you do?

"There is so much to be done in one day. I believe in the athletes. As long as the program remains athlete centered and athlete focused, there is no reason for it not to be successful."

Comment on Larisa Yurkiw and the challenges she has faced in the last year just to become an Olympian.

"Larisa's story is such a great one. It's a Cinderella story in many ways. She was injured in December of 2009 really badly to the point where people thought that knee could not race downhill anymore. It took her two years to get back on snow and train and then two more years of trying to get into the top thirty in the World Cup races in downhill. She didn't even qualify for the ski team last year, and there wasn't even enough money to have a downhill program. For the national team there is no downhill program on the women's side. Larisa didn't have a team to go to and she didn't give up. Her story is what Olympic dreams are made of. The passion she skied with and commitment to raise funds and run her own program. I just think her story deserves telling because we need to learn from that story. We need to learn from those athletes who need the support. The programs need to be there. One can say, 'well Larisa was dropped from Alpine Canada'. But there was no team for Larisa to be on and that's actually even a sadder tale. I just think we really need to watch Larisa and learn from Larisa's story."

It was announced last week that Austrian star Hannes Reichelt would not be able to compete in Sochi because of a back injury. Does that change the mindset at all for the Canadian men?

Definitely it will be a loss by him not being at the Olympics. Winning Kitzbuehel is the equivalent of winning the Olympics in many ways. Winning Kitzbuehel is one of the biggest races for so many of the racers, especially the Austrians. For him to win so close to the Olympics showed he was in peak form, and then for him to drop out of the Games, that is a huge loss for the Austrians. Canada's not focused on the huge loss for the Austrians. They're focused on their job and what they have to do. The only way to win the Olympics is to do your job. You can't worry about who you have to beat."