Local freestyle skiers, Nick Katrusiak, 17, Emeline Bennett, 18, and Jack Morrow, 19, have qualified for the 2022 FIS Freestyle Junior World Ski Championships in Valmalenco, Italy taking place on March 30 and 31.
Heading into their first-ever Junior Worlds, both Bennett and Katrusiak’s careers to date have followed a very similar path, albeit one year apart.
Both spent their youth competing in alpine events with the Whistler Mountain Ski Club (WMSC), but as the novelty of downhill racing started to wear off, getting that first taste of ski cross re-invigorated their love for skiing.
The two skiers were regular competitors in the annual Kids Cross events on Blackcomb Mountain over the years, but their first experience with elite ski cross racing didn’t come until recently.
Once aged out of Kids Cross, Katrusiak wanted more and began competing in Western Ski Cross races with some friends.
“I went to one of them to try it out and I got destroyed, but I was still super in love with it, and I was like, ‘you know, I’m not going to let this stop me. I’m going to keep going to these races,’ and eventually I got better and started winning them,” said Katrusiak.
Bennett’s first real ski cross experience came in the 2019-20 season, when she was invited to a Youth Olympic Games qualifier in Alberta. And much like in Katrusiak’s first attempt in the start gates, things did not go Bennett’s way and she failed to make the team. But the passion for the sport was there, and it was enough for her to switch her focus to it full time.
“When I finished school in June, I kind of talked to my coaches and I talked to my parents and I was like, ‘I want to ski, I don’t want to go to university yet and I would like to make the switch to ski cross,’” she said.
“So I put in for a deferral, which was accepted, so I had a guaranteed gap year with a position in the program for next [school year]. And then I kind of went headfirst into ski cross and started with a new team based out of Calgary and kind of just talked to those coaches and explained what I wanted to get out of the season and started from there.”
This year, with a full slate of competitions on the schedule again for the first time in a couple years, both skiers have found some success on the Nor Am Cup circuit and have been building momentum throughout the season.
Katrusiak’s season started with him achieving his personal best of eighth-place at the Nakiska Nor Am Cup. He then went on to top that mark at the next two events with a fifth- and sixth-place finish at Calabogie Peaks in Ontario and his first Nor Am podiums at Gore Mountain, N.Y., where he managed a second and a third.
At the same Nor Ams in Nakiska and Calabogie Peaks, Bennett managed to snag herself multiple top-seven finishes with a first, fourth and two sixth places across the two events.
Since then, Bennett has left for Europe to compete on the Europa Cup circuit for the first time in her career.
While competing against a field that is often double the size of the Nor Am cups has been a learning experience for Bennett, she believes having familiarity with both the European and North American competition will be a big advantage for her when the Junior Worlds roll around at the end of the month.
“The girls on the Europa Cup, most of them are older. Most of them have a lot more experience under their belt and they bring a lot more aggression to the races. So it’s a lot of watching and learning … I’m trying to build a little bit more aggression than I had before and keep it on par with what they’re doing,” she said.
“The more experience the better. And I think kind of knowing who else will be at those events and what the stage might look like will definitely help from a mental perspective. I think at this point, as much as I can get on track and as much as I can watch and learn and observe will only make things easier.”
While Katrusiak is unsure what the international competition he will be facing will look like, with some experience against the Canadian National Team already this year at the Nakiska Nor Am, he’s feeling confident about his chances and is hoping to place somewhere in the top 10.
Meanwhile, Bennett doesn’t like to put number goals on her races, but instead just hopes to focus on what she can control and be happy with the way she skied when it’s all said and done.
“As long as I can go and ski and be proud of the skiing that I put down, that’s definitely a win. I think just knowing that I can ski well, and if I go out and do it, hopefully something good will happen,” she said. “That is more what I like to focus on just because it leaves a lot more room for success.”
Morrow, who grew up in Whistler racing for the WMSC and now races out of the University of Calgary, as well as with the Evolve Ski Cross Club, was not available for comment before Pique’s weekly deadline.