B.C. Olympians look forward to the big show in Sochi
Pick me! Pick me!” That approach may work when choosing teams in the school yard, but when it comes to making the Canadian national ski or snowboard team for this year’s Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, the selection process is much more complex.
The largest number of athletes ever vied for consideration for this year’s Games. Results were what counted. Gratifyingly for West Coast shred cred, a gondola load of local skiers and snowboarders made the cut. Herewith is a quartet of competitors, plus an esteemed coach.
In a recent conversation at the Creekside Community Recreation Centre—opposite the former Olympic Village, where she bunked during the 2010 Winter Games—snowboarder Maëlle Ricker told the Georgia Straight she still gets goose bumps when watching her gold-medal race at West Vancouver’s Cypress Mountain.
Certainly, this year’s squad is far bigger than the reigning queen of snowboard cross—a sport in which four competitors race down an undulating course, with the first two finishers advancing to subsequent rounds until a winner emerges in a final heat—could ever have imagined when she sat down with the Straight prior to her inaugural appearance in the 1998 Nagano Winter Games.
Together with Vancouver-based halfpipe team rider Natasza Zurek and parallel slalom racer Ross Rebagliati, the then 18-year-old Ricker was on the first snowboard team to represent Canada when the nascent sport made its Olympic debut. She placed fifth in halfpipe. In the interval following Nagano, Ricker transitioned into cross racing. When that crowd favourite became an official event at the 2006 Turin Games, she experienced a heartbreaking fourth-place finish that made her victory in Vancouver even sweeter.
Now Sochi beckons. Looking back, does Ricker have a favourite venue? “Every Olympics I’ve loved for different reasons. I’m looking forward to Sochi because we’re staying on the mountain and can catch all the alpine events.”
Much like the fate that befell Ricker in 2002, when she missed out on the Salt Lake Games, this season has proven to be a struggle for the athlete, who had already earned a 2014 berth based not on sentiment but on sterling performances on last year’s World Cup circuit, including a gold medal at the FIS Snowboarding World Championships.
First there was the mild concussion she sustained in an early-season race in Austria, then a broken wrist while training for Sochi after the X Games in late January. She’s recovering at home in Squamish now, and she elaborated on her diet by saying her favourite big breakfast is whole-wheat quinoa-blueberry-banana pancakes, as suggested by team nutritionist Dana Lis. She also confirmed that she takes vitamin supplements.
What keeps the Squamish resident going when most of her cohorts have retired? “I’ve spent half my life snowboarding,” she said. “The whole reason I’m still here is that I get to travel to foreign lands like Argentina, where we trained this summer. Unlike the early days, I feel quite spoiled. I eat great food, work out with my friends, and race on super courses.”
Does she have any dietary tips to pass along? “I’m a believer in big breakfasts, then mini meals throughout the day: bananas, dried fruit, and nuts. I’m always snacking on the slope as well as hydrating as much as possible—a few gulps every 15 minutes.”
Another critical difference between Nagano and Sochi Ricker cited is that when she first competed, there were no role models for young women in her sport. She was the groundbreaker in much the same way that female ski jumpers will be this time around.
Nowadays, the self-described “dinosaur” is watching out for younger competitors such as East Vancouver resident Spencer O’Brien, whose sport of snowboard slopestyle is about to get its place in the sun.
“I’ve been mentoring Spencer,” Ricker said as her younger teammate looked on, “cooking for her and training together with the whole snowboard team at Level 10 gym on the North Shore.”
For her part, the 26-year-old O’Brien—who was first featured in the Straight in 2011 and won gold in her discipline at the 2013 Snowboarding World Championships—stated that what sets her cohort apart from earlier trailblazers is clear: “We’re the first generation that has hard-core snowboard moms and dads. Skiing has had massive legacy support for years. Now it’s our turn.”
Although initially drawn to scaling the walls of a halfpipe, O’Brien opted for slopestyle when the mountain nearest to her family’s Vancouver Island home, Mount Washington Alpine Resort in Courtenay, didn’t offer one. “The foundation for freestyle snowboarding begins in the terrain park, where everyone goes off jumps,” she explained. “Beyond that, a lot of riders progress into cross and halfpipe…but everything starts in the park.”
Asked to gauge the progression in her sport since she began competing at age 12, O’Brien said the calibre of riding now is at “an insane level”. Does body size matter? “Slopestyle is a gravity-driven sport, so weight is not as much an issue as it would be in a speed event. I especially like the fact that we compete on the same course as men.”
As slopestyle’s popularity has grown, so has sponsorship. In addition to clothing and energy-drink companies, plus support from Whistler Blackcomb as her home mountain, O’Brien also listed Nike Snowboards (for whom she’s designing a signature model with a lion head rampant) and automobile manufacturer Mazda as sponsors.
Like Ricker, O’Brien learned that the cost of excellence is often paid in injuries. “I competed all last season with back pain and still did okay. This season I’m feeling 100 percent, which gives me even more confidence going into Sochi.”
Does she have any long-term plans once her competitive career finishes? “Not really. Right now, I’m totally focused on living in the moment.”
By contrast, skier Rosalind “Roz” Groenewoud splits her time between rocking the halfpipe and studying science at the privately run Quest University in Squamish. Freshly recuperated after double knee surgery, 23-year-old Groenewoud wasted no time in winning a silver medal in superpipe competition this January at the Winter X Games in Colorado.
What made her victory even sweeter was being presented with her medal by the late Sarah Burke’s father, Gordon. Burke, who pioneered skier halfpipe and whose success at the Winter X Games is widely credited with the sport’s inclusion in this year’s Olympics, died from a brain injury sustained while training in January 2012.
When interviewed in Blackcomb Mountain’s terrain park during air-bag training, Groenewoud told the Straight that although she excels at math and physics, when it comes to the big-air moves she brings to the halfpipe, analysis goes out the window. “My coach, Trennon Paynter, works with me to make sure I don’t overthink my routine. He encourages me to just go out and enjoy myself. Trennon is the only ski coach I’ve ever had. He’s very focused and open to discussion. Most countries envy us for having him as our coach.”
Suddenly, the vivacious skier, whose image graced a 2013 Teen Vogue cover, was surrounded by junior members of the Blackcomb Freestyle Ski Club eager for a photo op. Groenewoud, who makes a point of wearing her favourite shade of red lipstick in competition, emphasized that in a male-dominated sport, women need to assert—not diminish—their femininity. To that end, she handed out lipstick tubes as souvenirs to her female fans as Paynter looked on bemusedly.
For his part, Paynter, a Canadian Olympian in freestyle mogul skiing at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games, was named by ESPN as one of the 50 most influential people in. The Kimberley, B.C., native has come a long way since he first explained to the Straight that he took up competitive skiing because “as a career choice, it beats pounding nails.”
When asked what paved the way for halfpipe skiing’s inclusion in the Olympics, he credited star pupil Burke with persistent lobbying. “There’s already a halfpipe built for snowboarders, so it’s not a big deal for organizers to include skiers as well.”
One of the national team’s youngest members, Pemberton slopestyle skier Yuki Tsubota, who turns 20 just before her departure for Sochi, rode the qualification bubble all season long. A fifth-place finish in the U.S. Grand Prix contest at Park City, Utah, in January—the final competition before Sochi—earned her a spot on the national squad.
Since last April, when she was profiled in these pages, Tsubota has hardly had a day off. “We train on Blackcomb Glacier in the summer,” she said, “plus I’m enrolled online at Thompson Rivers University with the thought of going into business marketing.”
Although Tsubota credited her mother as being her biggest inspiration, her Olympic dream took hold while she was watching Canadian freestyle mogul skier Jennifer Heil win gold at the 2006 Turin Games. At the time, Tsubota was racing moguls on the B.C. provincial freestyle team. “When slopestyle was announced as an Olympic sport in Sochi, I decided to make the switch. I idolized skiers like Sarah Burke and Simon Dumont, and suddenly I was competing with them.
“In freestyle skiing, everyone’s there for each other. It’s the best of all worlds. I started in halfpipe as a kid on the Blackcomb Freestyle Ski Team, then switched to bumps for a while. With slopestyle, especially for the girls, it shouldn’t be about hitting the biggest jumps. There’s more finesse. It’s a judged sport, which can sometimes be unfair, but I try not to let that affect me one bit. I don’t like to stir things up. I’m always pretty good mentally and can keep my concentration, despite the pressure.”
Lest it be thought that youth outweighs experience among local skiers and snowboarders on the Canadian Olympic team, veteran Whistler halfpipe riders Mercedes Nicoll, 30, and Crispin Lipscomb, 34, who made their Olympic debuts in 2006, will also be making the journey to Sochi. Together with Ricker, these pioneers know this may be their last appearance.
Perhaps Lipscomb, who credits his recent study of Buddhism for giving him a more balanced approach to whatever outcomes may occur, put it best when he said the first time he went to the Olympics “it was to go big and to get laid. The second time, it was to get famous and get paid. This time, it’s a more appropriate, human pursuit of excellence, goal-setting, and achieving a task. I think it’s more fulfilling, it’s healthier, and there’s a lot more honour in it for me.”