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Bubbling up: How athletes in Whistler have kept up their progress in a year without high-level competitions

'Obviously, success is going to look a little different this year than probably what we’re used to it looking like'

With only about a year remaining until the 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing, China, Canadian athletes are ramping up and giving their all to qualify.

For most, even in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, that has meant heading to Europe for a World Cup season of some form, gaining precious points and making the case they should wear the maple leaf on sport’s biggest stage.

But for the Canadian para-alpine team, the 2020-21 campaign has been set exclusively in B.C. as athletes have spent much of the winter at Panorama Mountain Resort before a camp at Kimberley after cancelling a planned excursion to Europe with about three days’ notice. The squad subsequently settled here in Whistler in late February for dryland training, where it will remain until early April.

It’s meant that stars like Mac Marcoux, owner of five Paralympic medals over two Games at just 23, have had to adjust to dramatically different winters than normal.

At Panorama, Marcoux says the rigid timetable sometimes left him feeling more like an office drone than a jet-setting, elite athlete: on-snow training in the morning, lunch, dryland training, physiotherapy, dinner, sleep. Rinse, repeat.

“It gets to be a monotonous schedule,” he tells Pique shortly after posting up in Whistler in late February.

“If we want to keep things interesting, we switch dryland and physio around.”

Meanwhile, Luge Canada’s NextGen program—which could very well supply competitors in Beijing—spent its entire season in Whistler.

Here’s a look at how the two programs have approached such a critical period in an unprecedented moment in sport.

Staying home

Mountain sports are planned at the mercy of enough external conditional factors that participants have to be on their toes at all times, ready to adjust to a postponement, cancellation or change of venue.

But the pandemic has ratcheted that to a whole new level, says Alpine Canada’s para-Alpine high-performance director Matt Hallat, a three-time Paralympian.

“We are adjusting continuously,” he says. “We have a pretty good annual plan set out every spring and there would be obviously be minor modifications to that as always, but at this point in time, we’re pretty much month-to-month looking at adaptations and changes.”

The team was planning to attend the International Paralympic Committee World Championships in Norway in late February before heading to a test event in China, but both were cancelled before the calendar flipped. Even so, the skiers planned to head overseas for training, but with the federal government pondering mandatory hotel quarantines for those returning to Canada (which were later implemented), the team opted to stay close to home for the winter.

Whistler Mountain Ski Club alum Mollie Jepsen, who snagged four Olympic medals including a gold at PyeongChang in 2018, had mixed emotions about the cancellation’s effect on her season.

“It’s obviously really disappointing that we aren’t in Europe right now but I still feel really, really grateful that we’re actually able to be on snow and be training,” she says. “We know that we’re in a situation that not a lot of people are in. Even if people are racing, they’re not getting a lot of training time in.”

Marcoux, meanwhile, says that even though the team ended up with “Plan B,” he’s appreciated what Alpine Canada brass has been able to assemble on the fly.

“Our team has put together a really good training environment over the last couple of months so even though we’re not racing and haven’t had the opportunity to get in the start gates,” he says. “We’re still moving in the right direction even though we’re not racing.”

What success looks like

You’d expect that ripping an entire season of international competition away from high-achievers like Jepsen and Marcoux might be crushing.

But Marcoux says at this point in his career, he’s enjoyed the opportunities presented by the change of pace, ranging from the chance to get “sendy” on Panorama’s slopes to tending to some nagging aches and pains to having a dryland marathon when he’d normally be tapering down his season. As well, he took a mental break from the season rather than train at Kimberley. However, he’s had to handle the stress of new schedules.

“I’m learning to be more fluid with all the plans and rolling with the punches,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of really good days on snow and I’ve had the opportunity to focus on some injuries and making sure that my body’s 100 per cent rolling into the summer and next winter.”

Hallat recalls telling the team in November that it may be difficult to adjust to ever-shifting goalposts, especially when it wasn’t possible to have the simplest rubric of gold, silver and bronze.

“Obviously, success is going to look a little different this year than probably what we’re used to it looking like,” he says. “I defined that as, ‘Can we stay healthy?’ is No. 1 and I mean that in terms of COVID but I also mean that physically, as skiers and then mentally also. Obviously, mental health is a challenge, especially during the pandemic.

“No. 2 is ‘Can we continue to train on the ski hills?’ which was not a guarantee at that point.

“No. 3 was to stay motivated and there were all different ways in which we could try to do that, racing being one of those.”

The team managed to avoid any positive cases of COVID-19, Hallat says.

Jepsen, admittedly, has had some struggles grappling with the latter point, especially once the realization came that heading to Alberta for a possible spring camp may be the furthest she ventures from home this year.

“At times, motivation comes and goes, especially when we were very close to going to Europe,” she says. “At that moment, it was really tough.

“But as a team, we took some time to decompress, come to terms with it, chat about what our motivations are and what’s keeping us going.”

And, all things considered, Jepsen feels she’s been able to make the most of the year, exorcising nerves and tentative feelings on the slopes; with a rediscovered aggression, she’s prepared to add to her medal tally next March in Beijing.

“I’m really happy with where my skiing’s at right now. I’ve had a lot of time to go back to the basics and build back up again. It’s rare to actually have that time,” she says. “I’m at a point where I have a lot of confidence in my skiing right now which is something that I haven’t had in a while because of injuries and illness [a Crohn’s disease diagnosis that caused her to miss all of 2018-19], so I’m pretty stoked about that.”

Hallat, meanwhile, has seen the effects of what a full season can do for some of the up-and-coming para-athletes when they can use veterans as measuring sticks in the absence of organized competition.

“It was really impressive to see the gains that could be made when you go out day after day after day for that length of time,” he says. “The younger athletes are at a point in their career where that’s really beneficial for them and we’ve really seen them excel and continue to close the gap on their more senior and more decorated teammates.”

Whistler or bust

When Luge Canada, meanwhile, made the choice to send only its senior athletes, including Whistler’s Reid Watts, to Europe for a portion of the World Cup campaign, it didn’t exactly find itself with the luxury of choice that its skiing counterparts did.

After the closure of the Calgary track, the Whistler Sliding Centre was the only option for its NextGen athletes.

High-performance manager Sam Edney, a four-time Olympian, says the team created “as much of a bubble as possible” before and during its time in Whistler.

“We put the focus on how we can create as close to a normal daily training environment as possible,” he says. “With the one venue across the country now, we were able to put our focus on how we were able to make Whistler a bit of a safe zone for our athletes.”

Athletes were tested before entering the group, stayed and ate catered meals at the Whistler Athletes’ Centre (WAC) and, apart from an adjustment period in the camp’s early days, adhered to the stringent protocols.

“We created a slogan for that whole time,” Edney recalls, “‘From the WAC to the track and back.’

“That slogan, I think, worked pretty well the entire time.”

Edney says there were “multiple meetings” with athletes prior to bringing the Calgary-based athletes, who make up the bulk of the NextGen program, to Whistler.

“We kept them present in that sense, reminding them of the value that we are able to participate in this and the responsibility is on our group to make sure that we’re able to continue doing that,” he says.

Edney reports that apart from a couple cases of symptom management, the only COVID scare came early in the fall in the form of a school exposure before athletes arrived in Whistler in late October. The exposure delayed one group from arriving on time, as they joined up in November.

“That was the wakeup call even before we even came into that bubble setting, to reconfirm that we’re doing all the right steps,” he says.

One track minds

Even though Pemberton’s Trinity Ellis is classified as part of the NextGen group, she’s far from lacking in international experience, having started racing Junior World Cups in the 2017-18 season, racking up four podium appearances including two wins.

While she was disappointed to be held close to home, she understands the decision in the light of the pandemic. As well, repeating the same course over and over allowed Ellis to hone in on the intricacies of luge in preparation for 2021-22.

“Sliding on the same track over and over again for this whole season was a unique experience. Usually, we’re on a new track every week,” says Ellis, who turns 19 in April. “[It] really allowed me to focus on the smaller things that you don’t get to work on in a normal season.

“I really worked on my position and consistency of sliding and I made some progress, for sure.”

In a similar boat was Calgary’s Cole Zajanski, who has been training at Whistler for more than half of his 19 years.

Zajanski, who made his FIL World Cup debut with doubles partner Devin Wardrope in 2019-20, took the season to work on posting faster start times, and sought to improve his aerodynamic positioning on the sled.

“I pushed myself physically and mentally to see how far I could go,” he says. “On a track with so much training, it was so much easier to accomplish.”

With Whistler still unmatched as the world’s fastest track, Edney emphasizes that, given the confinement to one course, it’s a great place to be to gain run volume and lock in one’s technique. Essentially, if the racers can excel going 130 km/h, it’ll generally translate onto other gliding tracks where they’re maxing out at 120 km/h.

That said, though, some courses require athletes to drive more actively, and losing a year of learning those tracks will result in a gap.

“The biggest thing we miss is getting that volume, that training on those European tracks where the majority of international competitions will be held,” Edney says. “You’ll go to some of these European tracks where there’s more of an emphasis on a rhythm in a driving track.

“[But] if we’re having to be stuck on one track, then Whistler provides a lot of the elements that we need to train—speed being No. 1.”

Zajanski agrees that he’ll feel the loss of time at driving tracks, but notes that Whistler’s velocities will at least create the right mindset.

“Whistler’s more of a gliding track so you don’t have to do too much,” he says. “With the speeds, you have to be focused and can’t be slacking off on the mental area.”

Finding a sense of home

When in Whistler, most of the athletes stick together as a team away from the track, the slopes or the gym, though locals like Jepsen and Ellis are able to stay with family.

Throughout the winter, the visiting athletes have been, admittedly, kind of bored when not practising their sport.

Zajanski says he’s been limited to Netflix, and is at a point where he can’t even pick a favourite selection or two.

“We watched pretty much everything,” he says. “It pretty much blurs together at this point.”

However, teammate Ellis has been granted a little more latitude being at home, enjoying the opportunity to spend time with family to go skiing and sledding.

“Being home this winter for the first time in years, I did a lot more things that I normally wouldn’t do,” she says.

Meanwhile, Jepsen took the opportunity to take strides forward in her post-secondary career at Quest University.

“I thought I’d be on a seven-, eight-year bachelor’s degree program and now I’m actually able to make a dent in it and pick away,” she says.

Looking ahead

While it’s difficult to picture a scenario where tried-and-true performers like Jepsen and Marcoux aren’t selected to head over to Beijing, the situation is in greater flux for the potential first-timers in Ellis and Zajanski, who, pre-pandemic, had hoped to lock up his spot with a strong performance this winter.

“Not knowing what next season will hold for us, I’m still a bit nervous, but I think with what we’ve been able to accomplish this season, we’ll be able to at least get our footing and try to qualify for the Olympics,” he says.

But, looking a bit further down the line, with a brand-new quadrennial kicking off in the 2022-23 season, there may be some changes in how to approach the cycle even post-pandemic if the stuck-at-home athletes found some benefits.

“The pandemic has forced everybody to rethink how they live their lives and we’re no different,” Hallat says. “It’s hard to fully imagine a scenario where we go completely back to what we were before.”

 A new role

While many athletes remained home, former Whistler Mountain Ski Club (WMSC) executive director Mark Tilston took on a new role as Alpine Canada’s men’s head coach this year, heading overseas with the team for months on end.

“It’s definitely a change and during a pandemic, it just makes it harder. You want to come into a position and help to plan or support the plans that are in place, but then plans are moving all the time,” he says. “It definitely makes it a little more of a challenge.”

Tilston appreciates how the team has been careful in adhering with protocols in place on the road.

“Pretty much most things,” he says when asked what differences were present on tour this year. “We’re tested pretty much every few days when we change resorts or change groups [such as when a member of the speed team joins the technical team or vice versa].”

As for the job itself, with a solid grounding of young athletes in place, including WMSC alums Jack Crawford, Broderick Thompson, Brodie Seger, Cameron Alexander, Kyle Alexander and Riley Seger, he’s taken the approach of staying hands-off as much as possible for a team on the rise.

“For me coming in, it’s a lot of observing what’s going on and trying to support the way people are doing things rather than coming in and saying, ‘We’re going to change this,’” he says. “It’s a really good team of staff and athletes.”

Brodie Seger and Crawford have both reached new heights this year, with each taking a fourth-place showings at the recent World Ski Championships.

Tilston will plan to return home to wife Britt, a longtime World Cup racer, and their two children, in late March, fully immersing himself back into the family after his two-week quarantine. He credits Britt’s patience for making his move possible.

“I’m really fortunate having a wife that understands it,” he says. “It certainly doesn’t get easier when you’re home alone with two kids, dealing with COVID protocols.”

The World Cup season will wrap after Lenzerheide, Switzerland on March 21, though Tilston is still awaiting word on whether national events will be held on this side of the pond upon his return.

While he’s among the world’s best racers on the elite circuit, Tilston’s mind didn’t stray far from the future generation that is losing out on racing during some crucial formative years.

“My fear, frankly, is that we’re going to move backwards against the competition,” he says. “It’s a little bit concerning.

“If there’s no races, it’s tough for the kids to be motivated … If you could just take a year and skip racing for training and up your abilities, it would be great, but racing provides a lot of the stimulus and the push for motivation.”