By Paul Hunter
As a boy, he was hospitalized for asthma, yet he went on to triumph in the gruelling cold-weather sport of cross-country skiing. As a teen and preteen, Lenny Valjas was loath to train seriously and kept switching sports. Even now, the athlete from Toronto, who will compete for Canada at the Sochi Olympics, would just as soon be surfing in Hawaii. And as Paul Hunter points out in his ebook The Unlikely Olympian: Canada's Nordic Skiing Phenomenon Lenny Valjas, the sprinter had to return to Canada in December from training in Europe to get intensive rehab for his left leg. Yet Hunter notes that Valjas has natural talents and a competitive edge that have helped him defy the critics and naysayers. A reluctant Olympian he may be, but Valjas has Olympic drive nonetheless. Just watch him at Sochi.
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The Unlikely Olympian: Canada's Nordic Skiing Phenomenon Lenny Valjas
Lenny Valjas could see his Olympic dream withering away. Anyone who caught a glimpse of his left leg
could. It was that obvious. Six weeks before the opening of the Sochi Games, six weeks before the
quadrennial competition that the Torontonian had viewed with awe since he was in grade school, the
muscle atrophy had reached a crisis point.
It was always an implausible journey anyway: an urban kid becoming one of Canada’s best cross-country
skiers. A boy once hospitalized for asthma succeeding at a gruelling cold-weather sport. A preteen who
quit skiing in a huff, took the season off and, to this day, would be just as happy surfing as
strapping on the misery sticks, somehow turning himself into an Olympian. A teen regarded, even by
himself, as too slow to ever realistically make the national team now earning podiums on the World Cup
circuit . . .
Pick your storyline.
But the implausible was fading to impossible. Valjas didn’t need anyone measuring him with calipers or
a DEXA scan to understand that. “My leg,” he says, “was getting tiny.”
The surgery that Valjas had last summer, on July 10, hadn’t stopped the pain in his left knee. In
fact, instead of providing instant relief, it made the joint feel worse: he still had the relentless
twinge that had troubled him for years, but now it was accentuated by a sharp ache from the knee
scope. Never enthusiastic about traditional workouts at the healthiest of times, he could now do
little in the gym for his left leg. Full squats, anything that bent the knee to about 45 degrees,
caused such agony that he thought he might pass out.
His pain was the ultimate consequence of a small, long-undetected defect in his left kneecap which he
might have had since birth. About six years ago, after a final growth spurt took him to six-foot-six,
Valjas began feeling some pain in the joint. So, like anyone who has discomfort, he began moving a
little differently — in a way that may have been imperceptible at first — to relieve stress on the
Valjas’s knee hurt mostly when his leg was extended, a movement controlled by the quadriceps muscle.
So his body found a way to compensate: using the quad less to avoid pain. Use that muscle less, of
course, and it shrinks, which causes the knee to take more of a load and hurt more. Valjas says it
reached a point where just going up and down stairs caused him pain.
“It’s a vicious circle,” explains Matt Jordan, strength and conditioning coach for Canada’s
cross-country ski team. “It hurts, so you don’t use it, and (when) you don’t use it, it hurts more.
Eventually, you’ve got a new way of moving to avoid the pain. but that causes other issues. If he’s
moved like that for six years, even if the knee gets cleaned up, that other stuff needs to be
Such as that shrinking quadriceps muscle, a key contributor to the explosive power needed in a sport
like cross-country skiing. “I’m almost 200 pounds and I have the tiniest, little left leg,” says
Valjas, the second-tallest skier on the circuit. “So I’m compensating and kind of throwing everything
off. The smaller it got, the more finicky and painful it got. The knee itself is fine. It’s not in any
danger. But (the leg) just isn’t strong enough for how I have to push it. Climbing those hills and
stuff, you need some muscle.”
He had lost more than 10 per cent of the quad on his left side, according to Jordan.
The pre-Olympic results Valjas was putting up in Europe indicated his medal hopes were shrinking, too.
Horrible December finishes, 61st and 70th, at consecutive events in his sprint specialty set off alarm
bells. The rising star on the Canadian ski scene spent the train ride from Asiago in northern Italy,
where he had a World Cup stop, staring out the window but seeing little as he pondered his future.
In Oberhof, Germany, on Dec. 27, an anxious Valjas met with Justin Wadsworth, head coach of the
Canada’s cross-country team. During a grim tête-à-tête in a hotel lobby, he told Wadsworth he was
pulling out of races that weekend. “The whole week leading up to that meeting, I started realizing my
leg was not ready for Sochi,” the 25-year-old recalls. “I didn’t have a plan. I was fizzling.”
Valjas’s Olympic dream would live or die on what happened next. “I guess it was weird news for him, me
saying I don’t want to race, I just want to go home and train,” says Valjas. “It was tough for both of
Wadsworth was blunt. “I’ll tell you like I told him,” Wadsworth recounts. “I said, ‘If everything goes
perfectly well over the next five or six weeks, you might have a good performance at the Olympics. If
things don’t go well, you still have qualified for the team, but if you can’t even do a ski race, and
you’re telling me you can’t, how can I bring you (to Sochi) or race you? “
‘We’re really running out of time. You’ve got to back (to Canada), and it has to be 100-per-cent focus
(on rehabbing the leg) for three or four weeks, otherwise the Games are jeopardy for you.’
“I wasn’t trying to motivate him through fear or anything. I was just giving him the straight goods.”
The race was on to save Valjas’s Olympics.
Wadsworth scrambled to get Valjas a flight to Canada, back to where he could work with a team that
included a strength coach and an osteopath. He was at his home in Canmore, Alta., before the New Year
Olympians are not only built, they also have to be fine-tuned. “For anybody else,” says Wadsworth,
“five or six weeks before the Games and in this position? No chance of a podium. But for Lenny?
Chance. I wouldn’t rule him out.”The convenient narrative would draw a straight line from idyllic
family ski outings at the Hardwood Ski and Bike facility north of Barrie when Valjas was a toddler to
wearing Canada’s colours in the opening ceremonies at Sochi.
However, for Valjas, as in the sport at which he would eventually excel, it’s all about ups and downs.
The path to athletic glory is rarely direct for an Olympian. The assumption might be that a young man
or woman receives a spark of inspiration in a sport and then, after a lifetime of dedicated hard work
and devotion, is rewarded with a chance to appear at the Games representing home and country. While
certainly true in some cases, it doesn’t always unfold that way.
The assumption, too, is that these top athletes were always the best in their field, showing
exceptional skills at every age category, separating themselves on an exorable, truly inspiring climb
to be faster, higher and stronger. But that’s not always the case, either. And maybe there’s
inspiration in that as well.
“I had the slowest start,” recalls Valjas. “Even when I was 16, 17, I really was an awful skier, I was
finishing in the mid-40s at the national championships, and there’s probably only about 60 people. So
when you’re in the bottom third, it’s not a good place to be. There’s really no hope when you’re
there. A lot of people have asked me why I kept skiing, and I have no idea. I was still having fun,
maybe I was close to some of my friends in 40th. I didn’t care that I wasn’t winning. I was still
going hard and enjoying myself.”
Valjas might not be typical, but maybe that is the point. None of the Canadians wearing red and white
at Sochi followed a predetermined pattern to get there.
So here’s the story of how one Olympian, Lenny Valjas, went from a sports-minded kid and weekend
warrior on the ski trails to an athlete with legitimate medal hopes.
Warning: don’t use this as a “how-to” guide. It won’t work for everyone.