Olympic heroes here for WSSF 

Howell to compete for first time since winning gold in Sochi

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JASON RANSOM / COURTESY OF CANADIAN OLYMPIC COMMITTEE - sochi celebration Ontario's Dara Howell reacts to winning gold in slopestyle at the 2014 Olympics. Howell is in town to compete in the WSSF's World Skiing Invitational, her first contest since the Sochi Games.
  • Photo By jason ransom / courtesy of canadian olympic committee
  • sochi celebration Ontario's Dara Howell reacts to winning gold in slopestyle at the 2014 Olympics. Howell is in town to compete in the WSSF's World Skiing Invitational, her first contest since the Sochi Games.

Forget the pressure of skiing for an Olympic medal. It was presenting to some of Canada's richest businesspeople that really made Dara Howell sweat.

Howell and a few other Canadian freestyle skiers who competed in Sochi appeared on a taping of CBC's Dragons' Den last week, seeking financial support for the grassroots level of their sport. And it was just the latest unforgettable experience since the 19-year-old captured the first-ever Olympic gold awarded in women's ski slopestyle.

"Going into the Den was almost more scary than skiing," Howell laughed in an interview with Pique on April 10. "But it was fun. They were all really nice people, and they were ecstatic that we were there with our medals. It was definitely a different experience, one that I'll probably remember forever."

This week, she's chasing some more cash — a chunk of the World Skiing Invitational's $43,500 prize purse. Howell is one of many Olympians who are in town to close out the World Ski and Snowboard Festival, and she's arrived in Whistler after two hectic months since topping the podium in Russia.

In fact, she's barely been skiing.

"I've done about six runs, and two of them were heliskiing," Howell chuckled. "I'm going to Aspen for a couple days before I get to Whistler. That's where I'm hoping I can get everything back, and then show up in Whistler and be somewhat OK to go."

When you hear what life has been like for the Huntsville, Ont., native since the Olympics, it makes sense why skiing might take a back seat.

"It's definitely been overwhelming," Howell said of the craziness that comes with being an Olympic champion. "My town actually threw me a huge homecoming. It was a really fun night. Down With Webster came and played, that was really cool. I've been to Japan for three days, California — I've just been all over. I got to go to the Junos, which was really cool. It's been fun.

"I try and sleep when I can. But mostly, there are so many cool opportunities that have come out of this. I'm just trying to soak it all up and enjoy as much as I can."

Although she might be coming in a little rusty, Howell already looks like she'll be leaving Whistler with a title, before the Samsung Slopestyle women's finals get underway Sunday, April 20, in Blackcomb's Highest Level Terrain Park.

The WSI is once again the AFP World Tour's World Championships — the final event on the tour's calendar — and Howell is No. 1 in the women's slopestyle rankings. A podium finish in Sunday's final will only extend that lead further, and it doesn't look like any other skiers on the start list will be able to stop Howell from finishing on top.

"I'm hoping I can take over that title," she said. "It would be huge for me, just because... the last couple years, I've jumped but haven't quite got that No. 1 spot yet."

TSUBOTA NEARLY BACK AT FULL HEALTH

This weekend could also see Whistler's own Yuki Tsubota compete for the first time since Sochi, as she continues to recover from the injuries she suffered there.

"I'm going to ski the course and see how everything feels," she said Tuesday, April 15, while riding the chairlift. "It's been getting better over the past few weeks."

Tsubota cased the last jump in the Olympic final when trying to stick a 900, slamming her head into her knee, resulting in a concussion and cheekbone fractured in two places.

"It collapsed the cheekbone in, so they had to pop it back out," she explained. "I got surgery two weeks after I got home, and so I'm seven weeks out now and I'm pretty much healed up."

Tsubota became one of the most famous fifth-place finishers of the entire Games after the clip of her violently spectacular crash made highlights everywhere. The 20-year-old said she was amazed by the number of people who reached out with messages of support over social media after seeing her stretchered off the course.

"It wasn't even just Canada, it was from all over the world. It was amazing," she said.

"All the support from the community has been great. I'm really thankful to have such a great group of people around me."

Although Tsubota was skiing powder shortly after her surgery, she has been experiencing some discomfort since getting back in the park, mostly from some chattering nerves in her top teeth on landings or bumpy terrain. But even with lingering pain and a podium bid that fell just short, Tsubota doesn't look back on the Olympics with any bad feelings.

"It was still such a great experience," she said. "I don't regret anything. I'm happy with how I did, so it wasn't too terrible.

"It was amazing."

Olympic bronze medallist Kim Lamarre has also made the trip to Whistler and will be a podium favourite on Sunday.

MEN'S SLOPESTYLE FIELD STACKED

Although Nick Goepper looks to have the AFP men's title secured for the season, many of the top talents in men's slopestyle skiing will be showing up Sunday to jockey for final position in the tour rankings.

In addition to Goepper, fellow Sochi medallists Joss Christensen and Gus Kenworthy, Canadian Olympian Alex Beaulieu-Marchand, and other podium threats like Bobby Brown and James Woods are just a few of the notable names pre-qualified to the eliminations.

There will also be a bunch of locals trying to ski their way into the final 30 on Sunday through qualifiers taking place April 18. That includes Canadian halfpipe team member Simon d'Artois, who doesn't compete in slopestyle often, but is capable of a strong result. Other Whistler residents among the field of 80-plus skiers include Dean Bercovitch, Matt Crawford, Brenden Reid and Taylor Wilson.

Ten skiers will advance from Friday's qualifiers to Sunday morning's eliminations. From there, the field gets whittled back down to 10 again for the afternoon finals, starting at 1:45 p.m.

AFP BIG AIR TITLE STILL UP FOR GRABS

Many of the skiers who will star in slopestyle on Sunday will also be involved in the Gibbons Life Big Air, the Saturday night showcase event in Skier's Plaza that gets underway at 8 p.m. on April 19.

Defending champ Vincent Gagnier will be on hand as well, with a $6,000 grand prize going to the winner. But the last AFP discipline title of the season will be decided on Saturday as well.

Sweden's Jesper Tjader, relatively unknown before this winter, is having a breakout season and is leading the big air standings heading into Saturday. But Norway's P.K. Hunder is just a few points behind, setting up a head-to-head battle between the two for the season crown.

With Whistler being the final stop on the AFP World Tour, the season awards will be handed out Sunday night at the Bearfoot Bistro.

Kenworthy ran away with the men's overall title for the fourth season in a row, and will take home the Sarah Burke Trophy to mark the achievement. U.S. skier Devin Logan will finish the year atop the women's overall rankings.

Olympic champ Maddie Bowman finished first in the women's halfpipe standings this season, while the men's title belonged to France's Kevin Rolland.

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