To make it to the finish of the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park's ski cross course, competitors needed to fly 35 metres, or more, off a massive final jump.
As Whistler's Marielle Thompson soared that distance in the Olympic women's final, she already knew there was a gold medal waiting for her at the end.
"It wasn't really until (I was) in the air on the last jump that I realized I was going to win the Olympics," Thompson told Pique on Tuesday, Feb. 25 from Switzerland. "I kind of had a freak-out in the air... You couldn't see it, but in my head I was freaking out. Then, I kind of realized I needed to re-focus and actually land.
"But it was such a cool feeling, being in the air and realizing that I was going to win the Olympics."
Thompson captured a gold medal in a one-two finish with Kelowna's Kelsey Serwa on Friday, Feb. 21, helping Canada to a four-medal day, the country's biggest one-day haul of the Sochi Games.
Since then, life has been "pretty crazy" for the 21-year-old.
"All my social media was going nuts," she laughed. "I had it all logged out before my race, and I turned it on, and it was crazy the amount of support I was getting. I knew all these people were supporting me, but I was kind of shocked at the numbers.
"When I first logged on to Facebook, my personal one, my news feed was just people talking about me, which was so bizarre, but it was a cool feeling. There was so much support, especially from Whistler."
Thompson raced to the top of the podium the same way she has all season — getting out front in her heats and leaving other skiers in her wake. Just like in her two World Cup victories this season, Thompson won each of her heats en route to gold, and was barely challenged in most of them.
Coming in as the World Cup leader, a Crystal Globe winner and a world championship medallist, Thompson was the favourite going in. But whatever pressure comes with being the best bet for a gold medal, she didn't feel any of it.
With ski cross being one of the last events of the Games, it would have been easy for Thompson to hang out in her room in the Athletes' Village and try to remain focused on her race. Instead, she used the extra waiting time freeskiing at Rosa Khutor and supporting her fellow Canadian athletes as much as possible.
"I knew the pressure was there, but I guess I didn't let it bother me," she said. "I just tried to have the most fun I could. I got to go see Yuki (Tsubota of Whistler) in slopestyle, which was super cool. I got to go to the bobsled track and watch the men's two-man final, which was really cool.
I just went to every event I could and watched every event in the athletes' lounge when I couldn't get to the venue... I was just having the time of my life."
Race-day conditions saw rain and fog roll over the course — a welcome sight for a skier raised in the Coast Mountains range.
"I think I actually said it in one of the heats — the fog started coming in and it started raining, and I was like, 'Yeah! I'm so ready for this,'" Thompson laughed. "I was so stoked and ready to compete. I was just so ready... especially in the start gate for the final. I had done everything I could to prepare, and it was just kind of time to go."
The only adversity Thompson faced on Friday came in her quarter-final, when she got stuck behind Swiss skier Sanna Luedi and had to chase her from the start. When Australia's Katya Crema made an aggressive challenge from third place, Thompson and Luedi made slight contact, and Luedi hit the deck while Thompson skied away cleanly.
B.C. skier Georgia Simmerling, the third Canadian in the race, was eliminated in the quarter-finals and finished 14th.
After communicating with Serwa on course early in the final, Thompson said she had no idea her teammate was holding the silver medal position behind her.
"I never look back, so I just kind of hoped she was there," she said. "I was super stoked. We had a big hug and were just so excited for each other. I think Kelsey said, "Mar, you are an Olympic champion!' or something like that. We were just jumping around with excitement.
"I still can't even really believe it — that I have an Olympic gold medal in my backpack is pretty wild."
Thompson's parents, Pam and Rod, were both on hand to watch their daughter claim that gold medal, and were front-and-centre with other Canadian team members and staff at the medal ceremony when it was placed around her neck. The Whistler Secondary School graduate said her whole body was shaking with excitement and anticipation as she waited for her name to be called at the medal presentation, adding that she was thrilled to share such a special moment with family.
"I'm so glad that they got to go there and experience that with me, and that I made it all worth it — all the crazy travel and trouble with all the visas and stuff," she said. "It made the whole Russia trip worth it for them, I'm sure."
There are just two Olympic gold medals that have been awarded in women's ski cross, and both of them belong to skiers from Whistler, with Ashleigh McIvor winning the first one in 2010.
"I think it's so cool that there's only two of them, and Whistler has both," said Thompson. "When I watched Ashleigh in 2010 on TV — a Whistler girl I'd known my whole life — when I saw her win, I thought, 'Wow, I can do that, too.' It was just kind of a thought, but seeing Ashleigh do that made me realize I could do it, too. To actually do it is just such a cool feeling."
As an Olympic champion, life will most certainly be different for Thompson in the future. But since she's still got a month of World Cup racing left and won't be home until the end of March, that reality hasn't quite hit the easy-going athlete just yet.
"I think when I get back to Canada is when I'll really see a difference. I think I'm prepared and ready for anything that comes my way, but I think it will probably be a shocker when I come home," said Thompson, who added that she is looking forward to celebrating her achievement with everyone who has supported her along the way.
"I just want to share (the medal) with Canada and especially Whistler, and I hope I can do as good a job of it as Ashleigh has in the past four years," she said.
"I'm just really thankful to the great community of Whistler for supporting me — all the coaches, friends, parents and amazing people who have supported me, I really just appreciate all of it.
"I'm really glad I could make Whistler and Canada proud."
MEN'S SKI CROSS SQUAD SHUT OUT
The two-medal performance from Thompson and Serwa took some of the sting out of the Feb. 20 men's race, which saw France sweep the podium and the favoured Canadians out of the medals.
Calgary's Brady Leman made it to the final but couldn't break up the trio of Frenchmen, and any chance of him moving into a podium spot was gone when he fell late on the course.
All three Canadian men earned good start positions, qualifying with top-six times, but Chris Del Bosco and Whistler's Dave Duncan were both eliminated in the first round. Neither skier got through their heat cleanly.
Duncan was second in his heat for a period but lost his footing through a section of rollers and didn't have enough time to catch the racers ahead of him.
"Anything can happen," Duncan, twice a World Cup winner this season, told the Toronto Star post-race. "That's the beauty of sport."
Canada and Slovenia, whose Filip Flisar finished sixth, launched a protest following the race, alleging that the French team made illegal modifications to its skiers' pants, making them more aerodynamic. Had the challenge been successful, Leman would have moved to gold, Russia's Egor Korotkov to silver and Flisar to bronze, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport threw it out.
Del Bosco famously finished fourth in 2010 after crashing near the end of the course in the men's final. Just like the Canadian women have taken top spot in both Olympic races, the Canadian men have now finished one spot out of the medals at both Winter Games.
"It sucked watching my teammate and best friend go through this (four years ago) and it sucks to be so close to the podium," Leman told Sunmedia.
The World Cup schedule resumes March 6 and 7 at Arosa, Switzerland, with Thompson holding a big lead in the women's standings and Duncan tied for second in the men's rankings.
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