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Ben Thomsen leads young Canadian men's downhill team into Lake Louise

LAKE LOUISE, Alta. — Thrust into a leadership role, Ben Thomsen is finding his comfort zone as the face of the Canadian men's downhill team.

Manny Osborne-Paradis wrecking his knee a year ago while training in Lake Louise, Alta., and two-time world champion Erik Guay's retirement two days later suddenly made Thomsen the most veteran Canadian downhiller.

Osborne-Paradis, 35, is still rehabilitating from his injury suffered in last season's first training run.

So public relations falls to 32-year-old Thomsen as the host team prepares for Saturday's season-opening downhill and Sunday's super-G in Lake Louise.

"Manny is the guy that does all the speeches when you go to functions. Now I'm the old guy and I'm like "ah, I'm public speaking again,'" Thomsen said Wednesday at the mountain resort.

"Don't get me wrong, I'm very thankful to show my appreciation, but I'm just not good at it. Manny is really good at it. He's done it a lot.

"I've got to do a speech for the volunteers tonight, so I've got to think about what I'm going to say."

The two-time Olympian from Invermere, B.C., had a breakthrough 2018-19 World Cup season with top-10 results.

A highlight was finishing sixth on the famed, treacherous Hahnenkamm in Kitzbuhel, Austria, for his best result in seven years.

"I definitely take confidence out of it that I was able to post that result, but I really thought that was going to be the day," Thomsen recalled. "That's where I want to podium and to win."

He placed seventh at the world championship in Are, Sweden, while battling what turned out to be pneumonia.

Thomsen was forced to switch ski technicians mid-season when Bernd Fetz injured both his knees skiing.

Illness and a partial ligament tear in his left knee caught up with Thomsen in the final two races of the season.

The two-time Olympian emerged from it feeling a tougher, more resilient racer, however.

"It was such a fun season. It was really tough, but it was a lot of fun," Thomsen said. "I wanted more. I was looking for a podium and to finish a little bit stronger.

"I can't take my position for granted. I still want to be a top-ten, top-five, podium skier."

He opted for an injection of platelet-rich plasma (PRP) in his left knee instead of surgery in the off-season. Thomsen had surgery on his right knee ligament three years ago.

Thomsen's lone career World Cup podium is a silver in Sochi, Russia, back in 2012.

Osborne-Paradis was the last Canadian man to stand on the Lake Louise podium with a silver in the 2014 downhill.

Thomsen was 15th in men's downhill in 2018. Austria's Max Franz and Norway's Kjetil Jansrud are the defending champions in downhill and super-G respectively.

The host country can enter six men in each race Saturday and Sunday.

Thomsen, Vancouver's Sam Mulligan, Brodie Seger and Cameron Alexander of North Vancouver, B.C., Toronto's Jack Crawford, Jeff Read of Canmore, Alta., and Ottawa's Dustin Cook were all scheduled to test their legs and skis Wednesday, but the first of three training runs was cancelled.

Conditions on the mountain were not the issue. Poor weather in Calgary 180 kilometres to the east would have prevented an ambulance helicopter from landing there if an injured skier required transport.

"You have to take it into account when they can't fly the chopper to Calgary," Thomsen said.

"Especially last year with Manny and the complications he had, you don't want that on anybody and I especially don't want that on myself."

Training runs are scheduled for Thursday and Friday. One must be completed for the races to go ahead.

Thomsen is a decade older than most of Canada's twenty-something downhillers. 

Cook, 30, is a super-G and giant slalom specialist who splits time between the men's technical and speed teams.

Thomsen acknowledges he's more old school than his younger teammates. He insists his teammates take off their hats and put down their cell phones at team meals.

"It's amazing how many of the young guys are bent out of shape about that," Thomsen said.

"They call me a grumpy old man and totally I am."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 27, 2019.

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Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press