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Bad back forces retirement of world champion skier Melanie Turgeon

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QUEBEC (CP) - On the slopes, former world champion Melanie Turgeon fearlessly skied beyond shin splints, a concussion, blown knee, broken wrist, wrecked shoulder and a myriad of back problems, including two herniated discs.

But it was the looming prospect of retirement that really scared her. Turgeon, 28, tearfully announced her retirement Thursday before family and friends in Quebec City near the hill where she started skiing as a toddler, before her memory begins.

Long a leader on Canada's national women's ski team, Turgeon realized the end was near in August during training runs on the soft snow of the Chilean Andes. Her back just could not support her on high-speed runs despite two gruelling years of rehabilitation.

"It took all my courage . . . " Turgeon said, breaking into tears and pausing to compose herself. "It took all my courage to realize that I was no longer able to get to the level I was at before.

"For me, finishing 20th really doesn't interest me."

Turgeon described herself as "pig-headed," but it was that determination that allowed her to come back from a steady string of injuries throughout her career.

The effort finally paid off in February 2003 when she returned from her latest rehab to win to the world downhill championship at St. Moritz, Switzerland.

Turgeon saved a special tearful thank-you for her parents and longtime coach Piotr Jelen, who saw her through her injuries and the stifling pressure and unrealistic demands imposed on a young ski prodigy.

"(Jelen) always believed in me and made me the best skier in the world in February, 2003," she said. "We accomplished it together.

"He's my great friend, my mentor, my partner for life."

Ken Read, a former national team member and the president of Alpine Canada, had nothing but praise for Turgeon.

"Melanie is a great champion," he said in a statement. "Through her determination, she brought an enormous positive influence on Canadian sport and acted as a tremendous ambassador for alpine ski racing.

"Melanie remains one of Canada's most successful ski champions. Through her willingness to take time to speak and ski with young ski racers, she brought a positive influence which continues to inspire future generations of Canadian champions."

National team members Emily Brydon of Fernie, B.C., and Genevieve Simard of Montreal both said Turgeon set the bar high for the Canadian squad.

"Mel had an amazing career and she has set a high standard for younger generations of female speed skiers," said Brydon. "She filled the gap between the Kerrin Lee-Gartner's, the Kate Pace's and us, the younger girls."

Added Simard: "Mel leaves us with a rich heritage. She opened doors for our entire team on the World Cup circuit and set high standards in terms of performance and results. I wish her all the best with her new projects."

Quebec fans first saw the talent in their midst when Turgeon was just six years old. Grainy footage from old news reports showed her confidently carving the hills around Quebec City when she was barely tall enough to get on a ski lift.

The rest of the world took note in 1994, when Turgeon won the overall title at the world junior championship in Lake Placid, N.Y. and made her World Cup debut later that year.

Turgeon had eight top-three World Cup finishes in downhill and super-giant slalom. Her one win came at Innsbruck, Austria in 2000.

She competed at the 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics. Her best Olympic result was eighth in the downhill.

Turgeon noted she finished in the top-10 40 times in her 150 World Cup starts, competing in slalom and downhill events.

"I think I can be proud of my career," she said.

The injury that eventually ended Turgeon's career came in a crash during training in Colorado two years ago. She missed all of the 2003-'04 campaign and returned last season only to quit in January after finishing 55th in a practice race in Italy.

She resumed training, convinced she could strengthen her back muscles enough to overcome her slipped disc and other chronic back problems.

Turgeon said she felt liberated when she finally decided to quit after two years of painful rehab and training.

"I really think I did everything I could," she said.

Turgeon plans to take a long break before working with her former sponsors on projects to promote skiing and a line of clothing.

© The Canadian Press, 2005

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