There’s a feeling of pure freedom when Mac Marcoux is roaring down the mountain at 120 kilometres an hour, the only sounds coming from the crunch of his skis on the snow and the directions from guide Jack Leitch.
The 20-year-old skier’s love of speed carried him to Canada’s first gold medal of the Pyeongchang Paralympic Games, as he and Leitch won the downhill for visually impaired on Saturday.
“It’s a pretty special feeling. It’s just me and Jack and we’re alone on the hill, and we can go as fast as we want … it’s really cool,” Marcoux said with a big grin.
And fast they went, beating silver medallists Jakub Krako and guide Branislav Brozman of Slovakia by 1.42 seconds.
Earlier, Mollie Jepsen of Vancouver captured Canada’s first medal of the Games, a bronze in the women’s standing downhill.
Marcoux, a 20-year-old from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., was raised on a steady diet of adrenalin sports, racing go-carts, dirt bikes and snowmobiles as a kid alongside brother Billy Joe.
But he started losing his vision when he was eight to Stargardt’s disease, and was legally blind by nine.
“When I was young, it was kind of an easy transition because when you’re eight years old, you really don’t know any better, so it was kind of seamless,” Marcoux said. “The biggest part of that was having a supportive family and they never really stopped me from doing what I was doing before. They just kind of regulated it a little more.
“I quit racing go-karts, but I still had the other things … we live outside the city so we carried on with everyday life and they just made it seem like no big deal. I thank them for that.”
Like cross-country skier Brian McKeever, who carried Canada’s flag in Friday night’s opening ceremonies, Marcoux has some peripheral vision but no central vision. He credits McKeever for paving the way to Paralympic sport. The 10-time Paralympic gold medallist and Marcoux’s mom Lee spoke often when he was beginning to lose his sight.
“He was definitely a big role model … he kind of just gave me the tips and pointers of how to get into sport and really go after something, and seeing how successful he’s been, he’s been a pretty awesome role model to have,” Marcoux said.
He and Leitch communicate through radios in their helmets, much like a race car driver talks to his pit crew. The event announcer, who barked out information during the standing and sitting races Saturday, remained silent for the visually impaired runs to prevent interfering in communication.
“It’s kind of like having someone else explain what you can’t see in front of you,” Marcoux said, on the teamwork with his guide. ”I can see enough that I can see where he’s going, but he’s calling a lot more of the terrain changes so he gives me a heads up when it’s bumpy, or when there’s some rolls, or we’re going to get light. It’s kind of like skiing with a buddy.”
Marcoux could see the fluorescent yellow of Leitch’s calves in his ski suit, and the black of ski boots, and the duo carved their line down the course at Jeongseon Alpine Centre in almost perfect tandem Saturday morning, almost as if they were attached by an invisible rope.
“I wore this yellow suit today so he can see better,” said Leitch, a 21-year-old from Calgary. ”The team suit is red and we tried it out, but just the yellow he can see better.”
“The red blends in with the fencing,” Marcoux added.
Marcoux, who originally competed with his brother as his guide, made his Paralympic debut as Canada’s youngest athlete (16) in Sochi four years ago, racing to gold in the giant slalom and bronze in both the downhill and Super G. Billy Joe suffered a back injury right before Sochi, so Marcoux teamed up with Robin Femy. But disaster struck the two in Super G when their mics cut out at the start gate. They raced anyway, Femy hollering instructions over his shoulder to Marcoux, his voice getting lost in the strong wind.
“You can’t really hear much when you’re going that fast, but it made it made interesting and a lot of fun,” Marcoux laughed.
He and Leitch, a former Alberta provincial team skier, teamed up in 2016 and found almost instant success. They raced to four gold medals at last year’s world championships, and Marcoux collected his third consecutive Crystal Globe as the overall winner.
While downhill is one of their strongest events, they could march to the medal podium four more times in Pyeongchang.
Jepsen, meanwhile, finished 4.30 seconds behind gold medallist Marie Bochet of France, and 2.23 seconds back of and silver medallist Andrea Rothfuss of Germany.
Jepsen was the first skier down, and had to wait for 11 more skiers to see if her time would hold up for a medal.
“I didn’t think it would,” she said. “I had some mistakes at the top section, I made up some time at the bottom but I wasn’t very certain it was going to hold up, so it was definitely a very nervewracking experience standing up there waiting.”
Calgary’s Alana Ramsay just missed the podium, finishing fourth with a time of 1:35.21.
“I’m feeling really good with what we had, we didn’t have all the training runs I was hoping to have and that kind of threw me off,” said Ramsay.
Two of the three downhill practice runs were cancelled due to inclement weather.
Canada’s head coach Jean-Sebastien Labrie was selected to set Saturday’s downhill course, an icy, fast track that wound through 41 gates over 2,356 metres, and featured a stomach-dropping blind corner that skiers negotiated through without seeing what lay ahead.
Canada’s team in Pyeongchang is looking to improve on the 16 medals it won four years ago in Sochi.
The Canadian team of 55 athletes and guides arrived in Pyeongchang less than two weeks after their Olympic counterparts completed the most successful winter Games in Canadian history, winning 29 medals for third overall.
The Paralympics run until March 18.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press