Toronto, Canada – By Steve Keating
LAKE LOUISE, Alberta (Reuters) - Canadian ski racer John Kucera's Olympic dreams ended in a cruel tangle of limbs and broken bones last month.
Until the spectacular crash in the season-opening World Cup super-G on November 29, the stars had seemed aligned for this hard-working member of the "Canadian Cowboys."
He had established his Olympic medal credentials by winning downhill gold at the world championships and embraced the pressures of racing on home snow by recording his top World Cup results, including a super-G win, at Lake Louise.
In an instant the 25-year-old's career took a dramatic downward turn. He snapped the tibia and fibula of his left leg as he cartwheeled into the safety fencing at more than 100 kph and his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete at a home Olympics had gone forever.
The previous day, American T.J. Lanning had left Whitehorn Mountain in similar fashion, strapped on to a stretcher dangling below a helicopter with a fractured neck vertebra and a dislocated knee.
In Beaver Creek a week later one of France's top medal hopes, World Cup slalom champion Jean-Baptiste Grange, bid adieu to the Vancouver Games when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee during a giant slalom.
Devastating crashes are an occupational hazard in a sport where helicopters are parked close to finish areas ready to evacuate injured racers to emergency medical centers.
"We are definitely following the injury situation very closely and are trying to better understand it all the time," Atle Skaardal, the FIS chief race director on the women's circuit, said in a statement this week.
Skaardal said the FIS had researchers looking into why accidents happened, but added: "Unfortunately, it is a fact that ski racing is a risky sport and we will never have zero injuries."
In an Olympic year injuries seem particularly harsh, as four years of hard work and dreams can be wiped out in a flash by the smallest of miscalculations.
World Cup champion Aksel Lund Svindal, who returned to racing after suffering serious injuries in a downhill crash two years ago, lamented the high injury rate this season.
"Racers have sustained the following: seven torn ACLs, four (other) knee ligaments, one (broken) arm, one broken leg, one broken neck, one concussion, one dislocated knee, one dislocated shoulder. Is that okay?" the Norwegian wrote on his blog (www.aksellundsvindal.com).
Canadian team chief Max Gartner said racers learned to accept the risks.
"It's very cruel but that's the nature of the sport," Gartner told Reuters. "They are pushing it to the limit in order to be in there challenging for the wins. They know the risks and they learn to deal with it.
"If you want to be a top racer you have to come to terms that you are in a really risky sport and you have to put it all on the line. They have all shown they are pretty tough and they deal with it and move on. That's the cruel part of it, the racing just keeps going on."
Even as Kucera was being whisked to hospital, champagne corks were popping as team mate Manny Osborne-Paradis celebrated a win on the same hill.
Over the final weeks leading up to the Vancouver Games more dreams will be shattered, while other racers try to recover from last season's World Cup pile-ups in time for the February 12 start.
Swiss Lara Gut, a double silver medalist at last season's world championships, is out until at least January after dislocating a hip while team mate Daniel Albrecht's return is uncertain as he continues to recover from brain and lung injuries suffered in a high-speed crash that left him in a coma.
There will be no Olympics for Austrian Nicole Hosp, the 2007 overall World Cup champion and slalom silver medalist at the Turin Games, ruled out with a knee injury sustained in October.
Canada's Jan Hudec knows too well the pitfalls of a ski racing career, having had six knee operations.
"After a certain point when you haven't hurt yourself very badly, you start feeling invincible, you don't think about it any more," said Hudec, who is staging another comeback in a bid to earn an Olympic berth.
"(Kucera's) number just came up. At the end of the day freak accidents happen and you have to be prepared to deal with them."
In an Olympic season, with so much riding on a single race, the need for speed can push the boundaries of self-preservation.
"You have to attack it, you'll never succeed if you don't attack," said Canada's Emily Brydon after taking two downhill podium places this month. "It's just kind of a sport where injuries happen...we sign up for that, it's part of the package."
(Editing by Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story email email@example.com)