Canada's alpine ski team navigates complex decisions to race this winter

·4 min read

Erik Read wants to "stay positive, test negative" on the longest road trip of his life.

Valerie Grenier just completed her second quarantine at home in three months.

Canada's alpine ski racers are traditionally among the country's most travelled winter-sport athletes. 

The national side is composed of sub-teams competing in men's and women's technical and speed races on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean on any given winter weekend.

World Cup races retreated to Europe this winter because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

How to travel, train and compete in 2020-21 is a game of decision roulette for the skiers and Alpine Canada.

The European Union removing Canadians from its list of approved travellers Oct. 22 adds to uncertainty over athlete movement. 

Countries and even regions within them are the ultimate authority over who gets in, however. 

Professional athletes can also be classified as "sportsmen" and allowed operate as a worker.

"In terms of logistics and operational concerns, this has been a whole new playing field," Alpine Canada high-performance director Phil McNichol said. 

"Right now you're seeing in Europe not just countries, but parts of countries being identified and restricted in different ways."

"A day doesn't go by where there's not some new alert, twist or turn in the challenges that we face."

With spring training in Whistler, B.C., and summer glacier skiing in South America off the table because of the pandemic, Canada's skiers headed to Europe in late July to find snow.

"Our Swiss counterparts, Austrians, Italians and Scandinavians, they all had opportunities in their own countries," McNichol said.

Deciding if, when and for how long to return to Canada, and determining how much the required 14-day quarantine could be detrimental to racing form, was only half the puzzle for athletes.

Those who came home for a break before their racing seasons had to manage the quarantine, figure out when to return to Europe, and prepare for what new new restrictions they might face.

Grenier spent two weeks avoiding her parents in the hallway of their St.-Isidore, Ont., home after racing the season-opening giant slalom Oct. 17-18 in Soelden, Austria. 

The 24-year-old gets a short window of freedom before her anticipated return to Europe next week.

Grenier also quarantined in August after summer training camp, although she and a teammate spent the two weeks at a family cabin.

"So that time was way better," Grenier told The Canadian Press. "This time made sense because we have a long break before next race. It's not until the beginning of December. 

"I really wanted to go home to see my family and friends and boyfriend. It was worth it to me."

Read, who also raced in Soelden, has been in Europe since Sept. 21. The 29-year-old Calgarian intends to stay there until the racing season is over in March.

"I can tell you I brought an excessive amount of clothes," Read said from Italy.

"My strategy was to bring over equipment just to allow myself to do other activities. I don't normally bring my hiking stuff to Europe."

Read feels he's more nimble in adapting to changing rules and restrictions within Europe if he remains there.

The possibility that travel restrictions could tighten on incoming Canadians was another inducement to stay.

"Italy closed ski resorts to the public, but any 'sportsmen' as they call it are able to train," Read explained. 

"We're able to use the training venues no problem. I think it's more if there's broader restrictions then that might shut us down. 

"You're prepared for the idea that we might all of a sudden have to head home if a full lockdown happens across Europe."

Read gives the alpine team's "King of the Road" title to teammate Trevor Philp. The 28-year-old from Toronto hasn't been home since July.

The two men are scheduled to race World Cup parallel GS races Nov. 13-14 in Lech and Zuers, Austria. 

Read says they must be exceedingly careful until then to avoid exposure to the virus.

"If anyone on our team tested positive in that window leading into a race, the entire team is put in quarantine and can't compete," Read said. 

"We saw that happen to the Russians with the first race and they were stuck in a hotel, even though some of the athletes were testing negative multiple times. 

"We're going to be going into every weekend kind of feeling like you have to get lucky again with the testing if you're going to be allowed to compete or not. 

"It's just kind of an added hurdle to overcome every week."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 2, 2020.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press