They’re just now becoming noticed on the national sports scene, but they looked like A-list celebrities at the bottom of Blackcomb’s terrain park.
After wrapping up an airbag training session last Thursday (Jan. 3), members of Canada’s halfpipe ski team were surrounded by a sea of star-struck young fans looking for autographs and photos with their heroes.
But perhaps that’s something they should get more accustomed to. Though Rosalind Groenewoud, Mike Riddle, Justin Dorey et al. have long been big names in freestyle ski circles, their sport’s fast-approaching Olympic debut is now leading to much-deserved time in the Canadian sport spotlight.
Groenewoud was on the front cover of a weekend issue of The Globe and Mail, one of several major newspapers across the country to run features about her over the past week. Sportsnet cameras were on hand last Thursday to capture the skiers on film for a national TV audience, as they flew off a spine-like jump mimicking pipe hits from both sides.
It’s just 13 months until Sochi and these are Canada’s newest hopefuls for Olympic gold, receiving an overdue introduction to a nation of new fans.
So how is head coach Trennon Paynter trying to keep his athletes focused during the stretch run to the Games? By having his skiers concentrate on what they can do in the pipe by approaching training at a competition level, and imparting what wisdom he can from his own Olympic experience at Salt Lake City.
“We’re focusing on mileage and repetition of skills and tricks a little more than we used to, and trying to take the approach that we practice more as we compete,” said Paynter, who skied moguls for Australia during the 2002 Olympics.
“No one realizes how big the Games are going to be until you get there,” he continued. “We talk about that a lot as a team. It’s like, ‘Look, I know the X Games are a pretty big deal, but just wait until you get to the Games. It’s a whole ‘nother animal.”
A look at the team’s results indicates that the approach is working. Dorey was first and Riddle third during the first Olympic qualifying event last month at Breckenridge, Colo., while Groenewoud was third. Skiers need two podiums and one other high finish from five selected events this winter to earn an early berth to Sochi.
“We’re still going to go into each of the big events and there’s still going to be that pressure, but so far I think I’ve dealt with it well and I just want to keep doing that,” said Riddle, who has three consecutive podiums since switching to a new set of Atomic skis before last year’s World Skiing Invitational in Whistler.
“I’m feeling really good, skiing the best I’ve ever skied, (I’m) confident and everything’s falling into place for me.”
The athletes said having access to the training space at Whistler Blackcomb, which constructed the airbag hit and provided tows up the hill by sled last week, was a big benefit as they get ready for a busy competition schedule.
“It’s always so nice to be home in Whistler,” said Groenewoud, who said maintaining amplitude has been a focus of her preparations. “I’m working on a mixture of tricks that I hope to put in my run in the middle of this year, as well as getting mileage on tricks that I already do in the pipe, (but this allows) the ability to not really think about the landing and make them look really good in the air.”
The team was in action Wednesday (Jan. 9) after press time in qualification for the U.S. Grand Prix competition at Colorado’s Copper Mountain, which is a FIS World Cup stop and another Olympic qualifier for the Canadians. Dorey, who did not train with the team in Whistler to guard against injury, will join the rest of the team there.
And the contests will keep coming, as Whistler hosts a North Face Pipe and Park Open Series event starting Monday (Jan. 14). While the full national team isn’t likely to compete in that event, local boy Simon D’Artois will be on hand hoping good performances this week can help earn him a Winter X Games spot.
“I’m pretty eager,” said D’Artois, who was injured in training before the Breckenridge event. “Hurting myself in Colorado was kind of a bummer, but it must have happened for a reason. I’m going to be ready for this next competition here and hopefully I can do really well.”
Halfpipe ski finals go Friday (Jan. 11) at Copper Mountain. Visit www.thenorthfaceppos.com for a full schedule of the four-day competition in Whistler starting Monday.