Manny Osborne-Paradis: 'In the downhill, anything can go wrong – fast'

'The Manimal' is Canada's big hope in the Winter Olympics – and he's no average alpine purist. Robin Scott-Elliot speaks to the lovable thrill-seeker who's afraid of heights
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The Independent Online

Manny Osborne- Paradis will not look down from the chair lift as he rises up to the start of the Olympic men's downhill in Whistler this Saturday lunchtime. There is no need to, for this is the mountain he grew up on – he knows every twist and turn. But that is not the reason why he will keep his gaze away from the deepening drop below: Canada's great hope to launch their Games in a blaze of glory is not only an explosive, talented and larger-than-life skier, he's also afraid of heights.

"I like doing fun things that involve a little bit of danger, sure – but I'm really scared of heights," said Osborne-Paradis as he sat in a Calgary carwash last week, ahead of the return to his hometown. In many other ways, too, Osborne-Paradis is not a typical downhill Olympian. With his sangfroid, laid-back language and chunky build, his is an approach that smacks more of snowboarder, with the requisite accompanying soundtrack of rap, rock and metal, than alpine purist.

But then Canadian skiers have often been more "out there" than their transatlantic counterparts. Osborne-Paradis, or Manimal as he is known by his team-mates, is the 21st-century heir to the "Crazy Canucks", the celebrated quartet who brought a splash of colour to the European-dominated skiing scene of the late 1970s.

The Canucks, whose tales of derring-do were scripted into a film, may have won acclaim but their actual medal haul was modest; Steve Podborski won a bronze in the 1980 Games in Lake Placid. Osborne-Paradis has the flair, and quirks, to match but he also has the ability to make another ascent on Saturday, to the top of the podium to accept the blue-riband medal of Canada's Games.

"It's going to be big, man," says Osborne-Paradis. "Everyone is really building it up, everyone0 is really pumped – I've never seen Canada so pumped. It's really cool to be part of it."

This will be the third Olympics hosted by Canada and their total of gold medals secured in those Games stands still at zero. Osborne-Paradis is the man shoved forward to break that drought. When he stands in the start gate, the iPod and its eclectic mix of Hollywood Undead and Disturbed stored away ("every genre of music has something I like, but the harder stuff gets me pumped up"), the hopes of a nation will bear down on his broad shoulders.

It is a heavy load and for every Cathy Freeman and her exhilarating run at her home Games in Sydney in 2000 there is a Liu Xiang, who collapsed under the weight of Chinese expectations in Beijing two years ago.

"It's been a little bit more stressful this year," admits Osborne-Paradis. "The whole season has seemed more time-consuming, there's been such a big build-up to the Olympics and the plan to peak at the Games. The extra pressure is there.

"But of course there's pressure. Get used to it. If you can't deal with it then you are in the wrong business. There's no more pressure than the pressure I put on myself. It's just a race – a huge race, but just a race."

He turned 26 on Monday and goes into the race of his life in the form of his life. This was his sixth season on the World Cup circuit and every one has seen a marked improvement. He arrived home ranked as the world's third best downhiller, behind the Swiss pair Didier Cuche and Carlo Janka, with a win at Val Gardena, as well as a Super-G triumph at Lake Louise, to his name from this World Cup season.

"I have never skied this well before," he says. "I am in a really good space of mind. I have been getting better year after year. But in skiing, especially in the downhill, so many things can go wrong and fast, you are on the edge all the time. You have to be comfortable with that."

Osborne-Paradis is a man who exudes comfort, an amiable talker; an athlete seemingly at ease with himself. He does not cut the same streamlined figure that is the downhill norm – the Canadian stands out among the wiry, streamlined Swiss and Austrians who usually fill, or not, the slopes. Is getting down to his fighting weight a problem?

"It's not an issue," claims Osborne-Paradis, without a flicker of resentment at the question. "I've been a lot heavier in the past, up to 98 kilos when racing. Now I'm down to 92. Maybe I just look bad because I've got a terrible posture! It's really not an issue – I work hard in the gym, watch what I eat and my coaches are happy with me. Maybe that will surprise people."

It was in Whistler, the resort town around 80 miles north of Vancouver, where it all began with early guidance from his parents and early races against his grandmother. "I first skied on Whistler when I was four," he says. "I can't really remember much about it, but I do have early memories, bits and pieces, like skiing down Whistler in between my parents' legs. I grew up there and I've had plenty of hill space there – I've had more hours on that mountain than anyone else in the Games."

Downhillers are a breed apart. "The true downhillers have a little bit of craziness," is how Sasha Rearick, the coach of the US men's team, puts it. The Whistler course – "it is in good condition," says Osborne-Paradis – runs to just over three kilometres during which the skiers will touch speeds of 80mph, and Osborne-Paradis, a man judged to be better when taking risks, will be as quick as anyone. His style is uncomplicated and Whistler is an uncomplicated descent. Watch him when he stands at the gate, the cheeks puffed out, staring eyes. He is, to borrow from his own lexicon, pumped.

"It's a frame of mind I like to get into at the start," he says. "It's one of the best moments. I'm pretty excited at the start gate."

What will be his mindset on Saturday, crouching at that gate as a fevered nation, caught up in a surge of sporting desire rarely witnessed in Canada, looks on?

"The build-up has gone on and on, but for sure it's here now," he says. "Soon there will be an Olympic downhill champion on Whistler... it would be a life-changing experience."

But to live that he may just have to prove he has a head for heights after all.

My Other Life: The Manimal

I always listen to music before a run – rap-rock bands like Hollywood Undead, or the metal group Disturbed. away from the slopes, I'm usually on a surf board or a mountain bike. 'If it hurts you're still alive,' is my motto – but I love golf too.

Out of season, I help to run an intensive training camp for the next generation of Canadian skiers – it's called Cowboys Camp. I started it up, and helped fund it through the early years too, and now I run it with a team-mate Mike Janyk.

We watched our families make a lot of tough sacrifices to help us chase our ski racing dreams, so we want to give an opportunity to those who otherwise would not be able to afford it. Skiing at any level does not come cheap.

Mike J and I take 10 kids and pay for them to come up and ski. We, and our sponsors, pay for skis, goggles, food – everything really. We live in the house with them for the week, ski with them, train with them.

It's good to give something back, and it's nice just spending time with kids who ski just for the love of the sport. It's refreshing and reminds us why we do it all in the first place.