When Ashleigh McIvor-DeMerit stood atop the Olympic podium in 2010, looking out at a horde of cheering supporters at Cypress Mountain, her thoughts — at least for a moment on the dream day — turned northward.
Though the now-33-year-old had earned her right to call herself an Olympic champion, as well as eternal athletic glory in ski-cross, she recognized the role an alpine festival played in helping set her up for that most memorable of days in February 2010.
A decade before her victory in her discipline of choice, McIvor had pushed some eventual World Cup heavyweights at the Whistler Cup on home soil, an experience that steeled her resolve as a young athlete.
"It was a valuable experience for me as a young skier," she says. "It was a really great opportunity to compete with the world's best at home without having to travel overseas and, really, in many senses, prepared me for the Olympic Games at home."
The feeling McIvor-DeMerit was able to build up while competing — admirably — on home snow was a different experience than her first experience at an international ski race, the Trofeo Topolino in Italy, the festival that planted the seed in the mind of Whistler Cup co-creator Max Meier.
While the bulk of racers cruising through the gates on Whistler Mountain or in Folgaria don't count the mountain as their own, McIvor-DeMerit was one of the stars who shone in front of friends and family at the three-day festival, which brings the top young international ski racers in under-16 and under-14 divisions to the resort to face off with Canadian national and provincial teams, as well as a selection of Whistler Mountain Ski Club (WMSC) competitors.
McIvor-DeMerit says the rare opportunity to race in those conditions as a host allowed her to adjust her mindset.
"To an athlete who wasn't from either location, it probably would have felt pretty similar but for me, it was so different competing at home in the Whistler Cup as opposed to in Italy at Topolino. It felt like any other day of training and that's the mentality I tried to achieve going into the Vancouver Games, that this was like any other day, I'm at home doing what I do. I suppose the Whistler Cup was my first opportunity to try to influence my mind like that," she says, acknowledging there were likely more butterflies fluttering in her opponents' stomachs. "I skied really well. I do remember feeling like I had an advantage because I was at home and I just needed to pretend like it was any other race in our zone but there were a few extra people from around the world.
"I was just able to convince myself like it was just like any other regional race."
Of course, when the national anthems of 23 different countries (Austria, Canada, Slovakia, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, the U.S., France, Japan, Norway, Czechia, Croatia, Germany, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, Hungary, Poland, Iceland, Cayman Islands, Chile and Estonia) have been played to honour winners, it's not your average Teck competition. And looking back to realize that big names like Julia Mancuso, Lindsey Vonn, Mikaela Shiffrin, Tina Maze, Christof Innerhofer, Marcel Hirscher and Mathias Meier all competed as young ski racers on these slopes before enjoying World Cup and Olympic glory makes it clear something special has taken place on Raven, Ptarmigan and Upper Dave Murray for the past 24 years. The Mackenzie Investments Whistler Cup, as the festival is now dubbed, will run from April 13 to 16 as part of its 25th year.
Crossing the pond
Leaving home to go overseas, even if it's only for a few days, can put athletes out of their comfort zone, especially when they've just hit their teenage years.
McIvor-DeMerit, for one, remembered the shock of Trofeo Topolino, which she attended before having the chance to tackle Whistler Cup. She recalls a stark contrast between the two.
"It was so nerve-wracking for me being overseas in an international race like that. It was nice to have the comforts of home and to have an opportunity to shine up against those European competitors because I was the one who felt at home," she says. "They definitely took it more seriously than I did and it was surprising to me that I could compete with them and for years thereafter, to see the athletes that I'd been reasonably close to — from a results standpoint — doing so well on the World Cup circuit later on, that was really a confidence builder."
The flip side, of course, is European and Asian athletes who come to Whistler Cup are dealing with a number of unfamiliar feelings, in many cases for the first time.
For Italian star Innerhofer, a double medallist at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia who also had two top-10 finishes four years earlier in Whistler, said his Whistler Cup experience in 1997 was one of his first times in a country where he wasn't fluent with the language. He also had to fend off practical problems like jet lag while learning to understand the true effect of time zones.
"I said to my coach that I want to call my parents but he said 'No, they're asleep,'" he recalled.
Now 32, Innerhofer had plenty to call home about, as he earned himself a medal, which helped give him a true sense of where he stood in the world of skiing.
"I was with the best ski racers in the world, even only for my age. I could ski with the best," he says. "Before I had done only races in my home in Italy... When I was in Whistler and I got on the podium, I said: 'Oh, I can do it.' The dream was much closer."
Innerhofer, who also boasts a trio of World Championships medals, including a gold, and has posted six World Cup wins among 14 podium appearances, recalls that living the Whistler dream as an up-and-coming competitor all came flooding back when he lined up for the Olympics.
"When I came back for the Olympic Games in 2010 and for the test one year before, I remembered exactly everything — the slopes and the lifts," he says. "I have a lot of nice memories."
Slovenia's Maze was a Whistler Cup phenomenon with five wins — two as a U14 athlete in 1996 and a full sweep as a U16 racer in 1998 — a number matched later by American Shiffrin. Maze recalled having some worries when she first started her journey to the Coast Mountains. However, she met Italian legend Alberto Tomba in the airport as part of her sojourn, and knew then the trip would be a successful one.
"For me this was my first big trip over the sea to Canada. I was very excited. I love skiing because we were travelling all the time to different places. But Whistler was (better than) our trips in Europe," Maze writes via email. "I was skiing so fast and winning so many races that this became my lucky place."
Travelling as a young skier with her coaches and best friends, Maze says there could be a perceived pressure at such a big race, but she sought to keep the sport at its most basic, even if many of the factors such as environment and snow conditions were different from what she was used to. Maze explains the new environment — in addition to the new people and new culture — helped her enjoy the chance to grow as a person and as a skier.
"I always say the snow is white, the gates are red and blue, one turn left and one turn right. I make it simple. It was pure joy to travel there with my ski friends and coaches," she explains. "Adjustments were not in my head at that time. This is kids racing, it should not be too professional yet."
Maze, who won every race on offer in her two visits, acknowledged feeling emotions associated with having "won too much" and saw how others reacted to her dominance.
"You can feel all the emotions that are yours, but you see also emotion from the others," says Maze, who later earned two silver medals at the 2010 Olympics before earning giant slalom and downhill golds in Sochi.
The U.S.'s Mancuso, meanwhile, was the Olympic super-G champion in Turin, Italy in 2006, seven years after she won the same event at the under-16 level here in Whistler. While she had been to the resort on a family vacation in summer, it was the first time the Reno, Nev., native had tested her skills here.
"I loved competing in the Whistler Cup. As a kid, it was exciting and competing in an international event was a first for me," she writes in an email. "I do remember a little bit of snow! But that's what I like. Growing up in Squaw Valley, (Calif.), we get a ton of snow, so those conditions were what I was used to."
Mancuso remembered the Whistler Cup serving as her first exposure to top-flight international skiers like Maze, with whom she'd be neck-and-neck for the next number of years.
"It's really cool to look back and see some of the racers that were in Whistler Cup or World Cup and remember those days fighting against them as a junior," she writes. "I competed against Tina Maze there and it's so cool to look back on those days. It's a great opportunity to see those other nations on the starting list and really start to dream big."
In addition to the event days themselves, Mancuso appreciated her chance in other ways to prove that she was growing up. With the village being pedestrian-friendly, she appreciated the trust adults put in her and her friends to explore the shops and sugar shacks when not competing.
"We loved going to get Beaver Tails!" she fondly remembers. "You are at the age where you start to be let free and not need supervision all the time, so that was cool to have a safe, car-free zone to roam!"
An eye to the future
When the Whistler Cup is held, it's not just parents and coaches keeping a close eye on the results.
Alpine Canada Alpin (ACA) director of domestic sport Dusan Grasic explains that after the organization runs its Rising Stars camps, it already has a good idea of what heights the youngsters might be capable of reaching in the years to come. But the Whistler Cup serves as one of the first major opportunities to put some of those predictions to the test, getting a sense of not only how the Canadian athletes are developing, but seeing what strides athletes from a plethora of big-time ski nations are accomplishing as well.
"For us, it's really important that this is the highest-ranking competition for U16 in Canada that we have. For the most part, in the last couple years where we didn't have U16 nationals, that was the only time where we got athletes from the whole country together," Grasic says.
"Having young athletes exposed to international competition, that shows them what to expect when they grow up and move into the World Cup and World Championships and Olympics. This experience is a great look into the future. They find out that they have to work harder, some of them. They find out that they're very competitive and can compete on the world stage, so it's a real good learning experience for the coaches and for the athletes for the future," adds Grasic, whose son Martin has competed and excelled at Whistler Cup.
"We do really like to see where we stack up against the rest of the world. We want to be winning, but it's not all about the winning. We want to see where we are, even if we don't win, but if we are very close to the best nations like Norway or Austria, then we know that we're doing good work and they'll be successful at the World Cup level. At the same time, if we have a bad year, maybe that's a sign that we have to step up a little bit."
Although races like Topolino can fill that role effectively for Europeans, being way over in Italy makes it impractical to send more than a select few from North America.
"It's really important that we as a country have such a calibre of international racing in Canada because it provides more athletes from Canada the opportunity to attend the races. Otherwise, they would have to compete in Europe, where the cost is quite high and, secondly, we could only send a very limited number of athletes," he said. "Having such a race at home on such a great hill as Whistler — being the site of the 2010 Olympics — I think is very significant."
Effectively, taking the Topolino framework and putting a Whistler spin on it is what cofounder Meier had in mind, when he, Joze Sparovec and Jim Yeates launched the event in 1993. Meier had attended the Italian races with daughter Monica and started to dream about replicating it in North America.
"We realized that we have a great mountain and it would be wonderful for our young children, our juveniles to get involved in something like that so that they don't have to travel to Europe for the level of competition," he said. "We copied all the material and FIS rules and went about re-creating it."
Recalling his fondest memories of the Whistler Cup, Meier says the first year was, of course, a highlight.
Although there were some technical difficulties showing some old race highlights during a gathering at Myrtle Philip Community School, Meier says the racers were still thrilled to be part of the gathering and of Whistler history.
"It was already something much more spectacular than what the kids had ever seen," he said. "We had one barbecue dinner in the old gondola barn down in Creekside. The gondola wasn't running anymore but the barn was still standing for a period of time. We had the big Friday night dinner in the gondola barn, which was pretty special.
"The kids really hadn't had events where so many different nations and speeches and different languages (came together). It was a success right out of the gate."
He also recalls the last major milestone, the 20th anniversary year in 2012, when Maze returned as the reigning champion and acted as an ambassador for the event.
"She had won the overall World Cup and she had participated in the early years and won several times," he recalled. "Her coming back as the best in the world after having run her first races in Whistler, we realized that."
On tap for 2017
Meier, who these days is involved in the race as only a sponsor, says the goal from its inception was to bring in the world's very best athletes, and an immediate sponsorship from Air Canada helped with the costs of bringing over a number of young European phenoms. However, the Americans haven't attended since 2011, though they will find their way north this year.
"There was a period a few years ago where the field was the full size but it wasn't necessarily all the very best kids there because initially, we had that sponsorship with Air Canada. We knew we'd have the top kids there so everybody could measure themselves against them," he said. "It looks like this year we'll have a strong field again, mostly thanks to the Americans coming back."
Race administrator Christine Cogger says the 25th anniversary should be an exciting celebration of skiing and a return to the heights the event was known for in its first two decades.
"The United States is coming back and we are also hosting France, Norway, Switzerland as big teams that are coming to join us this year, so that's a really big thing for us," she says. "There was a lot of chatting back and forth encouraging them to come. What we also did is we pushed the date of the event back by two weeks so we no longer conflict with some of the big European spring races. That allows them to send some teams to us this year."
Reaching this point, Cogger says, is an impressive accomplishment, especially given the amount of sweat equity required by volunteers each and every time. This year, roughly 400 helpers will lend a hand with everything from on-course tasks like gate-keeping and judging, to housekeeping, registration and organizing the banquet.
"It's a big deal. For us to have been operating for 25 years, I'd be hard-pressed to think of a lot of races that last that long. It's for sure ebbed and flowed and it's continued to attract people from across the country and across the world, really," she said. "We've been well supported by sponsors throughout the years, so we're very lucky to have some great partners."
The big Saturday night banquet will act as a retrospective for the event, and a number of other surprises are planned.
"We do have a few surprises up our sleeve," Cogger says.
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