VANCOUVER — Sometimes a fraction of a second can alter a person’s destiny.
There are days Kelly VanderBeek wonders how different her life would be if she had been just a heartbeat faster in the super-giant slalom ski race at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics. She finished fourth, a scant .03 of a second off the podium. That tiny margin was the difference between writing her name in Olympic history and just being someone who didn’t win.
Being denied that bronze medal has been a motivation for VanderBeek as she prepares for February’s Olympic Games in Whistler, B.C.
“Things happen for a reason,” VanderBeek says with a smile during a recent interview. “Who knows? Had I got that medal it might have been too much weight on my shoulders and I might not have been able to feel like I could live up to it. I look at it now as part of my history. For me, that experience has made me stronger, and really made me hungry. I know what it feels like to be fourth. Talk about motivation.”
Alpine Canada has set a goal of winning three medals at the 2010 Games. Canada’s last Olympic skiing medal was Edi Podivinsky’s bronze in the downhill at the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway.
The last Canadian woman to reach the podium was Kerrin Lee-Gartner, who won the downhill gold at the 1992 Albertville Games.
Along with veterans Emily Brydon and Britt Janyk, VanderBeek is part of a Canadian woman’s team whose best podium chances are in the downhill and super-G.
Since the Turin Games, VanderBeek has claimed three World Cup podium finishes. She twice was second in downhill races and was third in a 2006 Super-G at Lake Louise.
VanderBeek opened this season finishing 13th in a pair of downhills at Lake Louise and 11th in a super-G. She raced on the weekend after learning of the death of her mother-in-law during the week.
VanderBeek, who will turn 27 in January, is the type of person who packs 10 pounds of emotion into a five-pound bag. The Kitchener, Ont., native bubbles with enthusiasm. She is articulate and intelligent.
Patrick Riml, Alpine Canada’s women’s team director, says VanderBeek can sometimes be too smart for her own good.
“She is very talented,” says Riml, a native of Austria who coached American Lindsey Vonn to the World Cup downhill and overall titles in 2008. “Sometimes she forgets it’s still skiing. You can make skiing very complicated and you can keep it simple.”
VanderBeek’s smiling personality can mask the internal battle that sometimes rages between the passion of her heart and the cold calculation of her brain.
“Your best assets can also be your worst demons,” says VanderBeek. “Over-thinking and being an analytical person, being somebody who really pays attention to the details, sometimes that can hinder me.
“At the end of the day I just need to let it go and race. Sometimes (with) my passion, I can get too excited and try too hard. That stiffens you up a bit. It’s a constant, daily battle.”
Like the rest of the women’s team, VanderBeek struggled last season. She managed just five, top-10 finishes and her best results were a pair of seventh-place finishes in super-G.
Physically, VanderBeek also took a beating. In one terrifying fall she separated both her shoulders.
“I learned a few things,” she says, still wincing at the memory. “I learned I can take a lot more than I thought I could physically and continue skiing. I learned how to deal with fear after a big crash and how to over come that.”
VanderBeek enters this season more relaxed and confident. Over the summer she married her longtime boyfriend David Ford, a former world champion whitewater kayaker and five-time Olympian.
“I feel very grounded, very solid, very happy at my core,” says VanderBeek, who now lives and trains in Chilliwack, B.C. “I feel so lucky to know my journey includes him.”
Ford doesn’t pretend to be an ski expert, but he can offer a mental shoulder as VanderBeek gets ready for the Games.
“He’s been there so he knows everything about sport and the experience,” VanderBeek says. “He knows when to kick me in the butt and when to say ’You are getting a little off track here.’ He helps me keep grounded.”
Riml says the extra time the women’s team spent sharpening their technical skiing skills over the summer has paid dividends for VanderBeek.
“It should give her some confidence,” Riml said. “You can see it in her giant slalom. It is so much stronger this year, which should help her in her super-G and downhill. She realized that made a big difference to her skiing right now.”
The Vancouver Games will be VanderBeek’s second Olympics. Although she wants to start a family, she plans to continue skiing past 2010.
“I always thought I would retire after one Olympics, then I realized I was just starting to get good,” she says. “I know I still have more left in the tank.
“It would be ridiculous to work this hard and then quit.”
VanderBeek’s near miss on the San Sicario course four years ago was like having an appetizer waved under her nose. This time, she wants to taste being on the podium, in an Olympics on Canadian soil.
“I know I have a good shot and I have control over it,” she says. “It’s hard to want something this bad, but it’s also exciting to want something this bad.”