Erik Guay says he feels healthy, but frankly, he looks gaunt.
Canada's premier alpine ski racer spent the summer nursing a nagging back injury, avoiding packing on muscle in the gym, shunning high-calorie carbs, and now he's hitting the World Cup circuit with 20 pounds carved off his usual 200-pound, 5-foot-11 frame.
For a sport that requires power, strength and weight, the reigning World Cup downhill champion and super giant slalom Crystal Globe winner for 2010 already knows he's at a disadvantage.
"I just kind of faded away," Guay said before this weekend's speed-season kickoff in Lake Louise, Alta. "And it's a momentum sport, so that's going to probably hurt me a little bit."
Still, as dean of the Canadian team, the 30-year-old from Mont-Tremblant, Que., hustled down Thursday's training run in advance of Saturday's downhill and Sunday's super G as the top Canadian, just 0.23 seconds back of the leader, Austrian Romed Baumann, who ran the soft, slow track in 1 minute 49.12 seconds.
Guay is also one of Alpine Canada's skiing wounded, which includes Robbie Dixon (concussion), Louis-Pierre Hélie (knee and concussion), Jan Hudec (back) and John Kucera (broken leg), all of whom are coming back this season from injuries. Still more – including Manuel Osborne-Paradis, who has been on the World Cup podium nine times – haven't been medically cleared to return. Canadian athletes and officials are quick to point out that this winter is all about getting bodies – and heads – back in the game. The Canadian Cowboys have longer-term goals: the 2013 world championships and the Sochi Olympics in 2014.
"Luckily, this is an off year from big events," said men's head coach Paul Kristofic, "so we have a little bit of luxury there, of time to rebuild."
Optimistically, the men's speed team may grab only a couple of podiums this season.
As part of the team's rehabilitation, physical reconditioning has been slow. Some used more forgiving equipment to regain their ski legs. Psychologists have also been called in.
"There's no real cookie-cutter solution for anybody," Kristofic said. "I think every guy has a different way to approach it."
Calgary's Kucera, the 2009 downhill world champion, hasn't raced since he broke his left leg in a harrowing crash during the Lake Louise super G race two years ago, and then refractured it last February before a race in Aspen, Colo. If the training runs go well enough, he'll race, but the 27-year-old confessed that the mental recovery is "100-per-cent" tougher than the physical.
"My strength is there," Kucera said, "but it's just getting that edge, that confidence to really hammer it."
He's also reset his goals.
"Two years ago," Kucera said, "I was getting to this race and I was aiming for two podiums and now I'm aiming for a top 30, but it's part of the process."
Kucera finished 68th in training Thursday, 4.33 seconds off the leader.
Dixon, one of the team's up-and-comers, hasn't raced since a spill in Bormio, Italy, last December cut his season short. The 26-year-old from Whistler, B.C., spent the summer doing little that would stimulate his healing brain. No computers, television, books and daylight. To boost his confidence, he also has a new make and style of helmet.
"It's a personal thing to be not in the helmet that I was in when it happened," said Dixon, who was 44th in training, 2.79 seconds off the pace.
Despite seven major surgeries to his knees, 30-year-old Hudec of Calgary said after training that he's never felt stronger. He ran the second best Canadian time, finishing seventh, just 0.46 back.
He, like so many of his teammates, is focused on the future.
"I'm playing catch-up a little bit right now, but it was part of the plan," Guay said, "I kind of took a long look on things aiming toward 2014, trying to get my body healthy."