The Tahoe couple’s 8-year return to the Olympics


Lake Tahoe’s fastest couple on skis is acutely aware of how an Olympic dream can end in an instant.

Or, in their case, two cases, exactly four weeks apart.

But the anxiety Travis Ganong and Marie-Michèle Gagnon are feeling as the Beijing Games approach has nothing to do with memories of their ACL tear in late 2017, forcing them to miss the Olympics in South Korea.

Gagnon described how coronavirus concerns turned into “panic mode” in mid-January. Just days before the Quebecer who is competing for Canada was due to race in Zauchensee in Austria, she answered the phone with a sniffle.

“I’m a little sick,” she said. “I had about 12 tests, all negative for COVID. Everyone is walking around, panicking.

The worldwide wave of omicron has rocked this FIS World Cup season, pushing top riders aside and decimating support staff. In December, the American Mikaela Shiffrin, n°1 in the general classification, missed two races. In January, COVID reportedly cut the staff of the U.S. women’s team in half.

In a sport where timing is everything, the same could be said of the coronavirus: catch it at the wrong time, miss the Olympics.

Opening ceremony: 3:30 a.m. Friday

First medal in alpine skiing: Men’s downhill, 7 p.m. Saturday

TV: NBC, Peacock (streaming)

It’s not something Gagnon, 32, and Ganong, 33, can afford to risk.

“Before, the only thing stopping us from going to the Olympics, if you qualified, was getting hurt. It was like the only scare you had,” said Gagnon, who overcame his bug to place fifth in the Zauchensee downhill on January 15, his best result in the discipline. “It’s not that it changes things for us. But we’re sure to think about it, like trying to do everything we can, because yeah, we missed last time. Let’s hope that’s not the case this time.

The initial threat has passed: they qualified for Beijing, ending an eight-year wait to return to the top of their sport. These Games will be Ganong’s second and Gagnon’s third, and they realize that avoiding the virus in China is just as essential to avoiding another disappointment. Of the 379 athletes and team officials who arrived in Beijing on Monday, 11 tested positive, organizers said.

Travis Ganong of the United States arrives at the finish line during a men’s Alpine Skiing World Cup super-G in Bormio, Italy, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Luciano Bisi)

Luciano Bisi/Associated Press

“There aren’t many opportunities in a skier’s career to come out of a starting gate in an Olympic downhill,” said Ganong, a Truckee native. “And as far as the American people and the world are concerned, that’s the only race we do.”

Competing in the downhill speed and Super G events, they both rank atop their country’s teams in the World Cup standings.

Ganong is 15th overall, with four top-10 finishes and his first career Super G podium, finishing third in Beaver Creek, Colo., on Dec. 3. Gagnon is 32nd overall and the only Canadian woman in the speed disciplines. Before flying to Beijing, she finished ninth in the downhill from Garmisch-Partenkirchen on Saturday in Germany.

Their careers traced parallel paths. Both started skiing shortly after learning to walk. The races soon followed. They met at a pageant in Canada, bonded by their nearly identical surnames, and spent 14 years together. They have both been on the World Cup podium five times, winning gold twice, and Ganong won silver in the downhill at the 2015 World Championships.

In September, on a hill in Switzerland with a view of the Matterhorn, Ganong proposed. She said yes. (No, they won’t hyphen as Ganong-Gagnon, and she will keep her last name, as is the tradition in Quebec, she said.)

They have lived together in Tahoe City since 2014 and are down the street from the childhood home of the late Jimmie Heuga, the last male alpine skier from the United States to bring home an Olympic medal to Tahoe. In 1964, Heuga won bronze and Billy Kidd silver in slalom at Innsbruck to become the first American to medal in alpine skiing at the Games.

Ganong and fellow downhiller Bryce Bennett, his Palisades-Tahoe teammate, represent a chance to end not just this regional drought, but the US men’s team as a whole. A failure to medal in Beijing would mark the first straight shutout on the Olympic podium for American men in 30 years. Their first chance came in Sunday’s downhill.

Ganong came very close to the Sochi 2014 Games descent, finishing fifth and missing bronze by around three-tenths of a second. The wait for redemption would be long, but he would have a companion in his return.

“It was definitely a tough time,” Gagnon said of their absence from the PyeongChang Games, “but because we shared it together, I think it made it a lot easier and it got better. passed much faster.”

Canada's Marie Michele Gagnon crosses the finish line during a Women's World Cup downhill alpine ski race in Zauchensee, Austria, Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Marco Trovati)

Canada’s Marie Michele Gagnon crosses the finish line during a Women’s World Cup downhill alpine ski race in Zauchensee, Austria, Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Marco Trovati)

Marco Trovati/Associated Press

On November 30, 2017, Gagnon crashed during a practice run at Lake Louise, suffering a dislocated shoulder and torn ACL in her right knee.

She returned to Quebec to rehabilitate closer to her family while Ganong competed in the World Cup. Her races were broadcast locally before dawn, and she had slept through them. But on December 28, she set her alarm clock to watch him in Bormio, Italy.

“Of course I watched it live,” she said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, my God, that didn’t look good.’ And he’s like, unable to click on his ski, and ‘No, no, no.’

Ganong lost control as he initiated a left turn, sliding backwards into the crash barrier and collapsing in a cloud of snow.

Shortly after, they would reunite in Tahoe, where an MRI scan would confirm he had torn his right ACL, which meant he, too, would need season-ending surgery.

Ganong decided it was time to break away from sports. He wouldn’t watch the Olympics from home. Instead, he focused on rehabilitating his body and mind. Once they had regained enough strength, they would spend several weeks in Baja, Mexico, hiking and mountain biking.

“Ski racing is very stressful. It is quite dangerous; you go super fast, the margins are so tight. For you to get on the podium, you have to take a lot of risks. … It wears you out,” Ganong said. “I just completely blocked all of that out, and that was great because it allowed me to completely reset and refocus and come back motivated.”

Travis Ganong of the United States speeds down the course during a men's Alpine Skiing World Cup downhill practice in Kitzbuehel, Austria, Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Giovanni Auletta)

Travis Ganong of the United States speeds down the course during a men’s Alpine Skiing World Cup downhill practice in Kitzbuehel, Austria, Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Giovanni Auletta)

Giovanni Auletta / Associated Press

For Gagnon, the recovery would prove surprisingly arduous compared to her return from a broken leg at the age of 18, she said. When she won bronze in the Super G on January 1, 2021 at a World Cup race in Germany, it was her first podium finish in nearly five years.

“I’m really proud to have gotten back to this level, even though it took a while, and the same goes for Travis,” she said. “I’m glad we both worked hard, and I don’t think we ever doubted that. Because if we doubted that, I don’t think we’d be in the sport, in a way.

Ganong credits this “forced break” with giving his body a chance to rejuvenate. Even before the accident, he regularly suffered from back pain and patellar tendonitis in his other knee, he said.

“All those things are gone,” Ganong said. “It was fun pushing on the skis again.”

These Olympics will present a unique challenge beyond navigating strict coronavirus protocols. Little is known about the Xiaohaituo Mountain course, as the pandemic has made a real test event at the newly built station impossible. Until recently, no skiers outside of a select group of Chinese racers had experienced the terrain or the composition of artificial snow, which comes from what Ganong understood to be “not very clean water”.

“Apparently the water they use has a lot of salt and clay in it, so the snow they make has a different feel and texture,” he said.

A different feel might be the slogan for this Pandemic Winter Games, but as Ganong said, nothing compares to pushing open a starting door at the Olympics, which he and his fiancée will soon be doing, for the first time. in eight years.

If COVID permits.

Canada's Marie Michele Gagnon speeds up the course during a Women's Alpine Skiing World Cup downhill practice in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Alessandro Trovati)

Canada’s Marie Michele Gagnon speeds up the course during a Women’s Alpine Skiing World Cup downhill practice in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Alessandro Trovati)

Alessandro Trovati/Associated Press

“It’s a very tricky situation that we’re all heading into, and so I just have to try everything I can to limit my exposure, but ultimately it’s not up to me. I could still get it,” he said last month, adding that “we’re all boosted.”

Nevertheless, they wonder about the future of all those who received a ticket to participate.

“There will definitely be people missing from the Games, which will create opportunities for others,” Ganong said. “I mean it’s gonna suck for those people, and I could be one of them. …I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and be excited for the adventure.

Jon Schultz is the assistant sports editor for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @JonSchultzSF


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