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‘Femininity and strength are not mutually exclusive,’ Roz Groenewoud of the Canadian Freestyle Ski team says. (BEN NELMS/BEN NELMS)
‘Femininity and strength are not mutually exclusive,’ Roz Groenewoud of the Canadian Freestyle Ski team says. (BEN NELMS/BEN NELMS)

Freestyle skiing

Above and Beyond: Why heaven is a halfpipe for Rosalind Groenewoud Add to ...

Rosalind Groenewoud shoots up off the lip of a halfpipe wall and floats high in the air. She flips upside down and lands on her skis in the whoomph of a billowing air bag. She wrestles herself out of the bag and back onto the snow, listens to some feedback from her coaches, then skis over to a waiting snowmobile and is pulled back up the mountain to repeat the effort.

It is midweek on Blackcomb Mountain, cold in the morning shade under a big blue sky. Canada’s national halfpipe ski team has assembled for training days, a group of some of the best in the world – led by Groenewoud. The 23-year-old has in the past year ascended to No. 1 in her sport, newly added to the Olympics roster, and is a favourite for gold at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

A reminder of who is missing is constant. The name is handwritten in a flourish of red, a sticker on Groenewoud’s helmet: Sarah.

Sarah Burke, who died at 29 after an accident in training a year ago, was a pioneer of her sport, carving her place, and piling up victories, when halfpipes were not a welcoming place for women on skis. When Groenewoud was a teenager, Burke was one of her idols. The two first met at a summer camp on the Blackcomb Glacier, where Burke, seven years older than Groenewoud, was a coach. The relationship deepened by the years, as Burke became a mentor, a confidante, a teammate and a close friend. Burke pushed Groenewoud, and their sport, ahead.

Burke’s death resonated well beyond the ski world and buffeted those closest to her. Groenewoud describes the time as being under water. Then, at X Games, Burke’s biggest stage where she won four golds in the halfpipe, Groenewoud rose: suffering through grief, wearing the Sarah sticker on the front of her helmet, Groenewoud catapulted more than four metres above the pipe on her first hit and delivered the best run in women’s ski halfpipe in the history of X Games. She topped Burke’s record and won her own, her first, X Games gold.

Groenewoud – Roz G to the skiing world – won again at X Games in Europe and finished the year at No.1 in the Association of Freeski Professionals halfpipe rankings. Groenewoud – her Dutch last name is pronounced grun-ne-wowed – suddenly finds herself in the position that would have been filled by one of her best friends, the leader of a new troupe of Canadian athletes in freestyle skiing and snowboarding who are favourites to deliver an array of gold medals as Sochi in new Olympic events. This burst of world-topping talent emerges as Canada hopes to extend its Winter Olympics exploits after a record 14 gold medals at home in Vancouver.

“It’s impossible to separate my ski career now from both Sarah and Sarah’s passing,” Groenewoud said over lunch at Ciao Thyme Bistro at Blackcomb’s base after training this week. Groenewoud, and the team, grapple with the subject, especially as the athletes face the pressure of a season of events to qualify for the Sochi Games 13 months from now.

It was last summer when the grief of her friend’s death hit her hardest and it was during a visit to London in August, to get a feel for the sports-capitalist carnival of the Olympics, when it became coldly real.

“It was the first time I really dealt with the fact Sarah wasn’t going to be in Sochi,” Groenewoud said. “It was the month, I guess, I fully stopped being in denial.”

Today, Groenewoud, vibrant, smart and stylish, stands at a point few Canadian Olympic athletes ever reach, the possibility to make her name beyond her sport. Even before she won at X Games, her personality and promise – and business potential to reach young women in a new and better way – helped her secure big-time representation, the Creative Artists Agency, a major Hollywood power whose sports roster includes the world’s biggest names, from Jack Nicklaus to Shaun White. In perhaps a telling shift of freestyle skiing from fringe to mainstream, Groenewoud was also being wooed by extreme-sports mainstay Red Bull but she picked Target, in part because she doesn’t consume energy drinks but moreso because of Target’s community giving and focus on early childhood education. Target also let her keep the Sarah sticker on her helmet, along with Right to Play, the sport humanitarian group with which she works.

It was a different personality that attracted Target. Groenewoud is eclectic. She studies sciences – math and physics, some biology – parttime at the private Quest University in Squamish, B.C., where she lives; she travels with multiple Rubik’s Cubes, an obsession of hers, the math of the puzzle calms her; and she loves shopping for vintage clothing, the Value Village in Red Deer a favourite. When skiing, she listens to rap and hip hop but off the hill is inspired by women such as Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Joan Jett. Groenewoud has always had a touch of fashion flash – these days wearing a gold ski jacket, and as always sporting bright red lip stick in competition.

“Femininity and strength are not mutually exclusive,”Groenewoud said.

She remembers getting teased and bullied for her tastes as a teen. Years later, meeting with Target officials at the company’s Minneapolis headquarters, Groenewoud was resolved. “I decided to be a 100-per-cent myself and they liked it – so that was cool.”

“She’s an individual who has a more unique personality and an ability to transcend her sport,” said Devin O’Brien, a Target manager who oversees the company’s marketing of athletes, of which Groenewoud is the ninth, and first Canadian. “She has a very mature approach to her sport. She approaches it like a job. And she’s keenly aware of her responsibility as a role model for young women.”

Groenewoud, born in Calgary, has always had an addiction to shedding the shackles of gravity. She was already running at 1 when some babies are just starting to walk, and her dad Leo had her in gymnastics by the time she was 2. She loved the trampoline, and one was quickly installed at the family home. She spent “hundred and hundreds” of hours on it, remembers Leo Groenewoud, an avid sportsman who told his kids – Roz has a younger brother, Luke – that they had to play three sports in a day before they could watch television.

“She liked being upside down, being swung around,” Leo Groenewoud said. “It’s the same thing she does now. It all makes sense when you look back.”

The Groenewoud’s home was a stew of art, academics and action. Roz played piano, and then classical and jazz flute. Leo put Roz on skis when she was 3 but his work as a geophysicist moved the family to Ecuador when Roz was in elementary school. Returning home to Calgary, she could speak fluent Spanish – and she quickly became obsessed with halfpipe, even if at first, at age 13, it felt like learning skiing from scratch when she got back on snow. Into high school, Roz focused on skiing, as she scored early results, but when snow melted, she sated her taste for air in pole vault, helping start a club at her high school and winning city championships in her grade level.

Academics called: Groenewoud had a $20,000 scholarship to the University of British Columbia – she dreamed of becoming a chemical engineer or an astrophysicist – but her success on skis pushed her toward a possibility that was only then emerging, one that Burke helped create, for a woman to make money, a living, on skis in the halfpipe. Groenewoud was a founding member of an unofficial national ski halfpipe team, along with Burke and led by coach Trennon Paynter – a team made official in 2011 when ski halfpipe cracked the Olympics roster.

With prospects of gold from Groenewoud and numerous other freestyle skiers and snowboarders, government has poured money in. Freestyle skiing, from aerials and moguls to newly added halfpipe and slopestyle, has received $6.9-million of money from Own the Podium in the years leading up to Sochi, the most of any sport. Snowboarding has been handed $5.9-million, the second most. “They funded our team better than we could have ever dreamed,” said halfpipe skier and medal hopeful Justin Dorey, who grew up in Vernon, B.C.

Groenewoud and the Canadian halfpipe now head back south to Colorado for several competitions, with the festival of X Games at the end of the month, followed by Olympic prep events in the mountains outside Sochi in February. Burke’s death, to some, may appear to lurk like a shadow, of risks too great to take, but for Groenewoud the memory of her mentor and friend drives her. Shanne Matthews, Roz’s mom, said, “It’s risky but they work really hard at managing risks. They’re not crazy thrill-seekers.”

At Blackcomb on Wednesday morning, Groenewoud works to nail down a trick, a flare, an inverted trick few women pull off and one that would complement her arsenal that includes a 900 – upright, yes, but 2 1/2full rotations. Like all skiers, she has been hammered by injury in her career, a collarbone the worst break, and three notable concussions. But she’s a competitor, and keeps hard it, among the last skiers making laps with the snowmobile to pull another attempt off the halfpipe in the airbag.

“If I wasn’t competing in skiing,” she said, “I’m sure I’d be competing in something else.”

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