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Alpine racing injuries examined

Jan Hudec knows a thing or six about ski injuries. The Banff world cup alpine racer has alternated between blistering speeds on the top courses in the world and long bouts on the injured list for the past 10 years.

Jan Hudec knows a thing or six about ski injuries.

The Banff world cup alpine racer has alternated between blistering speeds on the top courses in the world and long bouts on the injured list for the past 10 years. Every top 10 finish, every step forward in his development, was followed by crippling knee and back injuries.

“I’ve lived it,” Hudec said.

So when Alpine Canada announced it was hosting a two-day injury summit, it was music to Hudec’s ears.

“This is definitely long overdue,” said Hudec, who missed a portion of the 2011 season with a broken hand. “It’s good to see them move in this direction.”

Slower ski suits, safer equipment and consistent competition surfaces are in the future for Canadian skiers, as the governing body introduced a litany of regulations and recommendations designed to reduce ski injuries.

Coaches, FIS representatives, doctors and athletes such as Kelly Vanderbeek and Eric Guay gathered at COP in Calgary to discuss alpine ski safety last week (May 4). They came up with a series of recommendations designed to make the sport safer.

About 47 per cent of world cup skiers missed time due to injury last season, and Canada had 10 athletes who spent time on the injured list. About 65 per cent of those injuries are to the knee, as racers chase higher rates of speed, placing more pressure on their joints.

President of Alpine Canada Max Gartner said internationally, all nations realize something must be done.

“Whatever we can control, we have to look at making the sport significantly safer,” Gartner said.

That means domestically, Canada will avoid the use of ice injection on courses, call for the use of slower ski suits designed to reduce speeds and skidding that occurs on crashes, ensure the use of better helmets and mouth guards to reduce concussions and examine use of more braces for knees and backs.

Alpine Canada will make a proposal to FIS to regulate speed suits, which would be designed to slow down the athletes. He said across the country, an attitude shift must occur.

“We have to de-emphasize speed in the younger ages,” Gartner said.

Vanderbeek said the sport won’t change for spectators if a few recommendations are adapted, so the sport can be safer without a big change. While the difference between skiing at 130 k/hr and 125 k/hr is huge for the athletes, spectators don’t notice the difference.

“Any reduction in speed is a positive thing right now. This won’t be a huge reduction; there are recommendations, but we can take another step to make regulations,” Vanderbeek said.

Hudec, however, is skeptical FIS will accept the proposals and thinks skiers will find a way to get around rules designed to slow them down.

“They’ll find a way to put something under the suits to make them faster,” Hudec said.

He is worried attempts to change FIS regulations will be stalled or only last in the short term. He cites F1 auto racing, where organizers introduced regulations designed to slow cars down. It only took a year before the teams found a way around the regulations.

He is also unsure FIS will listen to athletes.

“FIS is such a bureaucracy, the opinions expressed by others and athletes take a long time to come to fruition,” Hudec said. “It’s a tough system to change the rules in.”

He said there has been pushback from rule changes in the past, but the sport is at a critical phase.

“If you lose half of the best racers in the world, you have to look at the bodies of the racers who the companies are making money off of,” Hudec said.

Canada must have a greater emphasis on developing technical skill, noting that no skier under 18 should race in speed events such as downhill of super G, according to local coaches and officials.

“We have to make sure athletes are ready for what they get into,” Gartner said.

He said sports such as ski cross will be used instead to teach racing techniques, giving athletes a better chance to learn jump and turning techniques.

Pushing back speed events will help skiers improve ski techniques.

As a young skier, Vanderbeek was rushed along through the speed events, pushed to compete at the world cup level at an early age. The decision offered her a great opportunity to race, but robbed her of valuable technical training. She said she’s still playing catch-up on her technical skills.

“This change will make a difference,” she said.

Hudec didn’t race speed events until he was 18, but that was because his father kept him on the technical track. He said older racers will understand and accept these changes.

As to ice injection, Hudec agrees with Gartner, noting the best option for skiers is to have a consistent surface. Ice injection creates skating rink conditions on the mountain, and switching from that surface to hard-packed snow ends up increasing the strain on joints and creates dangerous situations.

Gartner stops short of calling for the practise to be eliminated, but said race courses must use injection on the entire course, or not at all.

Hudec said there have been many times he has been asked as an athlete to ski potentially unsafe, unevent terrain.

Vanderbeek is on board with reducing ice injection, as well, stating that it’s not necessary on the women’s side. However, consistent race surfaces are more important.

“Ice injection doesn’t cause injuries, inconsistency in the surface does,” Vanderbeek said.

Many of the changes will take place at the beginning of the season, however, some equipment changes will take another year to implement.

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