When Paul McCartney wrote the “The Long and Winding Road” he described an indirect path towards the unattainable.
It’s too bad the Beatles music legend hadn’t met Erik Read.
When the Banff-raised 29-year-old scored his second-consecutive top-10 GS finish of the season in Santa Caterina last week – also setting the fastest second run time in Saturday’s race – there was a realization that his winding path to the World Cup podium is closing in. Attainable, most certainly.
“[The result] was bittersweet as I think the podium was within reach,” said Read, a college graduate and former NCAA champion. “To win sections both days and to win a run – and having that speed – was really encouraging. Now finding consistency to reach the podium will be the next step.”
That next step, for Read, is progressing along on the hardworking journey, which started with the Banff Alpine Racers and involved a number of back-and-forth adventures from NorAms to the World Cup and back, mostly leapfrogging over the Europa Cup circuit – and now is approaching the pinnacle of the sport.
“I want to be a regular performer, top 10 on a consistent basis,” said Read, who will stay in Europe until the end of the season. “Starting positions are so important in this sport and to be able to crack into the World Cup start list top 15 is the end goal … but I am shooting for a podium at every race now.”
The bumpy road and occasional roadblocks along the way were met by Read’s tenacious and unwavering commitment to the process. The road started in Banff, had sections through provincial and national teams … and a significant stretch through the NCAA with the University of Denver (DU) and then back to full-time racing on the World Cup circuit.
Carving his own path
Read’s pathway was unconventional in the direct route he took (on multiple occasions) from NorAm and NCAA to the World Cup circuit. In the seasons when his primary focus was the World Cup, his world rankings and FIS points would essentially go backwards (the World Cup is a no-points bonanza!) forcing him to go back to the NorAm circuit and reclaim the required world rankings. Europa Cup events were used as a bridge, but unlike his European counterparts they were not the sole focal point to get to the World Cup level. Read showed that the NorAm circuit could be a direct path to the World Cup. Some argue that the NorAm circuit does not prepare you for World Cup success but Read has certainly proved that as an onerous assumption.
Erik Read was born into the life of a ski racer. His parents, Lynda and Ken, were both former national team skiers – Ken as part of the Crazy Canucks era when he won five World Cup races and 14 podiums between 1978 and 1983 – and two younger brothers Kevyn, 27, and Jeff, 23, who is currently on the Canadian men’s World Cup speed team (and scored his first World Cup points last weekend, 26th, at Val d’Isere, the same race Ken won in 1975).
Being the oldest brother and trailblazer of the next generation of Read racers, the Canmore native, Erik, showed talent and promise early, winning the prestigious Whistler Cup as a young teen, then moving on to becoming an all-discipline FIS racer with the Alberta Ski Team – claiming his first overall NorAm title in 2012 (18 career NorAm podium finishes, including 11 wins). Erik went on to race his first World Cup in that season, in Schladming, Austria, the first of his 96 World Cup starts to date.
But when FIS implemented the earth-shattering ski rule before the 2012-13 season, things started to go wrong for Read, and many others, who struggled with the equipment setup.
The new rules, which significantly changed the design and specifications for ski construction, dramatically altered the relationship between racer and equipment.
“When they first came out with those skis, they were awful,” he said. “It was tough for a lot of people and I really struggled with it, so I came out that next year having really taken a step back.”
It was around this time that Read decided to look south to opportunities with NCAA schools with strong ski racing programs.
Finding the balance between education and sport
Education was always going to be part of the path for Read – both Lynda and Ken took university courses during their ski racing careers and encouraged a school-sport balanced lifestyle.
“I took my SATs right after high school and was doing courses every spring at Mount Royal College or U of C (University of Calgary),” Read explained. “It got to that point where my eligibility years in NCAA were starting to disappear, so I looked at what others have done to get an education and find success. Like Trevor [Philp, also a graduate of University of Denver]. So that’s a big reason why I chose that path.”
But Read had full intentions to continue on the World Cup and maintain his status as a national team athlete. He communicated regularly with Alpine Canada and his coaches of his plans to balance World Cup and college racing. Taking a more direct-ownership approach with his program design, Read found that both the DU coaches and Canadian team coaches were cooperative and supportive of the hybrid program.
“To be honest, it really helped me mature and find a balance between sport and something outside [of sport] so that it wasn’t so all-consuming,” he explained. “Before, when I would have a bad day, I’d hold onto that for a while … but when you’re in school you have to separate your time and turn your brain onto something else. Managing the load and balance of that is a big reason why college skiers are able to find success.”
Scoring World Cup points in his first year at DU as a freshman, his new pathway was becoming clear. In his sophomore year, Read won his second overall NorAm title, which guaranteed a World Cup spot the following season. In his third and final season racing NCAA in Denver, he finished the World Cup campaign ranked in the top 30 in both slalom and GS. A remarkable achievement for a full-time student.
In the end, Read broke most DU ski racing records, while managing the demands of World Cup racing and the NCAA circuits simultaneously, in addition to a heavy education load. It will likely not surprise readers to know he did all this while managing a 4.0 grade point average in the pursuit of a business major, with a minor in marketing. “I have a pretty high standard for myself,” he said.
According to DU head coach Andy LeRoy, who coached Read during his three years in the program, he scored more World Cup points in one season than all the skiers at the school over the last 30 years combined. And this is coming from one of the NCAA powerhouse schools.
When Read completed his university requirements in 2018, he resumed his World Cup pursuits and refined his goals to focus on podium results — which he’s rapidly approaching.
When asked if he still has a heavy bag full of books, he said he’s taking a break from studies, at least for the time being.
“Maybe on the outside it looked like I managed it well, but I was pretty burned out a few times,” he explained. “That last year I was not qualifying [top 30, for second run] anymore and I was kind of hanging on for dear life.”
Education and learning continue to pull Read in, however. He recently signed up for the Canadian Securities Course and plans to jump in with both feet into that program in the spring at the conclusion of the season. He’s also keeping a close eye on the financial market while dabbling in some investment strategies.
Fueling the belief, one section at a time
Read has been winning sections in World Cup races for some time, and is no stranger to the podium, winning two overall NorAm titles, as well as 37 career top-30 finishes in World Cup races since his debut in 2014. He’s scored points in four World Cup disciplines: slalom, GS, combined and parallel.
“Last year was the first time I realized that the podium was possible,” he said. “It feels that I’m at that point and a podium threat … the guys at the top are phenomenal athletes, obviously, so I feel things still need to come together still. But I’ve had a few races where I was the fastest to the second or third split, where I win sections, but I haven’t been able to win entire runs so this was a great milestone in my career. Super pumped on that.”
Along with full-time teammate Trevor Philp, also from Alberta and a graduate of DU, Read has the internal team competition, crucial for daily gains. The two are joined by Vancouver’s Riley Seger, who splits time between the national speed and tech teams, and Montreal’s Simon Fournier, who is currently racing NCAA with DU and supported by the Quebec provincial team and Alpine Canada as part of the NextGen program.
The start to the 2020-21 prep season was a rocky one, quite literally as Read was forced to engage in his other passion of hiking when the Canadians were shut down due to COVID-19-related travel bans. They were able to resume training in Saas Fee in late July but were playing catch-up to other nations.
“We had only a fraction of the days we’d normally have heading into the season,” Read said.
But since the Solden openers in October, the Canadian tech team completed a seven-week training block which got the training volume back up to speed and allowed Read proper time to dial in his equipment and setup.
Ski legs, volume, equipment, confidence. Check, check, check, check.
With the alpine world championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo now two months away and on his mind, Read is maintaining focus on the next step, the next race, the next turn.
“We have so many races up until that point so I’m focussing on what I can do to get as best prepared for the next day. At this point I’m focussing on Alta Badia,” he said referring to the next World Cup GS stop on Dec. 20th.
2010 Vancouver Games, the ultimate inspiration
It was during an unlikely event in 2003 where the spark was lit for Read. While watching the broadcast of the Vancouver bid for the 2010 Olympic Games, “I thought, yeah, this is my goal, I want to go to the Olympics at home … I was 12 years old at the time. At that point I stopped playing hockey, squash, tennis and I started to focus full time on skiing.”
The Olympic allure drew Read in. Even if competing at the 2010 Games was an overly ambitious goal as he would be a mere 19-years-old, the idea of representing his country on the world stage ignited a motivational flame, which still burns today.
With a focus initially on the speed events, it appeared the Mount Norquay-raised racer would follow in his father’s footsteps. “I originally made the team off of speed events, and my first world junior appearance was in speed, so I was trending just like my Dad to be a speed skier.”
But after winning the overall NorAm title in 2012 he started to find his groove in the tech events.
“I was lucky to have my Dad and all his successes, but he always made sure this was my journey and that I shouldn’t be doing it for him … so that fire and passion really was coming from myself.”
Other motivations for Read included a Banff neighbour, Thomas Grandi, the last (and only) Canadian man to win a World Cup giant slalom. The four-time Olympian struck gold in back-to-back weekends in Alta Badia, Italy, and Flachau, Austria, in 2004.
“He was my No. 1 idol growing up, he also came from Mount Norquay so when he won his first GS and then followed it up a few days later, it was a pretty big moment for the Bow Valley and ski racing in Canada as a whole.”
Grandi has been sending Read and Philp encouraging messages, reminding them how close they really are to reaching the pinnacle of the sport. Grandi’s coach when he won those World Cup races in 2004? Dusan Grasic, the current head coach of the men’s tech team, including Read and Philp.
And that first World Cup GS win by Grandi happened in Alta Badia, the site of this weekend’s race (GS on Sunday, slalom on Monday).
It appears that the stars are aligning for a ski racer who has put in the time, managed what some believed was impossible – winning in the NCAA and chasing World Cup success at the same time – and discovered that the long and winding path is not a bad way to go.