Battle lines drawn for halfpipe skiers 

First Olympic competition has Canadians feeling 'a lot more patriotic'

click to enlarge Feeling patriotic
  • Feeling patriotic

In the beginning, there were no official national teams. No flags to fly. The Canadians who originally organized a self-funded halfpipe ski team under coach Trennon Paynter were a bit of an exception. For the most part, there was one big community of athletes, and that was it.

But now, as the sport nears its Olympic debut, the competitors are starting to feel the battle lines being drawn across borders.

"I'm starting to feel a bit more like I'm on Team Canada," Whistler's Justin Dorey said before leaving for a final, pre-Olympic tune-up camp in Europe with his Canadian halfpipe teammates.

"Although we are friends with the other countries, we're becoming a real national team, and because we'll be in our own groups for the next little while, we're starting to feel a lot more patriotic."

With an Olympics comes national pride, something that isn't as much of a consideration at traditional freestyle events like the X Games. But the new feeling of skiing for a whole country comes in the middle of what's been an awkward season at times for the athletes.

"This whole season's been weird in terms of qualifying for the team because you were competing against your fellow Canadians, and want them to do not as good as you," said Dorey. "It almost made you go against your country and want the other countries to do well, and it's been a backwards season in that regard."

The Canadian, American and French teams are the clear-cut favourites heading into the men's event, which will take place on Feb. 18. In fact, those were the only three countries represented in last month's X Games final.

Considering his consistency over the past two seasons, Mike Riddle is perhaps Canada's best bet for the podium. He's coming off a fourth-place finish at the X Games and is eager for a medal in Sochi.

"I think it's good timing for it," Riddle said of his result in Aspen. "I'd rather finish fourth at X than at Sochi. I'm hungry and ready to go."

However, Dorey has rounded into form this winter after battling injuries in the two seasons prior, and collected this year's Crystal Globe as the overall World Cup champ. He was lucky to come away from the X Games healthy after three brutal crashes in the final, and said he's feeling great ahead of his first Olympics.

"I like the position I'm at," said the 25-year-old. "I'm cruisin' in kinda under the radar here so I feel good and I feel like I can focus. There's no crazy media (on me) like there is on David (Wise) or Torin (Yater-Wallace), the top guys (on the U.S. team)."

Noah Bowman and Matt Margetts have proved they're capable of reaching the podium for the Canadians as well.

On the women's side Roz Groenewoud and Keltie Hansen are Canada's only two skiers after Megan Gunning injured her knee at Aspen last month. Groenewoud has been considered a podium favourite since the sport was announced as an Olympic discipline, and she'll be riding the momentum of an X Games silver she earned just weeks after bilateral knee surgery. The women compete on Feb. 20.

Both Riddle and Dorey said their excitement level has been building as the chance to show their sport to the world approaches. But Riddle said he's fully prepared for what's to come.

"It's going to be really cool to be part of the inaugural ski halfpipe event," he said. "But at the same time, I feel really ready for it because we've been thinking about it for so long and have definitely had time to let it sink in."

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