CALGARY, Canada — John Kucera, who made history when he became the first Canadian man to be crowned world downhill champion, has retired from ski racing to pursue a new career as a coach with the national development team.
The 29-year-old Canadian Cowboy from Calgary made hard work, determination and perseverance his calling card during a rapid ascent to the top of the ski world but a hugely promising career as a super G, giant slalom and downhill racer was ultimately cut short by injuries and, most recently, an inner ear infection.
In addition to coaching the next generation of Canadian ski racers as an assistant under development team men’s coach Kip Harrington, Kucera will assist the team’s condition coaches with their summer dryland training programs.
“He’s going to be successful because he’s not afraid to tell people what it really takes to be successful in this business. He’s lived it and he’s gone through the highs and lows of the sport,” said Paul Kristofic, Alpine Canada’s vice president of sports and the former head coach of the men’s alpine program. “He’ll be able to share the lessons he’s learned with other athletes and coaches. Everyone has a lot to gain.”
The five-foot-nine dynamo will forever be synonymous with Lake Louise, the hill where he made his World Cup debut, won his first World Cup race, suffered a devastating leg injury in 2009 and then ultimately completed a successful comeback from injury in 2012.
“It was a tough decision to retire from ski racing,” said Kucera, a 2006 Olympian who has three World Cup podiums to his name. “The past four years haven’t exactly gone the way I would have liked. I’m not healthy and coaching is something I really wanted to do – I have the same passion for it I had as an athlete.
“I did everything I could to be the best racer I could be and I’m proud of what I was able to accomplish. My career has been shorter than I wanted but I took advantage of the time I had. I wasn’t the most talented guy but I knew if I outworked everyone else I would give myself a chance.”
Kucera’s parents emigrated to Canada from the former Czechoslovakia in 1981 and his dad was a volunteer ski patroller. As an aspiring young racer who did not come from a privileged background – his parents took out a second mortgage on their home to help fund his career – he faced some huge obstacles along the way as he pursued his dream of becoming a ski racer.
“When all the other kids were staying in hotel rooms at races we were camping out in the motor home,” Kucera said. “My parents worked so hard to give me the opportunity to race. When me and my younger brother James were both racing he made the ultimate sacrifice when he gave up his career to allow me to pursue mine. My parents didn’t have enough money to have two kids in ski racing.”
The challenges he overcame as a young racer prepared Kucera for the tests he would face as a national team skier trying to establish himself on the World Cup circuit. His first big breakthrough came in 2006 when he won the super-G at the Lake Louise World Cup, a stunning result given that he hadn’t previously had a top 10 on the World Cup.
“The Lake Louise win was huge. It really showed me what I was capable of and put my career on the fast track,” Kucera said. “For me, it all comes down to working hard and staying determined. It’s not going to be easy – I had to overcome many obstacles. But once you do get there and look back you have a different appreciation for it. It wasn’t something that was handed to me – I had to work hard for it. But now it’s something I’m really proud of.”
That season, Kucera was ranked third in the world in super G and two years later he made history at the world championships in Val d’Isère, France.
“It was just an amazing day,” he said of his historic victory in the downhill. “The way that year was going I wasn’t having an easy time. I learned a lot going into there in terms of perseverance.
“It was a special day, a special course. It was amazing – the culmination of 15 or 20 years of work, starting out as a little skier and going through Nancy Greene, FIS, the provincial ski team . . . It wasn’t easy at any point. I’m glad I came up by overcoming the challenges I had when I was younger. That was a big part of my success.
Disaster struck in 2009, back at Lake Louise, when he crashed during the super-G and suffered a devastating compound fracture of his tib-fib. After a long and painful road back to fitness, Kucera reinjured his left tibia in 2011 while forerunning in Colorado. Further rehab followed before he was able to finally return to competitive racing at Lake Louise in November 2012 – three years after his original crash.
“The 14th place in Lake Louise in 2012 is something I was really proud of. To be able to come down and get that result in my second race back in the place where I broke my leg was huge,” Kucera said. “It showed me I was able to compete with the best in the world. After three big injuries, I knew I hadn’t been taken out by my broken legs.”
The following summer, Kucera knew he was heading into what could be a make or break season with Olympic qualification on the line. He re-doubled his efforts in the gym and was skiing like the “old Kucera” when he suddenly became struck down by an inner ear infection during a national team ski camp in Portillo, Chile. He developed vertigo-like symptoms from which he has never fully recovered.
“I’m seeing improvements but by no means am I ready to compete. I’m not healthy yet and I don’t know when I’m going to be healthy,” Kucera said. “You have no control over the length of your career or the things that happen to you, like waking up in Portillo and all of a sudden feeling dizzy.
“Obviously my biggest goal would have been an Olympic medal and I would also have liked to have competed for a Globe. That’s what’s kind of a bummer because in 2009 I felt like everything was really coming together for me as an athlete. The way I was skiing, going to Whistler (for the 2010 Games) would have been awesome and I think I would have had a good chance there. But that’s the reality of sport.”
Kucera grew up racing with the likes of Olympic bronze medallist Jan Hudec, three-time World Cup winner Manuel Osborne-Paradis and super G Crystal Globe winner Erik Guay, who successfully defended Kucera’s world downhill title in 2011.
“Johnny, from the get-go, was the poster child for hard work and determination and grit,” said Guay, who recently set a new Canadian record for World Cup podiums with the 22nd of his career. “He isn’t the biggest guy but he had a great technical touch. Everyone knows him as the downhill world champion but he was a giant slalom and super G skier – a three (event) skier.
“It’s unfortunate what happened with the injuries but I think he should be extremely satisfied with his career. I think it’s really cool that he’s staying in touch with the sport. He has a ton of knowledge and is a perfect fit for that coaching role if he approaches it the same way he did with racing.”
Kucera has known for some time that he wanted to be a ski coach and he already has some of his coaching certification.
“I love the sport and I’ve always had a huge appreciation of what coaches do. That probably started with Jason Lapierre,” Kucera said of his former coach, who tragically passed away in 2006. “I’d like to be the role model and mentor he was for me.
“I pride myself on my hard work. I know I was always good at dealing with adversity. This is a great opportunity to get into coaching. It’s not just that it was there and I took it – It’s something I really wanted to do. With the opportunity being there and the uncertainty around my health it seemed like the right time.”
“Imagine being coached by a world champion. That’s a gift to every racer who is in the program. It’s an amazing thing for someone like him to choose that path. Not many do,” noted Kristofic. “It’s not so much about him giving back – it’s about him wanting to be successful. He’s passionate about the sport and he’s ambitious.”
Although he’s one of the stars of the speed team that dominates the Canadian Cowboys – the modern generation of World Cup podium performers – Kucera is the introvert to Osborne-Paradis’ extrovert; more at home camping in the wilderness and riding his dirtbike than in the full glare of the media spotlight.
“This is an individual sport but I don’t think you can be successful without so many people around you. Everybody has a part to play,” Kucera said. “I’ve got to say a big thank you to all of my coaches, starting from when I was five all the way through to World Cup. Obviously Jason Lapierre was a huge part of my career. He took a lot of the pieces I had and showed me how to put them together. Peter Rybarik, Glenn Thomsen, Dan Gallagher, Richard Jagger, Burkhard Schaffer, Lionel Finance, Serge Dugas, Brian Rishworth, Paul Kristofic and many others . . . they kept shaping me into who I am today.”
Release and video courtesy of Alpine Canada