Veteran local snowboarder Alexa Loo recognizes that inner peace could help her take home an Olympic medal
Don’t blink. An elite parallel giant slalom snowboard competition, last staged locally at the 2005 World Snowboard Championships in Whistler, is headed this way. When that happens at the 2010 Winter Games, don’t miss the likes of Jasey-Jay Anderson and Alexa Loo in action. The odds of a repeat anytime soon seem slim; in fact, February’s races may well be the last time these two alpine-snowboard trailblazers pass this way. That’s a shame. The rest of the world has seen far more of their speed-suited bodies than most Canadians.
Snowboard racers are reputedly the hardest-working athletes in a world dominated by bad-ass halfpipe freestyle riders and snowboard cross racers. They’re more persistent souls, too. After seasons of training and rehab, coupled with more good and bad fortune than most pain thresholds could tolerate, come February 26 Richmond-based snowboarder Loo will make her sophomore appearance at the Olympic Winter Games. This time, she will be plummeting down old-growth-lined slopes on Black Mountain in West Vancouver’s Cypress Provincial Park, which is the venue for Olympic freestyle ski and snowboard events.
In the past month, the Georgia Straight spoke with Loo during early-season glacier training in Solden, Austria, and again while she was dealing with a leaky roof at her grandmother’s house in Richmond. Talk about typifying the challenges many athletes face balancing home and work. After a decade on the World Cup circuit, Loo sounded more than up for the challenge of dealing simultaneously with tradespeople and a journalist.
By her own estimation, since she began competing in 1997, Loo has entered about 100 World Cup events, seven world championships, and numerous Nor-Am Cup contests, in which she won three gold medals last season. Still, whatever plays out this year, the first Canadian woman to earn a World Cup medal in alpine snowboarding won’t ultimately be satisfied until she adds winning the Mt. Baker Legendary Banked Slalom to her roster of accomplishments.
Canadian women, including Squamish’s Maí«lle Ricker, who won the last three LBSs, have a lock on the classic race first staged in 1985. Owing to a scheduling conflict—the Washington-state event runs each year on February’s Super Bowl weekend—that’s not likely to happen in 2010 as both snowboard cross racer Ricker and her Canadian Snowboard Federation teammate Loo will be in the final stages of focusing on their Olympic events. “Still, I’m hopeful that, come 2011, I’ll get an invitation,” Loo said somewhat wistfully.
Meanwhile, the chartered accountant turned Olympian has got enough work cut out for her in the next six months as it is, including capitalizing on her bronze medal at the Sunday River World Cup in Maine last February. It was a hard-won accomplishment that she acknowledged as a defining moment in her recent career. Understandably, the 38-year-old found the lofty view from the podium most satisfying. “After a long wait [since her previous World Cup top-three finish in January 2006], the podium was a gratifying place to be. You feel this is where you belong. It validates everything I believe about myself and what I’m capable of achieving.”
An oft-repeated judgment in the Book of Changes advises that “Perseverance furthers.” Two key individuals Loo most wanted to credit for inspiring herrecent successes are teammate Anderson, a current world champion, and Olympic racer turned coach Mark Fawcett, the one Ross Rebagliati once credited in a Georgia Straight interview as pivotal to his gold-medal giant-slalom win at the Nagano 1998 Winter Games.
“Since Mark became my coach two years ago, I’ve evolved from being an athlete who could, at best, qualify for a spot in the top 16 finalists in my sport to one who could be a legitimate podium contender in every race,” she said. “His technical skills, plus an ability to explain the finer points of letting it all hang out at speeds of 100 kilometres per hour, are what made the difference. Plus, training with Jasey-Jay and understanding how he squeezes every hundredth-second out of his board has helped me make vast improvements as well.”
Thanks to her “ski crazy” parents, Toni and Charlie, Loo carved her first turns at the Mt. Baker Ski Area in the North Cascade Mountains, the home of snowboarding in the Pacific Northwest. “We had a small cabin in the woods at the base of the mountain where we spent lots of family time. When we weren’t skiing, my dad and I played Scrabble. When I finally beat him, we never played again,” she recalled, laughing at the memory.
After graduating from UBC with a commerce degree, she worked at accounting firm KPMG’s Vancouver office. At the same time, she was drawn deeper into racing after joining the Blackcomb Snowboard Club. Her background as a varsity swimmer and rower made coping with the pressure of blending work and fitness training second nature. And she welcomed the opportunity that competitive snowboarding offered to tour the world.
“At first, I worked at KPMG in summer,” she said. “They gave me the winter off so I could train in winter. Along the way, I managed to write my chartered accounting exam, but I got so stressed before the 2006 Olympics that I left before being able to put in my practicum time.”
Years after embarking on her journey, Loo spoke with pride of the portfolio of life lessons now tucked under her Lycra. “Hard work isn’t always the answer to achieving a dream,” she said. “After working with sports psychologists [like former Vancouverite Dana Sinclair], I’ve learned to reevaluate and develop the personal side of my nature. To succeed, I need to bring the strongest part of my being to this year’s Winter Games. Dana’s style worked for me because I was ready for the message: inner happiness and self-belief are the keys to staring down defeat.”
Loo says the analytical skills she learned from accounting are helpful in her roles as a board member with Athletes CAN, an advocacy group for Canadian athletes, and as a volunteer with the International Paralympic Committee. “As I’ve matured in my sport,” she said, “I’ve acquired leadership and soft skills. I enjoy motivational public speaking, helping people be the best they can be.”
There’s one thing Loo can count on: if she makes a name for herself at the Olympics, she is a shoo-in for a spot in the next Legendary Banked Slalom. Inspired by fellow B.C.–bred racers such as Karleen Jeffery, Victoria Jealouse, Don Schwartz, and Rebagliati, Loo might still achieve immortality—a name plaque affixed to the unpretentious wooden snowboard that occupies a place of honour in Mt. Baker’s day lodge. In the inner sanctum of her once-outlawed sport, glory doesn’t shine with more golden radiance than from that trophy.