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Ricker claims her gold

Scary moment in qualifying but Whistler rider dominates Olympic snowboardcross finals


Maelle Ricker was already a champion. In her career as a snowboarder she has won nearly every snowboard cross event there is to win - World Cups (13 of them), World Cup titles (2008 and maybe 2010 as well), X Games titles (three of them now). Less than two weeks before the Olympics she won the Legendary Mt. Baker Banked Slalom for the fourth consecutive year - the only event that matters in some snowboard circles.

And Tuesday at Cypress an Olympic gold medal.

It doesn't get any better. There were celebrations in the streets of Whistler, where Maelle grew up. There were celebrations in Squamish, the town Ricker - and half a dozen other members of the national team - now call home.

But while her afternoon was golden, there's no question it was an emotional roller coaster day for the 31-year-old veteran and for millions of fans.

Ricker washed out in the first of two qualifying runs and wouldn't have qualified as one of the top 16 if organizers had held only one qualifying run, as they were rumoured to be considering because of the fog delays. Luckily there were two qualifying runs and Ricker laid down the third-fastest qualifying time of the day, behind Mellie Francon of Switzerland and Lindsey Jacobellis of the U.S.

Teammate Dominique Maltais did not have any luck, going off course on both of her qualifying runs - an improbable finish for a competitor who has been on four World Cup podiums this season, sharing all of them with Ricker.

But once the competition entered the elimination rounds it was Ricker's show. She won all her heats by huge margins and found herself in the finals against Deborah Anthonioz of France, Olivia Nobs of Switzerland and Helene Olafsen of Norway.

Ricker faced Lindsey Jacobellis, the Olympic silver medalist from 2006 and favourite to win, in the semi-finals. Ricker managed to get the hole shot right from the start. Jacobellis tried to catch her on the second turn, went too high and caught an edge while trying to compensate. Her momentum carried her out of bounds and through a gate panel, ending her day early.

In the finals Ricker led from the start again and created such a huge gap that television cameras were focused mainly on the battle for second. Deborah Anthonioz claimed the silver medal and Olivia Nobs the bronze.

And the rest is history. Just as mogul skier Alexandre Bilodeau was the first Canadian to win Olympic gold at home, Ricker is the first female competitor to win that honour.

"I just tried to keep it exciting," joked Ricker of her slow first qualifying run. "That was a heartbreaking first run. I just went back to the start and refocused on my lines, visualizing all the stuff we'd been training all week, all year, the last few years really. I just set out to stay on my feet and get into the finals."

Once she was safely in the quarterfinals, Ricker started feeling more like herself.

"I was definitely feeling more comfortable, the course was getting more fun to ride. All I was thinking was get out of the start gate as fast as possible so I could get my lines and the run I wanted."

Of course reporters had to bring up the 2006 Olympic Winter Games where Ricker was chasing down Jacobellis in the middle of the course, then lost control on a corner and crashed through a fence. She finished her day in a hospital but still claimed fourth place, one spot behind Maltais.

Jacobellis had a huge lead but crashed off a  jump right before the finish to hand the gold medal to Tanja Frieden.

While Ricker has had some of her best seasons since that mistake, it was always on her mind.

"Turin was such a motivator," she said. "It just made me work that much harder and just go for it today."

The Cypress course was big and burly with a variety of technical jumps, tough rhythm sections and corners wide enough for passing. It was built to be the kind of course that the Canadians prefer, but it nearly backfired in the qualifier.

For her part, Maltais said she was disappointed but was proud she was pushing herself to the limit when she went off course.

"I wanted to leave it all on the course. I didn't want to walk away feeling that I didn't push myself," she said. "I didn't win, but I'm not going to freak out as long as I know I did everything I can."

Maltais said her confidence was shaken after some crashes in training, including a bad one that left her spitting blood. "I didn't like what I saw and it freaked me out a bit," she said. "I'm all right, it's boardercross, and it's rough.

"I'm really happy for Maëlle, really stoked. It's so fun for her and she really deserved it."

It would have been unusual for Ricker not to qualify. In 100 World Cup starts, going back to 1996, she has failed to qualify for the finals just five times in snowboardcross. The last time was in 2007 when she placed 18th.

She is currently ranked first overall on the World Cup snowboardcross circuit (Maltais is third) and has been on the podium in four out of five races this season.

As for Jacobellis, there was some question of whether she locked boards with Ricker just before going out of bounds while attempting a pass. Ricker said she didn't feel any contact and had no idea where or how Jacobellis went out of bounds.

Jacobellis, only 24 years old, redeemed herself by destroying the field in the small final.

"I just landed a little front-footed off the first major jump and major turn. I feel okay though," she said. "Sometimes you can't control the things you want to."

At the post-race press conference Jacobellis's infamous grab before she crashed in 2006 came up, as well as the fact that she grabbed her board several times this year.

"I figured I'd have some fun and show them I still have a passion for the sport," she said. "If you haven't snowboarded before, maybe you should because it's really fun."

Jacobellis, who has won two overall World Cup titles, said it was unfortunate to have bad luck in two Olympics.

"It's unfortunate that the rest of the world sees just this race and four years ago," she said. "I don't have a good track record with the general public."

If anyone had any doubts about how difficult and dangerous the sport can be, three girls wound up with facial lacerations after crashing to the snow at speed. Crashes were common, and several girls found themselves hopping up features after losing their momentum on course.