After seeing training days and the qualifier cut short and cancelled due to the weather, the Canadian Ski Cross Team woke up on Tuesday morning to colder weather, harder snow and better visibility than they've had since arriving at the Olympic test event in Sochi, Russia. They made the most of the situation, and what competitors called the biggest course of the year, to net three podiums and another top five finish.
Kelsey Serwa won the women's event, while Whistler's Marielle Thompson, who has struggled this season, pulled up in second place. In the men's event, Chris DelBosco returned from a pre-season shoulder injury and surgery to place second in his first event back on the World Cup circuit. Tristan Tafel made a mistake in the semi-finals, but went on to win the consolation final and place fifth overall.
While the team has dominated in past years this season has been challenging with the retirement of two top female athletes — Olympic champion Ashleigh McIvor and Julia Murray — due to past injuries, the death of teammate Nik Zoricic in one of the final events last season, the retirement of veteran Davey Barr, and a run of injuries. Injuries sidelined world champion Kelsey Serwa for most of last season and put DelBosco on the sidelines for the first three months of this season, while affecting other athletes to a lesser degree. As a result, Sochi represents the team's best performance so far in 2012-2013, and athletes are keen to keep that momentum going.
"It's been a bit of a struggle this year to be at the level we've been the last few years, but today we've got three podiums and hopefully that will spark something for the end of the season," said head coach Eric Archer in a post-race press conference.
Kelsey Serwa led the way in every heat, starting with the technical start where a small mistake could sap your speed and leave you with a huge gap to overcome after only the first few seconds of a race. The only time Serwa was challenged was in the final when Switzerland's Fanny Smith attempted an inside pass, lost control and bumped into Serwa. Serwa recovered to take the win, while Whistler's Marielle Thompson was able to pass Smith and earn her first podium of the season.
It was Serwa's second win of the season, although she admitted that she was still skiing tentatively because of her knee injury last season. "I wasn't too confident having to send it big off the features, but I felt if I was in front I could control the race, more or less," she said. "It's still a work in progress and my confidence is definitely building, but I still have a little ways to go until I can go out and say to myself I know I can win this rather than I hope I can win."
The athletes had high marks for the track, after racing on the same course that the snowboardcross athletes did a few days earlier. The original course would have shared the same start and finish as the snowboard track, but would have been different through the middle section.
"The track was awesome... which was a way better decision in my opinion," said Serwa. "It was the biggest course we've seen all year, lots of big jumps and landings, lots of technical features. You weren't doing the same move off of every jump so you had to use your brain out there, which is good."
As for Thompson, it was good to be back on the podium. She won the overall World Cup title last season, but this year has struggled just to qualify for the finals. Despite her disappointment, she never lost confidence in her skiing.
"This year I didn't feel like I wasn't skiing well, so that was a plus, but in qualifying I kept making silly mistakes that cost me a lot of time," she said. "It was not like I was questioning whether or not I was fast enough, but whether or not I could not make mistakes and get a clean run off."
Thompson had a few good training runs in the short windows that the track was open earlier in the week, and said the course suits her style — "lots of air, lots of gliding." She didn't win her first heat, but managed to be the fastest out of the start in the semi-final heat to lead the whole way down. Her start was off in the final, but she still put herself in a position to podium and was reeling in Smith and Serwa when Smith made her mistake.
Thompson said she's not thinking too much about the Olympics next year, or what it means to podium on the Olympic course.
"I'm definitely going to try and focus on the end of the season to finish up strong, but I'm not really thinking about next year yet," she said. "I just try to go once race at a time."
Smith managed to place third on the day, while Swiss skier Emilie Serain was fourth. Georgia Simmerling and Danielle Sundquist also made the finals, placing 13th and 16th respectively.
For Chris DelBosco, a podium was a surprise. He's only been back on snow for a few weeks, and the only ski cross racing he's done was as a forerunner at the last World Cup in Germany.
"You kind of hope you'll be right back at it," said DelBosco. "I've been watching the races and I kind of knew what everybody was doing. I wasn't out of it too much, and it all came together. It was a little surprising to be able to jump back in, but it's something I was hoping for."
DelBosco's shoulder and back injury have more or less healed, he said, and he was able to continue to strengthen his legs and core while his shoulder recovered. As well, there was no muscle or ligament damage, just surgery to repair the bone — something that sped up his recovery and made him more confident that he wasn't going to reinjure himself.
"I'm good to go," he said. "Today was a pretty good test, there were a few pretty good jumps and I made a pretty good pass in one of the heats, and made a tricky move to get back on the line, and did pretty much everything I could do... I can't really be thinking, 'I might crash here' but if I do I'm ready to go."
Victor Oehling Norberg won the race, while Andreas Schauer of Germany and Alex Fiva of Switzerland were third and fourth.
Tafel, who picked up the silver medal in the previous event in Germany, placed fifth, while Brady Leman was 13th and David Duncan 22nd. There were 70 racers in the event with every qualified athlete turning out to see the Olympic course.
There are four World Cup events remaining, all of them in Europe, plus the FIS Freestyle World Championships in Norway.
Moguls team earns two
Over the past two seasons, mogul skier Mikael Kingsbury has dominated on every World Cup course in the world, so why should Sochi be any different?
On Friday, Feb. 15, Kingsbury won gold on the Olympic course at Krasnaya Polyana, with teammate Philippe Marquis pulling up third behind American Patrick Deneen.
"I am excited," said Kingsbury. "I think this is the biggest thing I have won so far in my life so it's crazy. I have never won a World Championship or the Olympics, and this is the Olympic test event."
In fact, Kingsbury is undefeated on the course, having dropped into a Europa Cup moguls contest last year to get a sense of the course and winning that event.
Kingsbury is only on his third season on the World Cup tour, and already has 29 medals to his credit. So far this season he has five gold medals and a bronze, missing the podium only once when his ski popped off mid-course. While he's more or less a lock to compete for Canada in 2014, the win in Sochi guaranteed him a spot in the Olympics.
"I don't know what to say, it's like a dream coming true," he said. "Finally I have the Olympic dream coming to me, it's a dream that started when I was sitting on my couch with my dad and my brother watching the Salt Lake City Olympics 11 years ago, this is where it starts."
For Marquis, one of several strong mogul skiers on the team, a bronze medal was just the thing.
"I came here with a good vision and I skied my best," he said. "I like the course, I like the snow, even if it's difficult," he said. "I'm really happy because this was one of the biggest events of the season and I had my best result. I think I had a great week."
Reigning Olympic champion Alex Bilodeau had a disappointing day after he crashed on his second jump. "I landed just perfect but I guess I was the first man to go in that line and because it was so soft I went deep, my ski dug into the snow and I couldn't do anything," he said. "But it happens, it's nothing you can control and with the slush here it could have happened to anyone."
Simon Pouliot-Cavanagh was ninth, Marc-Antoine Gagnon 13th and Bilodeau 14th.
In the women's event, Americans Hannah Kearney, Eliza Outtrim and Heather McPhie were first, second and fourth with Aiko Uemura of Japan picking up the bronze. The top Canadian was Audrey Robichaud in fifth, followed by Justine Dufour-Lapointe in seventh, Chloe Dufour-Lapointe in ninth and Andi Naude in 13th. The other Canadians, including Whistler's Chelsea Henitiuk, did not qualify for the 16-skier final.
It's only the second event in the past two seasons where a Canadian did not finish on the podium. Justine Dufour-Lapointe had to surrender the women's leader bib to Hannah Kearney but vowed to get it back.
Canadians earn three in ski halfpipe
In halfpipe, Canadian freeskiers earned three additional medals. Rosalind Groenewoud of Squamish secured a spot for herself in 2014 with a silver medal, while teammates Keltie Hansen and Mike Riddle both finished with bronze medals.
"Definitely, I think that being on the podium here gives me a bit of a confidence boost going into next year to know that I can perform well in this pipe," said Groenewoud. "That said, I've won events in pipes I've previously crashed (in), and crashed in events I've previously won in.
"So I know that I need to work really hard this next year because the quality of my skiing tonight definitely wasn't the level it has been this season and definitely is not the quality I want it to be next year. I was just losing focus in between tricks. I'm usually a person that competes a lot better than I train and this event I trained a lot better than I competed. So I've got my work cut out for me."
The women's win went to Virginie Faivre of France while American Maddie Bowman, the top skier so far this year on the pro circuit, placed well back in 11th.
For Hansen, probably the Canadian team's most improved athlete this year, was happy to be on the podium again. "It's really exciting to be on the podium with Roz," she said. "We've both been working really hard this season. She's been really successful and I haven't quite been able to crack the podium yet, so I was really happy to do it here. It just really encourages me that I could really do this and go to the Olympics and (have the) potential for a medal."
For Riddle, who was on the podium a lot at the start of the season and has struggled in the last few contests, a bronze was a good compromise. "Actually, I was just happy to put down a run today because the competitions were tough," he said. "I was so nervous sitting there in third because I knew there were four more guys that are all amazing skiers and if any one of them put down the run I knew they were capable of it would have bumped me. So it was definitely nerve wracking."
Torin Yater Wallace and Gus Kenworthy of the U.S. placed first and second. Noah Bowman also qualified for the finals to place 10th overall, while Matt Margetts and Kristopher Atkinson placed 19th and 26th.
The weather in the mountains surrounding Sochi has been warmer and wetter than usual, and the halfpipe was on the soft and sticky side for competitors. Riddle shared his wins with the team's wax techs for keeping their skis competitive.
Rochon close to podium in aerials
Olivier Rochon was on the World Cup podium five times in 2012 to win the overall World Cup title, but with a new superfinal format in effect and some bad luck with landings he's only earned one bronze medal this season while teammate Travis Gerrits stepped up to earn two medals.
The World Cup test event in Sochi was Rochon's second-to-last chance to get back on the podium this year, and while the day went well for the most part he had to settle for fourth after crashing on his last trick. All of the skiers crashed in fact, but some of the competitors had harder tricks or managed partial recoveries.
"My day was pretty hard," he said. "I pulled my groin in Lake Placid a few weeks ago and I've been struggling with that ever since — and today it was really bad and I was on pain killers. But despite that, in the super finals I did a good jump and I felt good in the air, but the landing was too soft and I punched front (buried his skis in the soft snow and tumbled forwards). Actually, everyone fell and it was really just a matter of who fell the worst and I guess that was me."
Guangpu Qi of China took the win, followed by teammate Zhongqing Liu. Denis Ospiau of Belarus was third.
In the new format, athletes can make as many as five different jumps in a day including the qualifier, and in the one-jump finals and super-finals the athletes have to land different tricks. As a result, athletes have to train a lot of different tricks to ensure that they not only have something new for the super-final, but also to ensure that their last few tricks have a high enough degree of difficulty to win. Jean-Christophe Andre was 19th, while Gerrits, suffering from an ear infection and cold, was 25th.
In the women's competition, Canada's Sabrina Guerin finished her day in 17th. China's Mengtao Xu won gold, followed by Laura Peel of Australia and Tanja Schaerer was third.
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