PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Brady Leman was sitting in a Toronto hotel a couple months ago, and the Calgary-born ski cross racer had a pretty good approach ahead of what would be his second or third Winter Games, depending on whether you count that time in Vancouver when he injured himself while training and couldn’t actually compete, the experience he calls “my short Olympics.”
“Really, what’s the worst that can happen in South Korea?” Leman asked, throwing up his hands. “I’m going to come fourth again or break my leg? I already did both those things. And you move on. The result is going to be what it’s going to be.”
Well, the result for the guy who’d seen the worst of what the Olympics has to offer was, finally, golden. The third time was the charm. And yes, those two nightmare experiences made the win all the sweeter.
On Wednesday at the Phoenix Snow Park, Leman earned Canada’s ninth gold medal of these Games, the country’s first ever Olympic hardware in men’s ski cross. When the 31-year-old crossed the finish line, just ahead of Switzerland’s Marc Bischofberger, Leman came to a stop and then he put his hands over his goggled face and he fell to his knees. As he stepped up to the top podium step here to receive his plush mascot — the gold medal comes later — he pumped his arms and then threw back his head, still in disbelief.
Could he even put it into words? “No,” Leman said, later, laughing, leaning on his poles, wearing ski gloves that feature a fierce growling cat and a Canada flag. “Amazing day today. To have everything come together like that on race day at the Olympics is incredible.”
Especially incredible, his previous experiences here considered. The leg break was bad enough, and then four years ago in Sochi, he cracked the big final — the top four racers make it there, in this head-to-head sprint to the finish through a course with tight turns and huge jumps — and he finished fourth, only to find out the trio of French skiers that had beaten him were freezing the bottoms of their snow pants to make them more aerodynamic. Seriously. (And no, that’s not legal.)
Leman tried not to think about that today, and as his coach Stan Hayer pointed out, the reality was Leman made some mistakes in that race four years ago, and he’s a much better skier today, more mentally strong. “He had a lot of different experiences at the Olympics,” Hayer, a former ski cross racer, said. “This is the one he was looking for.
“We’re super happy for him as an organization. It’s unbelievable, you put four years in, you have no idea how it’s going to work out,” the coach added. “That’s the beauty of this sport. There’s no judging, there’s the times, first one down wins and the guy that has the most guts wins. And Brady has shown, year after year, that he’s got probably the most guts out there.”
Leman’s third Games didn’t exactly start on a high note, though. He had a big crash in training the other day, and said the medical staff “put me back together.” Canada’s newest gold medallist was “kind of taped back together,” as he put it, when he won it. He wasn’t getting out of the start gates with good speed, and in his seeding round, he lost a pole. “I had to kind of just let go of everything and just race and turn the brain off a little bit,” he said, “which seemed to work out.”
“That’s part of the reason that I love this sport — it’s so difficult,” Leman added. “Nothing’s easy, there’s never an easy race day.”
For a couple other Canadians in the field on Wednesday, it was far from easy. In his first heat following seeding, Chris Del Bosco hit a jump late and soared through the air — Hayer said “I think he would have won the aerials today” — and then he crashed, hard. Del Bosco had to be helicoptered to hospital, and the latest news from the team is that he was responsive and stable and may have suffered a pelvic injury.
Kevin Drury, who also made the big final, went over a jump early and collided mid-air with OAR skier Sergey Ridzik. Since the Canadian lost his left ski when he hit the snow, his race was over, as per the rules, and Drury punched the snow in frustration. Ridzik, meanwhile, got up, skis still on, and won the bronze medal.
Drury described his emotions as “all over the place,” following the race. “Proud, happy. I’m actually not even bummed yet,” he said, but his voice started breaking up when he talked about his family being in the crowd. The highlight was getting to the bottom and seeing that his teammate had won it. “That’s exactly what I wanted,” Drury said, grinning. “Great day.”
Leman did hear a tangle behind him, but he had no idea the crash happened until the race was over. His focus was ahead. “I told myself to get in the draft and stay smooth through that section and try to hit the transitions of the jumps,” he said. “The next thing I knew I had nobody in front of me and from there on out I just knew I had to be solid.”
With the way the sun was hitting the course, racers could see the shadows of other guys behind them as they were ripping along. Leman knew Bischofberger was on his tail, the Swiss racer who’d beaten him in a couple heats already. “I was just telling myself: ‘Go, go, go, go, go! You can’t let up before the finish line,’” Leman said. “And I don’t think I let up until like 10 metres after it,” he added, laughing.
The win is, unbelievably, Leman’s first of the season. The 2016 X Games champion didn’t finish any better than sixth on the world cup circuit, but after a recent small change in equipment (to the plates under his bindings,) Leman began to gain confidence, and Hayer liked his chances here. “He’s detail oriented, and he charges,” the coach said. “He was hungry coming in, that’s for sure.”
Because he’d been in an Olympic big final before, Leman could picture and visualize and prepare for all the feelings he’d knew would be running through him at the top of the course, with his parents and his girlfriend and a bunch of buddies from home in the crowd watching.
“I was nervous, I was emotional, I was excited, but at the same time, just trying to bring it back to my race plan,” Leman said. “I think it was a bit of an advantage to have been in the big final before and have it go sideways a little bit. You just know you have to try and let go.”
He’s had to let go of a lot in his career, Leman has. Back at that hotel in Toronto, a few months ago, he felt proud to have even given himself another shot at competing on an Olympic stage.
“Breaking your leg the day before the Olympics, that’s the end of a lot of people’s Olympic sports story in a lot of cases,” he said. “Coming fourth, life goes on after, miraculously sometimes. At the time it feels like, ‘Oh, this is the end of the road, I missed my one shot.’ But it’s almost never true. You can give yourself another chance, if you want.”
Leman did give himself another chance, and it ended with an historic first-ever medal in his sport for Canada, the ninth gold of these Games for the country.
“It’s crazy,” he said, shaking his head. “I just can’t believe that I was able to put it together today.”