Finding the podium this winter could go a long way towards helping Eddie Hicks and Chelsea Henitiuk make it to Sochi next winter.
The two Whistler residents on the Canadian moguls team are at Ruka, Finland, for a World Cup duals event going Saturday (Dec. 15) that will kick off the most important season to date for both skiers.
Olympic qualification will loom large throughout the 2012-13 campaign and competition will be tight on the Canadian teams themselves as skiers battle for a handful of berths into the Games.
Hicks, 24, is part of a stacked men’s team that heads into the season with six of the top-16 ranked mogul skiers in the world. No more than four will be able to ski in Sochi.
“It’s going to be really difficult the next couple of years at times,” Hicks said before leaving Whistler for Ruka. ”We’ve got seven guys who are all podium threats and only four guys can go. Half the guys who have worked so hard and put themselves in a position to contend for an Olympic medal aren’t going go, so it’s going to get intense.”
Good results at the three North American World Cup events, plus the Sochi test event and world championships later in the season, can pre-qualify skiers to the Canadian Olympic team this winter. With the depth and talent among his teammates, Hicks said it might be “wishful thinking” to lock up a spot this season.
“But, it’s not impossible,” he said.
Especially since the Langley native is now at full health after skiing through severe back pain for most of last season, which Hicks said was “difficult to take.” Still, he nearly landed on the podium to finish the year, matching a career-best World Cup result by placing fourth at Megeve, France, in the season’s final duals event.
“I wanted to be higher in the world rankings last year and I really feel like I could have been if I hadn’t been injured,” he said. “I know I can put down some good results if I can ski healthy.”
With Olympic champ Alex Bilodeau returning for a full season, and fellow Canadian Mikael Kingsbury coming off the best season in men’s moguls history, Hicks said he’s eager to watch the “showdown” to come between his two teammates this year. He said he thought Kingsbury was “coasting” at times last year, but he and Bilodeau should push each other to the next level in 2013.
“You know Alex wants to come back and be top dog … but Mik’s pretty good, and I think a lot of the other guys are going to be in the mix, too,” said Hicks.
Henitiuk adds new air
Henitiuk also came up just shy of her first World Cup podium last season, finishing fourth in duals at Mont Gabriel, Que., during a midseason stretch in which she was excellent. The 25-year-old followed that showing by heading to Calgary and Deer Valley, Utah, to post back-to-back eighth-place results in single moguls competitions.
Henitiuk ended the season ranked 13th in the women’s World Cup standings and was a little disappointed with some inconsistent performances late in the year.
But she’s ratcheted up the degree of difficulty on her top air for this year, working with new jump coach Steve Omischl, the four-time World Cup aerials champ.
“I’ve changed it to a back layout instead of having the tuck in there, so I’m hoping that’s going to improve my top air scores,” said Henitiuk. “It’s the jump that (Olympic gold medallist) Hannah Kearney does on her top air and it’s been pretty successful.”
With Pemberton resident Kristi Richards announcing her retirement earlier this year, the former world champ’s departure means Henitiuk is now the oldest athlete on the Canadian women’s team. That was the case last year, too, as Richards took a year’s hiatus before hanging up her skis, and Henitiuk has felt her role as a veteran
“I’m definitely more of a leader on the team and it’s neat to be able to share my knowledge of the tour with some of the younger girls,” she said.
But despite her experience, Henitiuk will be faced with a similar challenge as Hicks in Olympic qualifying. Though the Canadian women aren’t as dominant as the men, they still have more Olympic-calibre skiers than spots available in Sochi.
Having been through an Olympic cycle before, Henitiuk said she’s expecting the pressure to build as the season rolls along. The Spruce Grove, Alta., native is hopeful that her experience as a forerunner during the 2010 Games will serve her well looking forward.
“Having that experience, you felt the intensity of the Olympics and it definitely made me want to be there as an athlete,” she said. “I feel like it’s a little bit of an advantage that I got to experience that in 2010.”
In the meantime, Henitiuk said she’s happy to have a couple of low-stress duals events to start the year.
“It’s a good way to start the year, without that immediate Olympic pressure on,” she said.