With ski cross, the best take no prisoners

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      Aleisha Cline is a snow leopard learning to change her spots as she mounts her skier-cross comeback. Since withdrawing from competitive sport five years ago, Cline, one of Canada’s most well-rounded athletes, has focused on raising a family in Squamish with her husband, mountain biker Shamus March.

      Five months after giving birth in May to her second child, Asia, she was back on the prowl. In conversation with the Georgia Straight, Cline smiled large. “In August, I felt like a bag of bones going downhill at the Continental Cup in Australia. But I won, which was a big surprise to me. I figured I might as well keep going.” Interviewed during training at Cypress, the four-time Winter X Games ski-cross champion admitted that an unforeseen challenge was learning how to flip the switch from “mommy to meanie” mode on race day.

      Cline’s current quest? Nothing short of a gold medal at the 2010 Olympics. That’s the only bauble not yet on display in her trophy cabinet of ski and mountain-bike honours. On February 6, she’ll take the next step toward achieving her goal at the Freestyle Grand Prix events that preview Olympic action on the aerial, mogul, and ski-cross courses at West Vancouver’s Black Mountain in Cypress Provincial Park.

      Like short-track speed skating, ski cross features fast, furious, take-no-prisoners action among four competitors simultaneously plunging downhill. When reached by phone at his home in Whistler, national alpine ski team alumnus Chris Kent, event coordinator with the B.C. ski-cross team, stated what it takes to thrive in this fledgling Olympic sport: a “diffused focus” frame of mind. “You need a wide view to see the whole group, like Gretzky on a hockey rink, with eyes in the back of your head. Champions like Aleisha look for a hole in the midst of the flow. Once she gets out in front, nobody can pass her.”

      When Kent likened ski cross to a “slow-speed downhill”, he meant that racers are launching off jumps and absorbing gravitational forces in banked corners at speeds of 60 to 70 kilometres per hour, far slower than the 215 that Cline clocked speed skiing at Sun Peaks Resort. Her talent for gliding across both snow and air has served her well. But skill is not all that’s needed to triumph these days. “The girls are really dirty now, pushing and grabbing. They’ll skate into you!” she lamented with a regretful nod to a more chivalrous era. Funny what being elevated into the global spectacle will do to a once tightly knit, fringe sport family.

      In Kent’s experience, cussedness has been a hallmark of men’s ski cross since the sport’s inception in 1994. “When I entered my first ski-cross race at Whistler, I got in the gate next to [American ace] Daron Rahlves. He stuck his pole in front of my ski and I was on my face before I knew it. Such a rip-off!” Despite that still-smouldering memory, Kent said he’d definitely compete if he were a decade younger. “People who do well in this sport have strong alpine-race backgrounds and stand tall, like Stan Heyer,” he said in reference to the national ski-cross team member who spanked Rahlves in the final heat to win last month’s Winter X Games ski-cross crown in Colorado.

      That rivalry is sure to play out again on Black Mountain. That’s where ski-cross and boardercross course designer-builder Jeff Ihaksi recently gave the Georgia Straight a guided tour. The Whistler-Blackcomb millwright draws on his snowboard-racing background “to get a feeling for what the athletes want and how the course should flow by maximizing aspects of the topography. You build using the mountain.”

      Ihaksi shaped his first boardercross course a decade ago at Whistler’s World Ski and Snowboard Festival. By 2006, his talents were in high demand in Turin, where he sculpted the inaugural boardercross Olympic course. This season, the 35-year-old is designing all the World Cup cross courses, though he takes pains to credit his team of groomers. In a tradition originated by a Canadian ice maker at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, Ihaksi predicted there will be more than a few loonies buried among the run’s rollers, tabletops, berms, and Wu-Tangs.

      At a viewpoint that took in both the Lions and Howe Sound, Ihaksi pointed out where the starting gates will be positioned. Cypress’s Upper Forks Trail plummets in steep, tight turns—“B.C.–style”—then unwraps from the forest into a wide-open, X Games course that favours gliders. “Skiers making air in a corner is one of my favourite sights. No matter what feature I throw at them, they’ll master it.”

      Think that Cline doesn’t know that? -

      Access: The Freestyle Grand Prix ski-cross finals run Friday (February 6) between 1 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. For details on World Cup snowboard events slated Cypress from February 12 to 15, visit www.snowboardworldcup2009.com/. B.C. Ski Cross races are scheduled February 14 and March 19 at Red Mountain in Rossland. Atomic Supercross races for skiers and boarders aged 10 to 18 take place on Blackcomb Mountain on March 7 and 8 and March 28 and 29. Follow Aleisha Cline’s blog at www.aleishacline.com/.