Alpine Young Guns: Ben Thomsen

11 August 2011 08:48

By Michael Mastarciyan

After racing on The Streif last January 22nd - the most feared track on the World Cup tour - Canada’s Ben Thomsen appeared to escape physically unscathed.

Watching Thomsen mill around in the finish area I was glad to see the Hahnenkamm rookie in one piece. No broken arms. Legs looked good. Skull looked nice and thick with no apparent cracks or fissures.

Thomsen had skied well on that day, really well in fact for a first timer.

Starting in 50th, the 23-year-old from Invermere, BC managed to ski well enough to crack the top-30, finishing in 26th – not too shabby for his first spine-tingling shot at taming the dreaded Streif in his first Hahnenkamm.

But that night, over dinner, sitting across the table from Thomsen at the team’s hotel, I became concerned over what appeared to be a facial injury that was becoming more and more apparent as dinner went on - Thomsen was smiling so hard, it looked like he was going to break his face or at the very least do permanent nerve damage to the area around his mouth and cheeks.

“Racing Kitzbuehel was one of the best experiences of my life; it’s just such a fun track. You have no choice but to put everything on the line. It has been a childhood dream to race there, and to score points my first time I was pretty stoked. I can’t wait to race there again and I wish every race could be like the top and bottom of Kitz,” Thomsen now says.

“After the race I remember Johno (McBride) saying one of his favorite quotes to me in the parking lot ‘Atta baby, Benny Thomsen… atta baby.’ Jan Hudec also said, ‘smallest guy on World Cup but the biggest balls,’ this was right after I disregarded the safety of my body, sending it down the last section of the course.”

A journeyman racer despite his young age, Thomsen grew up under the tutelage of his father Glenn, an extremely talented ski racer himself who coached for The Canadian Alpine Ski Team and went to four Olympic Games as part of Canada’s national alpine coaching staff.

For eight long years the father and son tandem worked together tirelessly trying to get Thomsen “the younger” onto Canada’s national squad. Then, last fall, after all the years of hard work and training, endless car rides and countless nights spent sleeping on couches while crisscrossing North America on the FIS and NorAm race circuit, Thomsen feared his racing career might be nearing an end prematurely due to less than spectacular results.

“Sometimes things got really tough, I had to skip a lot of training and races to work to pay the bills but I had a lot of help along the way from other club teams who believed in me, without them I would never be where I am today. Sleeping on the floor, or tuning my skis outside in the snow doesn’t bother me, just makes the victory that much more special. Even if I could go back I wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t be the racer I am today without the challenges that were put in front of me, nothing comes easy.”

“Last year came at me so fast I didn’t really have any time to take it all in. Going from thinking your skiing career is over in November to competing at the World Championships in February is a lot to take in all at once. I still haven’t really accepted all of it,” Thomsen now confesses.

Despite being the guy clicking into the boots and zooming down the race course, it’s clear that Thomsen gives his father the credit for the bulk of his success. And you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out the very special relationship between Thomsen “the younger” and “the one and only Glenn-double-N-Thomsen-no-P,” as he’s lovingly and teasingly called by his number one pupil.

“Glenn is just a simple man from Invermere BC. He has coached for pretty much every team in Canada. In the summer he is a mason, pilling rocks to help pay the bills that come with this ridiculous sport, but it works out well, gives me a job, and a dry-land program at the same time - just like Herman Maier. He’s also coached me my whole life, and he still coaches me as much as he can, even if that means sending me an email the night before a big race to tell me all the secrets of ski racing. We get along very well, I try to listen to him but sometimes he doesn’t make any sense ha-ha!” Thomsen says with a chuckle.

Thomsen’s road back from the brink of retirement began with a tryout of sorts that began in March 2010 when he was called up by the national team to race in his first World Cup downhill and Super-G races in Kvitfjell, Norway. The tryout continued at the beginning of last season when Thomsen was told he’d have to race his way onto the team by competing with some of the team’s other junior members for World Cup spots.

It was the opportunity he’d been waiting his entire career for and he wasn’t going to give it up without a fight.

“Glenn raised me to be a World Cup racer, and as a family we have sacrificed everything for ski racing. Ski racing is all I have, but that’s not why I do it, it’s so important to me because I love the sport so much. There is only one reason I have to stay on World Cup - SPEED. Fast, nasty speed!”

Fortunately for Thomsen, “the fight” went well as he managed to race his way onto the start list for the opening of speed season at Lake Louise last November, then got his name on the board for the Super-Gs at Beaver Creek and Val Gardena. But with unspectacular results at these races, as well as at the first two career World Cups in Kvitfjell the previous season, Thomsen knew that his “time to shine” did come with an expiry date.

So on December 18th he clicked into his bindings at the top of Val Gardena’s famed Saslong racetrack and navigated the course and its dreaded Camel bumps for an extremely respectable 16th place finish – again – not too shabby for a first timer.

“There is nothing I can say that will explain how amazing it felt to race down into 16th place. I have never experienced anything like it, and to tell you the truth I don’t know what will ever top that feeling. All the struggles, and sacrifices I made to accomplish that goal, made the great result that much sweeter. Best two minutes of my life!”

And what about the dreaded Camel Bumps?

“The first flight was interesting, I love big air but I didn’t really know what to expect with the Camels, I mean you inspect them and you think ‘how in hell am I going to make that gap!?’ It’s over 60 meters just to the knuckle. Of course you clear it with ease but while in the air and the world is dropping away from you, the only thing going through your mind is ‘I’m not going to make it’. I couldn’t wait to fly over the Camels, the whole course was fun,” Thomsen says.

Not long after Val Gardena, Fate reared her capricious head, and the Canadian team’s speed contingent began to lose members one by one. Louis-Pierre Helie, Robbie Dixon, Manuel Osborne-Paradis all down to injury by the end of January. This, compounded by the loss of John Kucera who was trying to return for a leg injury suffered in November 2009, meant Thomsen’s status would go from roster stand-in to roster shoe-in! And before the end of the season, Thomsen’s race card would include first descents down tracks in Bormio, Chamonix, Hinterstoder, Kitzbuehel and Garmisch-Partenkirchen at the FIS World Ski Championships.

At season’s end, the hungry kid fighting for a spot on the White Circus had morphed from World Cup rookie to World Cup veteran, and by the end of his first campaign Thomsen had two top-20s, two top-30s as well as 18th and 19th place finishes in downhill and Super-G at his first-ever World Championships to show for it.

The ultimate payoff came this past May when Thomsen was named to Canada’s national team – the goal he and his father set so may years back finally accomplished.

Thomsen says he’s busy training and looking ahead to the upcoming season – one that will have tons of competition as injured speed specialists John Kucera, Manuel Osborne-Paradis, Robbie Dixon and Louis-Pierre Helie are all at different stages of return from injury.

“Right now the team doesn’t have enough World Cup spots, so just like last year, I will have to fight for a start position. But I kind of like that, it keeps me hungry and makes me and the others earn it. I plan to only race World Cup but if I need to chase points then a few Nor-Ams and Europa Cups might have to be mixed in. When you are racing down the hill, you might be alone but it’s your team that pushes you and makes you what you are. They help you find that extra gear, and push your limits. I wish every one of my teammates a fast and healthy recovery – but with that said, I hope they’re as hungry as I am,” adds Thomsen with a smile on his face.