Some athletes discover their lifelong passion in early childhood. Others need years, a few twists and turns, and a new experience or two to discern what they’re actually meant to do. Emeline Bennett falls into the latter category.
Bennett’s early life trajectory is ubiquitous among Whistlerites. Her parents put skis on her feet at a young age, and she took to the sport like a fish to water. While her younger brother, Lukas, despised skiing at first, Bennett quickly progressed through ski school and joined the Whistler Mountain Ski Club (WMSC) at age 11.
“She’s a really well-rounded skier,” said Lukas, who got over his initial hatred of powder to become a standout at the Whistler Freeride Club (WFC). “We could go skiing in the alpine and she’d be wicked.”
Bennett spent seven years as a high-level alpine skier, driving up from her native North Vancouver to the Sea to Sky whenever possible. Nowadays, the 19-year-old is firmly established in the Canadian national team pipeline—but not as an alpine athlete.
Instead, Bennett is now a ski cross racer, and a two-time Junior Worlds medallist at that.
But why did she switch disciplines in the first place? To answer that question, we must wind the clock back to 2019 and visit an unlikely location: Red Deer, Alta.
At 16 years old, Bennett tried her hand at ski cross during a Youth Olympic Games qualifier at Canyon Ski Resort in Alberta. She showed promise, enough that—despite missing out on the 2020 Youth Olympics—a coach told her she had a future in the sport.
“At that time, I wasn’t really looking [for a change,] but it kept in the back of my mind,” Bennett remembered.
The Whistlerite raced two more years with FIS after her trip to Red Deer, and wished to keep skiing competitively after high school graduation. However, she felt that her days in the alpine world were numbered—right around the time that her one-time WMSC coach Mat Leduc took a job with the Evolve Ski Cross Club.
Bennett decided to make the shift herself. In 2021, she moved into Leduc’s residence and committed to a new beginning in ski cross.
“Alpine is very, very individualistic, and it’s such a precision sport that … any single thing could break down an entire run,” she said when asked about changing disciplines. “And ski cross has that aspect of skiing ability, but there’s so many other factors that make it like anybody’s game. There are more people, and there’s distractions, and there’s jumps. It just kind of feels more well-rounded.”
Ski-cross athletes know that a race isn’t over until it’s over. Bennett does not give up when she falls, and occasionally that helps her advance to the next round of an event because someone else has fallen, too. This combination of grit and talent propelled her to second overall in the 2021-22 Nor-Am Cup standings and her first European Cup podium that same season.
Afterwards, Bennett and her coaches agreed that she could achieve more in her new sport. Former Olympic champion Ashleigh McIvor felt the same way.
Old school mentorship
Bennett connected with McIvor through the Old School Initiative, a program founded by local entrepreneur Beau Jarvis to support Sea to Sky athletes. Jarvis, whom Bennett describes as a friend and a “super awesome guy with a really, really big passion for promoting what Whistler has to offer,” helped her reach out to the 2010 Olympic ski-cross queen.
“He put me in touch with her because we kind of just felt that there was a lack of communication between the ski-cross leaders of the past and the next generation,” Bennett said.
She paused, before adding: “Not to self-title, but hopefully that’s what we are.”
McIvor invited Bennett to her cabin last fall, where they swapped testimonies and discovered plenty of common ground between them. Both share a love of mountain biking in addition to skiing, and both have lived through the competing demands of sport and life.
“I felt like [Bennett] could learn from my tried, tested and true formula that allowed a thrill-seeking, fun-loving endorphin junkie and a multi-sport athlete like me to stay just focused enough to succeed in ski cross,” McIvor said. “There’s also the whole conversation around sacrificing valuable time that could be spent in university, justifying our choices to ourselves and our families, etc.”
Bennett tends to feel overwhelmed when she fixates upon a single event or season, but McIvor reminded her that there’s more to life than just the next race. Each athlete must learn to find his or her identity outside of sport, as McIvor did when a severe knee injury ended her career in an untimely fashion.
Even practising other sports at different times of year can pay dividends for one’s mental health. For Bennett, mountain biking and pumping iron in the gym are a healthy change of pace from the rigours of a globe-trotting ski-cross campaign.
“I honestly think it’s great to have the distraction,” she said. “Especially last year … I’d never had a season that long, or one that I’d been so invested in. I remember talking to one of my friends and was like: I don’t think I could physically come off another year feeling like that and want to do it again.
“I definitely put myself in a better spot heading into this year, but then it’s also awesome to have something else to go to. I come off the ski season and I’m tired of skiing, but that doesn’t mean I’m tired of where I’m at.”
Hitting all the marks
This year has already brought Bennett to new heights. On March 26, she struck gold in Passo San Pellegrino, Italy at the FIS Ski Cross Junior World Championships. It was a tactically-sound effort from an athlete who had matured considerably since her first Junior Worlds outing in 2022, when she was 10th.
Bennett was the only Canadian to win an individual medal at Junior Worlds this time around. Her fellow Whistlerites Nicholas Katrusiak and Jack Morrow had tougher luck, ending up ninth and 24th respectively.
The accomplishment has finally begun to set in. “I’d been skiing well in the European Cups, but I never really put together a race that felt like I hit all my marks, and that was definitely the race where it kind of all came together for me,” she explained. “They made a couple of changes to the course’s start section the day before the race, and it definitely worked in my favour.”
Four days after her winning run, Bennett joined forces with Katrusiak to claim Junior Worlds silver in the mixed team event, overcoming France and falling just short of Switzerland.
The Whistlerite finished her season on a tear, placing sixth or higher in each of her last seven races and hitting the podium four times in that stretch (including at Junior Worlds). She draws confidence from her success, but knows to stay locked in rather than get carried away making assumptions about any of her performances.
Nor is Bennett one to burden herself with overly detailed goals for next season. She believes that results will come if she trains diligently and trusts the process. For now, Bennett plans to help coach a girls-only mountain bike camp this summer with Vancouver-based Endless Biking—she remembers the male-dominated bike lessons of her youth and wants to give female riders someone to look up to.
Above all, the newly minted national teamer strives to keep in mind that she is more than just an athlete.
“Yeah, [ski cross] is super important to me, and I’m committed to this, and I’m going to do my best,” said Bennett. “But if it doesn’t work out, I have so many other passions in this life. There’s so many other things that I have going for me, and so many other opportunities that I could try.”