Canada’s ski and snowboard daredevils delivered a half-dozen golden performances at the Winter X Games in Aspen, a medal haul that bodes well for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia.
The spirit of Sarah Burke drove many Canadian athletes at the event, that ending Sunday night. Ms. Burke – for whom there was a tribute and memorial on Thursday night – had four gold medals in ski halfpipe over the years at the X Games and had been training to defend her title when she crashed this month.
Teammate and friend Roz Groenewoud, a 22-year-old from Calgary, took bronze a year ago at the X Games when Ms. Burke won. Saturday morning on Buttermilk Mountain in Aspen, Ms. Groenewoud was the victor.
Choking back tears at the bottom of the halfpipe, Ms. Groenewoud’s helmet bore a red “Sarah” sticker. She said she was thankful for an outpouring of support after Ms. Burke’s death.
“I just tried to let all of that love lift me up,” said Ms. Groenewoud. “It feels so great. I definitely felt like I had Sarah with me.”
“The best way to do her legacy justice is to push ourselves, and so that’s what we’re trying to do,” she added.
The International Olympic Committee’s embrace of several more action sports is good news for Canada, as the IOC aggressively boosts the number of medals in the arena of extreme sports to 60 for 2014, up significantly from the 36 awarded at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games.
The IOC is ratings-conscious: The X Games, for example, draws more viewers, many of them young, in the United States than NHL hockey. The Olympic shift means one out of five medals to be awarded at Sochi will be in freestyle skiing and snowboarding. This changing balance will help Canada in its quest to surpass its strong 2010 performance, where the country won the most golds, a best-ever 14, and was third in total medals at 26.
Among the more unlikely stories is the ascent of Mark McMorris, an 18-year-old who starred over the weekend by taking two gold medals, one in snowboard slopestyle and one in big air. Mr. McMorris’s climb to the top of snowboarding began in Saskatchewan – at the terrain park at a small hill northeast of his family’s home in Regina, and later with long winter trips west to the Rockies.
“Those riders up there are some of my really good friends,” said Mr. McMorris after he won on Saturday night, slopestyle’s first prime-time staging at X Games. “When you’re riding with the people you love to ride with, it makes everything so much fun.”
Described as a “phenom” by ESPN – owner of the X Games – Mr. McMorris was voted “rookie of the year” in Snowboarder magazine by fellow riders and is having an even better sophomore season this winter. This week, Mr. McMorris travels to an elite invitation-only contest organized by top rider Travis Rice. Dubbed Supernatural, it takes place at Baldface Lodge in the backcountry near Nelson in the B.C. Interior, with the aim to crown the world’s best all-around snowboarder.
Other Canadian gold-medal winners at the X Games included Kaya Turski, a 23-year-old from Montreal who on Thursday won her third consecutive gold in ski slopestyle. She landed the first switch 1080 by a woman at the X Games – taking off and landing backward, with three full rotations of 360 degrees.
Ms. Turski saluted Ms. Burke’s pioneering work in women’s freestyle skiing. “Now it’s our turn to keep pushing for her,” said Ms. Turski.
In women’s snowboarder X – snowboard cross at the Olympics – two veterans were stars for Canada. Dominique Maltais, 31, was an Olympic bronze medalist in 2006 and won gold at the X Games on Saturday, while 2010 gold medalist Maelle Ricker, 33, won bronze.
Both women aim to compete at Sochi.
Canada’s sixth gold of the X Games – tying the country’s best result, set last year – came Sunday from Chris Del Bosco, 29, a dual Canadian-American citizen won gold in skier X – ski cross in the Olympics. It was his second gold in three years at the X Games.
Athletes in events newly added to the Olympics such as ski halfpipe benefit this season for the first time from the resources of national sports associations. In the past, skiers and snowboarders in such events had to carve out their own money from private sponsorships.
For many athletes, help from the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association and Canada Snowboard is important.
Peter Judge, head of the freestyle association, said counselling from sports psychologists was provided to athletes after Ms. Burke died.
“It was shock and disbelief,” said Mr. Judge. “For those closest to her, it was profound grief. [The athletes]are coming to terms with it and they’re celebrating her life, and a big part of celebrating her life is success. To get their heads clear and perform as well as they have performed, it’s a real testament.”