Under an overcast sky, Alain Masson stood, clipboard and stopwatch in hand, as a skin-numbing wind conjured tendrils of snow and whipped them across the trail.
Before him, the Yukon ski team lined up for a mass start.
After sending the dozen or so young skiers down Mt. McIntyre’s trails, Masson stepped into the warm clubhouse.
“Torino, minus five and sunny,” he said. “I checked the weather today. It’s always warmer there.”
Masson will put his duties as coach of team Yukon on the backburner for a few weeks to attend his sixth Olympic games, which get underway this weekend in Torino, Italy.
He’s a veteran of the Games in both road cycling (Los Angeles, 1984) and cross-country skiing (Calgary, 1988 and Albertville, 1992).
Although his competition days are behind him, he’s doing what he can to help current crop of Canadian skiers as a wax and ski technician.
Basically, the technicians take care of all aspects of equipment and logistics so the athletes can focus on the race.
“Athletes are fairly nervous before races, and they tend to lose their objectivity,” Masson said. “We help them select skis, make a good decision. If you choose the wrong pair of skis, it can have a fairly negative result.”
The proper wax is critical as well. “Usually, the entire ski preparation can mean seconds, which, at that level, can mean a medal,” he said.
It’s work he knows well: “After my career with the national ski team as an athlete, I did this as a full-time job,” he said.
He spent a few years as head technician, traveling the world cup circuit with the national team. It was his first job.
“I do it now more as a volunteer, just to help out,” he added. “These are the type of skills I can offer, and make a difference at a national level.”
It helps to have an experienced hand on hand when the wax room gets tense.
“Conditions will change close to race time, in the middle of the day,” he said. “It’s always a bit of a panic. We try to do everybody at the last second. It’s a bit of a stressful job, but we like it.”
The Games also provide an opportunity to get together with racing pals like Albertville ’92 teammate and current head tech Yves Bilodeau, who took over the job when Masson moved to Whitehorse.
“It’s been the same core group for many years,” he said. “(Alexandre Bilodeau) is one of my best friends; we competed together forever,” he said.
This year’s Canadian contingent includes 12 athletes (seven men, five women), seven technicians, coaches, cooks and a massage therapist.
Masson said that’s a relatively small team, compared to Scandinavian cross-country powerhouses like Norway, which will likely bring 18 racers and enough of an entourage to pamper them in gold-medal style.
In all, there will be about 100 men and 90 women racing cross-country.
Masson won’t be the only Yukoner in the cross-country camp. Local massage therapist Stephen Wattereus has been traveling with the national team since being hired in September.
“There was an application process, and Stephen asked me for a reference,” said Masson. “I said he would be much better than just a massage therapist, because he’s also a knowledgable skier, and a good skier. He really understands what it’s all about.”
Masson thinks the Canadian team has some good chances this year, at least on the women’s side. “I think they’re the best ever,” he said. “With Beckie Scott third in world cup ranking and Sarah Renner finishing second yesterday, in the last world cup race before the Olympics.
“Chandra Crawford, quite young at 22, won a bronze on Saturday, in the last sprint prior to the games, as well.”
Canadian men, however, haven’t got much hope. “On the men’s side, I would be very surprised if we won a medal,” he said. “Who knows? It’s not impossible. We’ve had Pierre Harvey, who’s won numerous world cup medals, a few gold even. But never at the Olympics.”
It’s fortunate that the Olympics coincide with a relatively quiet period for the Yukon ski team. “It’s pretty much just preparation for our next big events in early March,” said Masson.
“I’ll be back for a few days before I head to nationals in Thunder Bay, with some of our skiers. Some other skiers will be going to Arctic Winter Games. Then we host the westerns in mid-march.”
Masson hopes he can continue to volunteer with the Olympic team.
“The next Olympics are in Canada, so that’s kind of special. If there’s an opportunity to be involved, I’d like to be, it would be special to do it at home.”