For more than 20 years, Maëlle Ricker’s life revolved around race days.
“You don’t realize how much intensity you had until you stop doing it,” the winner of the 2010 Olympic gold medal for snowboard cross told the Georgia Straight. “I loved that feeling in the start gate when you’re getting ready to grip the handles and you’re so honed in on one thing that you can block out everything else. Getting to focus on one simple thing, I really loved that.”
After her 2010 win at Cypress Mountain—just a short drive from the home where she grew up in West Vancouver—Ricker remained at the top of the sport, placing third in the 2012 Winter X Games and capturing another gold medal at the 2013 FIS Snowboarding World Championships. Then came 2014, another Olympic year, when she was on track to defend her title in Sochi, Russia.
Two weeks before the opening ceremonies, Ricker was training in Aspen, Colorado, on a course she’d raced down many times before. But this time she took a jump wrong and came down hard on her arm. Barely two weeks before Ricker was scheduled to compete, she looked down to see her right radius bone had broken and punched through her skin.
Miraculously, she recovered in time for the event but failed to hold on to gold, washing out in the semifinals.
Another serious injury occurred before that year’s end, in late August.
“I had that fall ahead of Sochi and then I tweaked my knee again,” Ricker recounted at a waterfront coffee shop in North Vancouver.
“I tried my absolute best to rehab from that,” she continued. “I got back onto the snow, I went back to a training camp in South America, but I just knew that I wasn’t there anymore. And I promised myself that if I had that realization, that I wouldn’t drag it out and that I would stop. And I could just feel that I wasn’t going to be able to push through it like in previous years. For some reason, it felt different. A switch flicked. I just knew it was time.”
Ricker announced her retirement from professional snowboarding in November 2015. That winter, for the first time in two decades, she wasn’t training for a race.
For professional athletes, life after competition can amount to an existential crisis. But although Ricker said the transition was definitely a big one, she found support in the same place she had for as long as she could remember: her team. Today, Ricker still represents Canada’s national snowboard team, but as a coach instead of as a rider.
“I would still love to be getting ready for race season,” she said. “I’m not going to lie. But I still do get to do that, just in a different way, so it’s cool….In some ways, it’s really different. But in some ways, it’s still the same. I find comfort in that. I’m still on the team.”
With a laugh, she added: “The thing that’s scary, obviously, is that I’m not the one controlling the board anymore.”
Alongside two senior trainers, Ricker is working with both the men’s and women’s teams this year but said she’s most focused on five girls aged 18 to 25. “Which is pretty cool,” she said. “Finding effective ways that I can give my 20 years’ racing experience back to these younger girls.”
That keeps her on the mountain full-time for most of the year.
“We just finished a month-long camp in South America,” Ricker said. “The only day I didn’t put my snowboard on was the day we flew from Chile to Argentina. Now the team is finishing up a big block of strength and conditioning training off snow. And then next week we go to Europe and we’ll be in Europe until Christmas.”
The priorities right now are the FIS Europa Cup in Pitztal, Austria, this November, then the World Cup, which opens in Montafon, Austria, in mid-December. But Ricker said the team is already thinking about Pyeongchang, South Korea, where the Winter Olympics are happening in 2018, and even working on the team’s long-term development ahead of the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.
“They’re all so young,” she said of her team. “It’s going to be really exciting.”
Asked about her time participating in the Olympics, Ricker said the home-field advantage was something special.
“To compete in an Olympics in your home country, and then in your hometown, and then, literally, in your back yard…” she said. “Yeah, it was pretty unreal.”
But it was not her victory or even the speed—which can approach 100 kilometres an hour in the straight sections of a snowboard-cross course that precede a jump—that Ricker said she thinks of the most.
“The bigger thing was the years leading up to the Games and how much support the Canadian athletes had and how much we worked as a team to perform on that day,” she said. “Those were my strongest memories. Not actually the day of the race, but the progression leading up to the day and how much fun we had.”
Going back further, Ricker recalled how it was her appreciation for camaraderie that led her out of her earliest focus in snowboarding, halfpipe, and pushed her to the more team-oriented racing format.
“My fond memories from growing up snowboarding are with my brother,” she began. “We would go up to Blackcomb and Whistler and there were these big spring sessions in the park, where everybody is hiking the pipe for hours at a time. That’s where you really develop strong sessions in the snowboard community. Those fun sessions where everybody is out trying new things and pushing each other. So I really love competing in halfpipe. But I was drawn into snowboard cross in the end because that’s where I felt like I could progress more, and I really loved the team environment with the snowboard-cross group. I really loved the approach.”
All these years later, Ricker said it’s still that feeling of belonging to a team that draws her to the mountain.
“I love watching the athletes still and I feel everything they’re feeling,” she said. “I still really want to be on the mountains every day. And this is a really great way to continue that.”