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Grief and greatness mark historic year in sports

Loss of athletes overshadows record accomplishments by national teams

In the years immediately before and after the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, one of the dominant stories and themes surrounding our national athletes were the injuries. Dozens of our top international athletes have been sidelined with various ailments, some for weeks, some with injuries so serious that the athletes have missed multiple seasons — or in the case of Whistler ski cross racers Julia Murray and Ashleigh McIvor, or world champion aerialist Warren Shouldice, the injuries helped force the difficult decision to retire while still at the top of their respective games.

2012 added two tragic exclamation points to the injury story with the loss of two great athletes. In January, halfpipe star and freeski legend Sarah Burke succumbed to the head injury she sustained during a halfpipe event hosted by one of her sponsors in Utah; in March, ski cross racer Nik Zoricic was killed after skiing off course into fencing that was ostensibly there to protect the athletes.

Burke's death reverberated far and wide, receiving international attention. Her life's story and her achievements outside of skiing — including her efforts to get ski halfpipe added to the Olympic schedule for 2014 — were every bit as compelling as her performances on the slopes. As a former coach and close friend commented, she was too good to be true.

As for Zoricic, he was an up-and-coming ski cross racer who was steadily gaining momentum in the sport he loved at the time of his death. The circumstances are still being investigated by the International Skiing Federation and Swiss authorities, but Alpine Canada, which sanctions ski cross in Canada, has already taken steps to make the sport safer by hosting a safety summit, talking to experts and sharing its work with the international community of race organizers. Zoricic's family played an active role, even threatening lawsuits at one point to ensure that a full investigation occurs and that safety is taken more seriously in the future. They are driven to ensure that what happened to Nik — who only skied slightly off course while attempting a pass at the finish line — won't happen again.

But if tragedy was the shadow hanging over 2012, then the podium was the light — and this past year Canadian athletes shone brighter than ever in so many ways and in so many different sports, making history at every turn.

In snow sports, Canada finished the season with several overall Crystal Globes on the World Cup circuit — Marielle Thompson in ski cross, Mikael Kingsbury in moguls, Olivier Rochon in aerials and Dominique Maltais in snowboardcross. As well, so many other athletes came close to titles, including Brady Leman in ski cross (second in the rankings), Maëlle Ricker in snowboardcross (second), Devon Kershaw in cross-country (second in distance and eighth overall), Justine Dufour-Lapointe in moguls (second) Kaillie Humphries in bobsleigh (third for women), among others.

The Canadian ski cross and moguls teams finished on top of the world, and Canada claimed the overall Nations Cup title in freestyle for the eighth time in the past nine years with athletes combining for 37 medals on the World Cup tour.

On the pro tours, Canadians also ranked highly.

In the Association of Freeskiing Professionals (AFP) World Tour, Montreal's Kaya Turski placed first overall in the sport of slopestyle while Squamish's Rosalind Groenewoud won the overall title for halfpipe. On the TTR World Tour for snowboarding, Sebastien Toutant placed first overall in slopestyle with big results everywhere he went. Spencer O'Brien won the women's slopestyle title at both O'Neill Evolution and the World Snowboarding Championships, and placed first on the Dew Tour.

This season the snowboard team is looking even stronger with Mark McMorris catching fire at the Dew Cup opener at Breckenridge with wins in slopestyle and big air, and O'Brien placing second in women's slopestyle. Justin Dorey won the first men's ski halfpipe, and Kaya Turski the first women's slopestyle.

Here's an abbreviated list of some of the highlights and firsts for Canadians and locals this past year:

A winter for the history books

• The struggling Canadian Alpine Ski Team finished the 2012 season on a high note with the men's speed team earning four medals in three consecutive races, including Jan Hudec's first career gold, and the women's technical team winning the group's first medals since 2010. Erin Mielzynksi became the first Canadian woman to win a slalom race since 1971, while Michele-Marie Gagnon earned her first career medal.

• In freestyle, the season got underway with the news that ski halfpipe and slopestyle would be included in the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, turning the spotlight to a group of Canadian athletes that have been working for years at the pro level with next to no national support although they ranked among the best in the world. Some of the freeski highlights from 2012 include Rosalind Groenewoud and Kaya Turski winning overall pro tour titles for halfpipe and slopestyle respectively, while athletes individually won some of the biggest pro events including the X Games, Dew Tour, Grand Prix and the AFP World Championships in Whistler.

The team is off to a strong start to the 2012-2013 season as well, with skiers winning five medals at the opening Dew Cup event in Colorado — Justin Dorey and Mike Riddle were first and third in men's halfpipe, Rosalind Groenewoud was third in women's halfpipe and Kayak Turski and Pemberton's Yuki Tsubota were first and second in women's slopestyle. It was one of Tsubota's best results to date in slopestyle, but not entirely unexpected after she placed third in the AFP World Championships in Whistler back in April to wrap up her rookie year. It's a safe bet she'll be moving up from the Canadian Freestyle Ski Team's "B" Group soon!

• In freestyle moguls, Mikael Kingsbury won the overall Crystal Globe in moguls after appearing on the podium 13 times last season. With his win at the World Cup finals in 2011, his medal streak through 2012 and podiums at the first two events of this season, Kingsbury will head into January with a 16-medal streak. More impressive, this is only the 20-year-old's third season on the World Cup tour, and he's already earned 23 World Cup medals! On the women's side, Justine Dufour-Lapointe led the team with eight medals last season, including six silver medals behind Hannah Kearney of the U.S. She's also started off this season with medals in both events to bring her career medal total to 14 since she joined the World Cup tour for 2011.

• For the freestyle aerials team, which has struggled after the retirements of top athletes — and a head injury to world champion Warren Shouldice that would later force him to retire — all of the team's hopes rested on the shoulders of Olivier Rochon — a 22-year-old former gymnast who was actually suspended in 2011 after violating the team's code of conduct. He came back humbled and ready to jump, and succeeded in reaching the podium five times last season. He won his first World Cup medal, then his first World Cup gold and then the overall Crystal Globe. He's back in action this weekend on Jan. 5.

• 2012 was a landmark year for Nordic sports, with the cross-country team posting its best season in history with a total of 14 medals, over three times as many as the previous high of four. Devon Kershaw led the team with six podiums, while Alex Harvey added three medals and Len Valjas two. Chandra Crawford made the podium twice for the women's team, with Crawford teaming up with Perianne Jones to win a bronze in a team sprint event. Overall, the team placed sixth on the Nations Cup circuit, Cross Country Canada's highest finish yet.

So far the team has just one podium to lead off the start of the 2012-2013 season, but athletes are close and are getting closer.

One of the biggest and least expected results for Canada's Nordic skiers was in the sport of biathlon as Jean-Philippe Le Guellec won the men's sprint event on Dec. 1 to make national history. Not only was it his first podium appearance, he also became the first Canadian male to place or win at a World Cup biathlon race. It also marked the first time that a Canadian has won a biathlon event since Myriam Bedard won two gold medals at the Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer in 1994.

• In snowboarding, the team's biggest results were in snowboardcross where Dominique Maltais won the overall Crystal Globe and Maëlle Ricker, returning from a knee injury that required two surgeries, was second overall. Together they combined for seven podium appearances last year, not including X Games or other races. The team lost Olympic silver medallist Mike Robertson, who announced that he was retiring from racing following a head injury, but Chris Robanske stepped up to win the only World Cup medal in men's snowboardcross.

On the pro side, the big news heading into last season was the approval of snowboard slopestyle as an Olympic discipline. It was welcome news for the team with top athletes like Seb Toutant, Mark McMorris, Spencer O'Brien and others leading the charge.

Caroline Calvé made history as the first Canadian woman to win an alpine snowboarding World Cup race last season. She already has one silver to her credit this season to lead the entire alpine team.

• Winter X Games 16 took place in Aspen in January, and Canadians combined for a total of 12 medals to rank second behind the U.S. (27 medals). Seven of Canada's medals were golden. The medal winners were Kaya Turski (gold in women's ski slopestyle), Noah Bowman (second in men's ski halfpipe), Rosalind Groenewoud (first in women's ski halfpipe), Chris DelBosco and Dave Duncan (first and third in men's ski cross), Sam Daniels and Josh Dueck (first and third in men's mono skier cross), Mark McMorris (first in snowboard big air and snowboard slopestyle), Sebastian Toutant (third in men's snowboard slopestyle), and Dominique Maltais and Maëlle Ricker (first and third in women's snowboardcross).

• For the past two seasons, Whistler has played host to the AFP World Championships — the final events on the Association of Freeskiing Professionals' World Tour. For athletes, it's the last chance to earn tour points and contend for overall AFP titles, or to get noticed if they manage to wrangle a spot on the roster. Mike Riddle won the men's halfpipe contest, Rosalind Groenewoud of Squamish was third in women's halfpipe, Vincent Gagnier was second in men's big air and Yuki Tsubota of Pemberton was third in women's slopestyle.

2012 also saw the creation of a new snowboard event during the World Ski and Snowboard Festival, a five-star TTR World Tour sanctioned slopestyle and big air held during The Shred Show. Vancouver Islander Darcy Sharpe, a 16-year-old who has been training with the Whistler Valley Snowboard Club, secured his spot on the international snowboard scene with a win in the big air event and a sixth place result in the slopestyle.

• Whistler hosted two bobsleigh and skeleton World Cup events in 2012 at the Whistler Sliding Centre, one of the last races of the 2012 season and one of the first races of 2013, with athletes taking full advantage of home ice to rack up nine medals, including four gold. In February, Melissa Hollingsworth won the women's skeleton race, pilots Kaillie Humphries and Helen Upperton were first and third in women's bobsleigh, Lyndon Rush piloted the winner in men's two-man bob, and then Rush returned to the podium to claim bronze in four-man. This past November, kicking off another season, Whistler hosted another skeleton event. This time Sarah Reid earned a silver medal in women's skeleton, Kaillie Humphries won gold in women's bobsleigh, Lyndon Rush was second in two-man bob, and Chris Spring piloted his four-man team to a bronze medal — the first medal of his career.

• The Whistler Nordics cross-country ski team has been mixing it up provincially and nationally in the last few years, and this past season two athletes, Nicki Murdoch and Joe Davies, finished with overall titles on the BC Cup circuit. Jenya Nordin, Austin Reith and Brent Murdoch were second in their respective categories, while Michael Murdoch and Benita Peiffer were third.

Two-Wheel Wonders

• Ryder Hesjedal placed sixth on the final day of the Giro d'Italia cycling event this year to secure himself the overall win. It was the first time that a Canadian has won a Grand Tour event in cycling, as well as the first Canadian to stand on the podium at the Giro. He went into the Tour de France as a potential favourite, but was taken out early in a massive crash. Nevertheless, his efforts won him the Canadian Press male athlete of the year award, the Lionel Conacher Award, as well as the most votes in the Canadian Cyclist awards.

• The Canadian Press female athlete of the year award, the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award, went to soccer player Christine Sinclair, who scored all three of Canada's goals in a controversial semi-final Olympic game against the U.S. Sinclair, among others, was highly critical of the refereeing and a couple of strange calls that helped the U.S. tie the game twice and changed the momentum of the contest. Her criticisms cost Sinclair a suspension and fine from soccer's sanctioning body, FIFA, and any chance she might have had at winning their female athlete of the year award, even though the team did go on to win the bronze medal with a win over France — Canada's first Olympic medal in a traditional team sport since 1936.

As well as the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award, Sinclair also won the Lou Marsh Award, which is presented to the top Canadian athlete, male or female, as judged by a panel of sports editors from Canadian newspapers — not just for her Olympic performance, but for the 23 goals and six assists she earned over the season, a record for Canadian soccer as well as the most goals scored by any international player last season.

• In downhill mountain biking, Steve Smith of Nanaimo won a World Cup race in Norway. It was the first time a Canadian man has ever won a World Cup downhill race. Before he went to the event, however, Smith spent a few weeks in Whistler racing at Crankworx, winning the triple crown by placing first in the Garbanzo DH, the Air DH and Canadian Open DH — and earning $17,500 in prize money in the process. Although Whistler can't take all the credit for his results, there's no question that Smith took his momentum from Crankworx to Europe.

• Whistler's Brandon Semenuk may have had a better overall season in 2011, but the last year was remarkable for the 21-year-old freeride mountain bike star for a few reasons: for one, he missed the first few events of the season while recuperating from an injury, but then went on a tear starting in late June with wins at Jump Ship, Chatel Mountain Style, Crankworx Les2Alpes, the Claymore Challenge and the Bearclaw Invitational to pull back into the lead of the Freeride Mountain Bike (FMB) World Tour. He had a few miscues on the top of the course that put him out of contention at Red Bull Joyride in Whistler — an event he won the previous year — to drop back to second in the standings. But he showed up to the final event, Red Bull Rampage in Utah, to move back into first place with a run that might have won without a mistake on a small jump he could probably do in his sleep. Visit YouTube and type in "Brendon Semenuk Rampage" to see it. This was the second consecutive year that Semenuk won the FMB world title, but it was a lot closer this year and he had to overcome a lot of adversity to get it.

• Will Routley, an international pro roadie who grew up in Whistler and was an up-and-coming mountain biker before he switched to pavement, also had a big year in 2012 with a lot of impressive performances with Team SpiderTech Powered by C10. His ability to cover breaks helped a number of his teammates reach podiums, while earning himself the nickname "Artista della Fuga" on the European tour, which translates to "escape artist." A few crashes and illnesses kept him from achieving everything he wanted to this year, but according to his blog (willroutley.tumblr.com), he's getting ready to head back to Europe to bump elbows with the best as a member of an up and coming Belgian team.

As well as all the things he's done as a racer Routley also gained attention in 2012 for an article he wrote that provided a clean cyclist's reaction to the drug scandals that resulted in Lance Armstrong being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles this year. First published in The Vancouver Sun and reprinted by Pique, the letter quickly went viral and brought to light the frustration of clean riders that have been impacted by doping, as well as problems with the way the doping story has been covered in the media. It's definitely worth a read for any road-racing fan.

• Locally, one of the biggest cycling stories of 2012 has to be the performance of Squamish's Neal Kindree. He is the first athlete to sweep every Squamish epic — Ore Crusher, Test of Metal, GearJammer and Just Another Bike Race. He also finished first overall in the very close BC Bike Race and in the 2012 Transrockies Challenge. He placed second in the NimbyFifty in Pemberton and, out of nowhere, was second in the 50km Sigge's P'ayakentsut cross-country ski race after he showed up with a pair of dimes taped to the back of borrowed skis (for balance), wearing a pair of bike tights with shorts on top. He finished just behind national development racer Colin Abbott and ahead of a group of former World Cup racers.

• Also worth mentioning is the Whistler Secondary Storm high school mountain bike team, which is continuing to grow in leaps and bounds. This past year several athletes finished on top of their age categories in the North Shore Mountain Bike League, and over a dozen different athletes made the podium. This season the team will be coached by Katrina Strand with the assistance of other coaches and volunteers — riders are already doing dryland training to get ready for Spring 2013. Standouts on the team were Alex Auger, Matt Riddle, Zach Davis, Max Peiffer, Felix Burke, Matthew Wentzel, Jack Iles, Austin Reith, Edi Schreyer, Mahon Lamont, Tristan Underhill, Nicki Murdoch, Iyla Nordin, Keeley Wentzel and Carly Mann, among others.

• Crankworx Whistler was another huge success this year, with even more events crammed into the 10-day freeride mountain bike festival. Among the new events were the Dual Speed and Style event that combined race timing with slopestyle judging to crown a winner, and the unofficial Whip-Off World Championship.

Locals were a factor in many events, especially in the junior categories where 15-year-old Jack Iles won the title of Prince of Crankworx after winning his age group in every event he entered — the Garbanzo Downhill, the Air Downhill, the Giant Dual Slalom and the Jeep Canadian Open Downhill. Other locals to reach the pro podium include: Katrina Strand, winner of the Pro Women in the Canadian Open Enduro; Chris Kovarik, third in the Garbanzo DH; Claire Buchar, third in the Garbanzo DH, third in the Air DH and second in the Canadian Open.

• Several Whistler athletes took part in the BC Cup series this year, many going on to win overall titles. In cross-country, Whistler's Jesse Melamed placed first overall with 905 points, over 215 more than the next racer in the Junior Men 17-18 age group. Lauren Rosser and Kristin Drygas of Team Squamish were first and second in Junior Women 15-18, with Rosser also claiming the provincial title in downhill. Also in downhill, Jamie Hill of Pemberton ranked first in Senior Women 19 to 29, while Xander Geddes and Jack Iles were third and fourth in Under 15 Men after attending a handful of events.

All events, all the time

It was around the time of the first Whistler GranFondo, way back in 2010, that Whistler really started to embrace the idea of becoming a premier host of sports events beyond the World Ski and Snowboard Festival and Crankworx. Events were filling hotel rooms and restaurants at a time when tourism in general is struggling as an industry, while the resort leveraged its experiences from the Olympics to showcase the community at its very best.

On the events front, there was lots to report this year, but here are the biggest stories:

Ironman coming to Whistler

After 30 years, the organizers of Ironman Canada parted ways with the City of Penticton and it became public knowledge before the race took place that organizers were looking for a new home for the event — and Whistler was rumoured to be one of the communities in the running to host the event. Things became more official in September when the bidding process to host the event for five years starting in 2013 got underway. Whistler was shortlisted and by the second week of October the event was confirmed for the community with registration opening on Oct. 18.

Despite the fact that the race — taking place on Aug. 25, 2013 — was in competition with another long distance triathlon called Challenge Penticton, it sold out quickly. The list of registered athletes includes 18 athletes from Sea to Sky, eager to compete in their own backyard.

Organizers are looking for upwards of 3,000 volunteers to help run the event, which will see roughly 2,500 athletes at the start line at Rainbow Park. If you want to help out, email Keats McGonigal at keats.mcgonigal@ironman.com.

As for the event's impact on the resort, it's been estimated that Ironman will result in at least 15,000 room nights surrounding the event, not including all the trips that athletes will make to the community to train on the course.

Obstacle course race draws huge numbers

In 2011, Whistler played host to the Warrior Dash, an obstacle course that sprawled across the slopes of Blackcomb Mountain. But the event was limited in size and with organizers focusing on events that draw 10,000 to 20,000 athletes they decided not to come back.

That opened the door for Tough Mudder, another series that is quickly overtaking the competition when it comes to obstacle races. It offers longer courses, tougher challenges and guaranteed suffering, and people are loving it.

The organizers picked the last weekend in June, and moved the course out to Whistler Olympic Park. Thanks to a cool spring where average temperatures in May and June were about four degrees colder than normal, the almost sold-out event took place on a course that was still covered with snow and where organizers had to chip through the ice on a few sections to create water challenges for athletes.

Some 16,000 people took part, selling out completely on Saturday and almost completely on Sunday, while resort occupancy numbers jumped from the seasonal average of around 60 per cent to 90 per cent.

It was a huge success in other words, and one that the resort is keen to build on. They are currently working on a deal that would secure the Tough Mudder for at least three years — although on a later weekend in the summer to take the snow and ice out of the equation!

Running and more running

Whistler hosted a lot of high profile long-distance runs this year, including the sold-out, second edition of the North Face Whistler Half Marathon in June, a new trail running ultra called the Meet Your Maker in September and the second edition of the Whistler 50 Relay in October. That's on top of a string of events that includes the Whistler Valley Trail Run, the Comfortably Numb Trail Run, the Squamish-to-Whistler Tenderfoot Boogie, the 5 Peaks Trail Run, the Whistler Spirit Run and the Rubble Creek Classic.

All of those runs are planning to return in 2013, with some organizers planning a few changes.

For example, the organizers of the North Face Whistler Half Marathon are adding a new 10km race to the schedule to go with the 21.1km half marathon and the 1km Little Rippers kids run.

The Comfortably Numb Trail Run saw a change in management in 2012 as the organizers of the Run the Shore series handed it over to the organizers of the 5 Peaks Series, which are planning to build the race up starting this year.

On the triathlon front, the Whistler Tri Club will continue to host its youth and beginner triathlons, and a separate off-road triathlon is being discussed to replace the Xterra — an off-road triathlon event that hosted events in Whistler for three years before it became clear that the local terrain is a little too technical for the event.

It will be interesting to see how Ironman will boost the other tri events.




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