For Manuel Osborne-Paradis, the tipping point arrived at the local high school track.
Father to Sloane and Toby, husband to Lana, son to Jane, friend to many, four-time Olympian, and one of Canada’s most accomplished ski racers of all-time: Manny was at the track and in the throes of a nasty speed-endurance workout. It was August. For most, summer’s twilight. For skiers, winter’s predawn. For elite level downhillers, the final phase of preparing mind and body for the circus, the white circus. The World Cup.
Manny, 36, was doing kilometre-long sprints. About halfway through his third set, lungs firing, muscles burning, glucose rapidly converting to adenosine triphosphate, Manny did something against his character. He let up. “I just…stopped running,” he said. “I thought to myself, I think I’m done.”
He went home and took a nap. Later that Saturday night, he approached his wife. “He came into my office where I was doing some work,” she remembers. Lana, the founder of Blast Fitness, works as an exercise physiologist, personal trainer and group fitness instructor. In 2018, Impact Magazine named her one of Canada’s top fitness trainers. “We had just put the kids to bed.” Sloane, age three. Toby, not yet a year. “And he sat on the floor. I asked him, “Why are you sitting on the floor?”
Manny: “I said to her, ‘I think I’m done.” It was one thing to arrive at his decision internally, another thing entirely to voice it to those closest. Lana knew right away what her husband was talking about. He was done with being a ski racer. Manny, one of last remaining Canadian Cowboys – an immensely talented generation of Canadian ski racers on par with the Ken Read, Steve Podborski led Crazy Canucks, was retiring. It was the end of an era.
Her response? “She was very supportive,” Manny said. “Surprisingly nonchalant about it.” Yet while Lana may have come across that way, inside, a wave of emotion swept through her. “When he first told me, all the highs and lows from the past sixteen years, it all just flashed before my eyes.” First, there was a relief. She knew how hard of a decision it was. They’d been talking about it more frequently for the past year. Then, some sadness. Coming to a close was a unique way of life. “We have tonnes of friends across Europe, and with his decision, I knew we wouldn’t get to spend as much time with them anymore.” Finally, excitement. “Beyond excited,” she said of his, their next phase.
Manny, born and raised in North Vancouver’s Deep Cove, was on skis by age three. His grandfather was one of Whistler’s first mountain doctors. With grandpa’s A-frame cabin as basecamp, Manny grew up skiing Peak to Creek, Chunky’s Choice, Burnt Stew, Orange Cliffs, Dave Murray Downhill. Early on, he was enrolled in the Whistler Mountain Ski Club. While he may have enjoyed skiing, he loved mountain biking.
Those early teenage years, in Deep Cove, the Mecca of Canada’s nascent downhill mountain biking scene, Manny was at the centre. He looked up to guys like Wade Simmons, Thomas Vanderham: a wild bunch with a vision for what could be done in that newish sport. Manny needed more structure, more coaching. In ski racing, he found both. And, of course, there was the Rob Boyd factor. In 1989, Boyd won Whistler’s World Cup downhill event. Boyd became the first Canadian to ever win a Canadian downhill. Overnight, Rob Boyd was deified in Whistler and in Canadian ski racing.
As a young ski racer, Manny was fast, but never the hands down fastest. Fast enough however, to qualify at age 11 for Topolino, an international junior race held in Italy. And fast enough to eventually win a spot on B.C.’s provincial ski team, based then, out of a small East Kootenay town called Invermere. That was how he ended up here at age 15.
Invermere born, ex-Olympian ski racer Christina Lustenburger was also on that provincial ski team. But it wasn’t the first time they met, “I first met Manny when we both went to Topolino,” Christina said from her home in Revelstoke. After five knee surgeries, Christina retired from the World Cup in 2007 and quickly transitioned into working as a pro free-skier and ACMG ski guide. She and Manny have been friends since Topolino. They moved up the ski racing ranks together. They went to high school grad together. “I’m so proud of Manny and what he’s accomplished. But I am also really proud of him for making this decision to step aside and move onto a new path.”
Upon his arrival to Invermere, not long was it before Manny fell in love with the town and the nearby ski hill, Panorama. Dark, north facing, Panorama is a racer’s mountain. Racers are welcomed to racer conditions. Manny embraced Panorama, Panorama embraced Manny. Steve Paccagnan became Panorama’s CEO in 2013. One of the first things Paccagnan did was to name Manny Panorama’s Director of Speed. “He’s been a huge ambassador for us,” said Paccagnan. “Just a great role model for young ski racers on the mountain. Our relationship has grown exponentially through the years and we all wish him best on his next chapter and congratulations on a remarkable career.”
“[Panorama] is the soul of Canadian ski racing,” said Tim Dattels, a longtime friend, sponsor, and mentor to Manny. Dattels was recently named Chair of Alpine Canada’s Board of Directors and is a managing partner of global private equity firm TPG Capital. He and Manny first met after the Super-G at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver.
In the world of elite athletics, big, colourful personalities are in short supply. To Dattels, Manny stuck out right away. “He’s a highly unusual individual,” Dattels said over the phone from Stinson Beach, California. “He’s extremely gracious, an uber people person, loves conversation and engaging with people.” Dattels, a lifelong ski racing fan, saw parallels in Manny’s skiing and temperament. “On skis, Manny’s a glider. He’s got a flexible personality just like the way he skis,” he said. “Whereas some racers keep to themselves, Manny would come down after one of his runs and be very open, willing to talk. Great with sponsors.” To Dattels, the boot buckle story speaks to who Manny is. So, I asked Manny about the boot buckle story.
The story goes: It’s 2009, and Manny is in the Wengen start hut. Wengen, a classic Swiss stop on the circuit, is the World Cup’s longest downhill with a length of about four and a half kilometres. 30,000 spectators show up every January to watch the spectacle. The Swiss Air Force does an aerobatic flyby. It’s an intense affair. Manny’s at the top, he’s trying to fit in the too-small start hut. His goggles have moisture in them. He’s preoccupied. Nonetheless, he bombs down the track also known as the Lauberhorn. He finishes in the top five. He bumps his six-time Olympian friend, Marco Büchel of Liechtenstein out of the top five. After, they are driving together back to Büchs’ place. Manny is staying with his friend in the lead up to next week’s race in Kitzbühel, Austria – where 30,000+ more Europeans will foam at the mouth as they watch skiers madly hurtle themselves down a near vertical wall of ice. In the car, Manny is irritated. He’s venting to Büchs about placing fifth. He’s being hard on himself. Büchs is trying to help his friend. He’s telling him he should be happy enough with a top five. And then Manny says something along the lines of… “if only I had done my top buckles up.” Büchs looks at him. No more sympathy. Only after his run did Manny notice that he’d forgotten to do his top boot buckle up. Büchs thinking, this guy really is a cowboy.
Manny’s World Cup debut was in 2004. It happened all so suddenly. After his first and only summer on the national development team, he had fantastic early results at the NORAM level, one step down from the World Cup. At the Lake Louise NORAM, he won the two downhill events and was second in the two super-G’s. His teammate (and current head coach of the men’s speed team) John Kucera placed vice versa. After the early season World Cup events at Lake Louise and Beaver Creek, Colorado, a couple of the older guys on the team decided to retire. Next thing Manny knew, he was called up and ranked within the top thirty in the world. He was twenty years old.
His first World Cup podium came a year later. He placed second at the 2006 Lake Louise downhill. His first win came in March of 2009 at Kvitfjell, Norway. Between 2006 and 2010, he went to two Olympic Games and was on the World Cup podium nine times with three wins, two second place finishes and four bronze medals. He had four top ten finishes. Those first six years of his World Cup career, great times. Alpine Canada had centralized the national team in Calgary, and it was the summer after the Turin Olympics when he first met Lana, a kinesiology major at the University of Calgary.
Throughout that period, Manny avoided injury and benefitted from a well funded, organized Alpine Canada. His prospects were promising to go into the Vancouver games. But, it wasn’t meant to be. In the downhill, he placed seventeenth. In the super-G, he didn’t finish. “I can tell you that the Canadians, in particular Manny since it was his home hill, endured an enormous amount of pressure during those games,” said Dr. Stephen French, a leading orthopaedic surgeon specializing in operative sports medicine at Calgary’s South Health Campus. Frenchie, as Manny calls him, started working with Alpine Canada soon after finishing his residency at the renowned Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colorado. And just as Manny first joined the team. Frenchie has had a major impact on Manny’s life. They’re close friends.
Frenchie was in the finish area for the Whistler downhill. He watched as the rising coastal temperatures that afternoon melted the Dave Murray Downhill track. “There was nothing Manny could do but watch. It was agonizing for me, I can’t imagine for him.” The track before Manny got slower and slower with each passing minute before it was his turn. Mother Nature had her way that day. But that’s ski racing. “He never said a word about it, not one,” said Dr. French. “Shows a lot about his character.”
After Vancouver, funding for Alpine Canada evaporated. And then the injuries started to come. Manny’s first knee injury came in 2011 at a race in France. There’s never a good time for a knee injury but this was a particularly bad time. Up until the point he crashed, his was a winning run. To make matters worse, Alpine Canada was in a state of disarray. So much so that after Manny’s crash, the powers that be never got around to placing him on the injury list. As a result, his points were never frozen. When he returned in 2013, he was ranked well outside the top one hundred. It took him two years to return to the top thirty.
But Manny doesn’t hold grudges. Alpine Canada was doing the best they could with what little it had. There’s always a silver lining. Had Manny been on the Austrian, Swiss, or Italian teams, European powerhouses, his spot would’ve been snapped up by the next best hot shot. As dysfunctional as Alpine Canada may’ve been, a spot still remained for Manny upon his return from injury and subsequent search for his speed. And before his return to snow, he spent three months living in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighbourhood. Turned off his phone, got away. Independently, he trained outside the confines of Alpine Canada with Steve Nash’s personal trainer Rich Barretta. He cycled with a triathlon team, trained with expert mixed martial arts gurus. Had the time of his life. Worked hard, played hard, returned to Canada refreshed. Ready to saddle up, haul ass.
Those who seek, shall find. In the 2014/15 season, Manny found his form. He twice placed second at the downhill events in Lake Louise and Kvitfjell. In the 2016/17 season, he captured bronze in the Super-G at the World Championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Chalk it up to a more balanced lifestyle, maturity, experience. That’s life. In the 2017/18 season, Manny attended his fourth Olympic Games in PyeongChang. He finished 14th in the Downhill, 22nd in the Super-G. On the World Cup, he had a season best 5th place in the Super-G and finished 11th overall in the World Cup Downhill rankings.
Going into the 2018 season, Manny was confident. In both mind and body. His World Cup career to date: three wins, four silvers, five bronze medals. Twenty-seven top tens. He had high hopes for the season opener at his old favourite Lake Louise. Who would’ve thought that on a track he previously dominated, he would end up crashing in a training run and breaking his leg so bad as to have almost lost it. Lake Louise for Manny: the highest of highs, the lowest of lows. Lana remembers that day very well. “He was supposed to be in the operating room for like two or three hours. Seven hours later, he came out.”
Frenchie, of course, in charge. “I think I tested every ounce of his education, theories, and experience,” Manny said. When he crashed, he shattered his tibial plateau. Orthopaedic surgeons use a Schatzker classification scale to assess the initial injury. “Manny’s leg was 5.5 plus out of six,” said Dr. French. “It’s an unfortunate trend in ski racing that the severity of injuries seems to be getting worse by the year.” Skiers are going faster, taking bigger risks. “Compared to other sports, ski racing has a different risk stratification,” he said. “When they push out the start gate, commitment is 100%. In no time at all they are going 120 km/h down a steep, icy slope with hardly any protection. And given the level of competition, to win, you have to risk it all.”
The last time Manny saw Frenchie clinically was about two months ago. “His muscle volumes were good, his range of motion was spectacular.” After a year and a half of rehab, Manny had done it. He’d gotten his body back to form. “I still have a little pain but nothing I haven’t dealt with before,” he said.
Had the world not been subjected to a global pandemic, safe to say Manny would be racing this coming season, and on track to compete in his fifth Olympic Games in China. That was the goal. But with the onset of COVID-19 and the disruption it has caused, all the more challenging this comeback season became. “Deciding to retire was an extremely tough decision to make but it was a decision that I made. No one made it for me which is a great feeling.”
So, what’s next? Family time, school time. Manny has an interest in the world of business. Already he’s completed a unique business course catered to professional athletes at Harvard University, and he just started a two-year business degree at Royal Roads University. Right now, he’s in the throes of virtual academic writing and accounting courses. “The world is a mess right now. It’s a perfect time for me to begin the next chapter of my life and work toward completing my business degree.”
Mark Wiseman, friend, sponsor, and Alpine Canada board member, at one time was the head of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. Assets under management, close to half a trillion. Now, he’s the chair of the Alberta Investment Management Corporation. Assets under management, ~$120 billion. Mark is an alpha investor whose philosophy on investing is rooted in long termism. Wiseman is betting on Manny. “I don’t say this about many people, but I think Manny’s going to be hugely successful in his next career,” Wiseman said via Zoom. “He has lots of transferable skills: charisma, personality and he’s smart. He may end up even more successful than in skiing.” To Wiseman, Manny possesses a rare combination of happy go lucky, devil may care attitude with an ability to take calculated risks.
Lana also is aware of that other side of Manny. “He’s an interesting blend of animated and goofy but also very calculated and rational. Manny does everything in life very calculated. He’s very thoughtful. I think it speaks to a lot of his success because in downhill you need both.” However rational the decision to retire was for Manny, at heart it was an emotional decision. And Lana has noticed a change already in Post Ski Racing Manny. “I mean it’s such a massive life and identity change It was his vocation, passion, lifestyle. It was obviously much more than a typical nine to five.” He and Lana talk about different things now. “And he’s starting to find out where things are in the kitchen,” she laughed. Put simply, more mental energy for the many other facets of life.
These brave new times, “a breath of fresh air,” Lana said. And, if you’re wondering, so was I. “Not a chance,” Manny said after I asked him the odds of a comeback.