Never mind hockey. Canada’s best team at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics plies its trade on skis, not skates.
The 26 members of the freestyle ski team have won six of Canada’s nine medals thus far, including three gold. Canada has already won more medals in freestyle than any other country at a single Winter Games. And there may be more to come.
On Tuesday, Dara Howell won gold in the inaugural women’s ski slopestyle, with Kim Lamarre taking bronze. That came a day after Alexandre Bilodeau won gold in men’s moguls and Mikaël Kingsbury took silver. And earlier, sisters Justine and Chloé Dufour-Lapointe won gold and silver, respectively, in the women’s moguls.
Still to come are ski halfpipe, in which Mike Riddle and Rosalind Groenewoud are serious contenders, and ski cross, where Marielle Thompson, Chris Del Bosco and David Duncan could win medals.
“We’re ecstatic,” said Peter Judge, head of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association. “This is kind of our crescendo of a lot of work over a lot of years, trying to create the optimum programs in each of the silos, including getting the best coaches, having the best programming.”
It has certainly helped Canada that the International Olympic Committee is eager to embrace television-friendly, youth-oriented sports such as freestyle skiing. At a time when the IOC nearly cut wrestling and dumped baseball from the Summer Games, it has added four freestyle ski events to the Winter Games in Sochi: men’s and women’s ski slopestyle and ski halfpipe.
There are 10 freestyle events in Sochi, compared with six at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, four in Lillehammer in 1994, and two in Albertville in 1992. Freestyle events were only demonstration sports at Calgary in 1988.
Jean-Luc Brassard, who won the men’s moguls in 1994, said the IOC expanded the freestyle program and kept changing the rules, allowing more dangerous tricks, because, with the rise in popularity of extreme sports, young athletes were going elsewhere.
When Brassard skied at the Olympics, athletes weren’t allowed to do somersaults because there were deemed too dangerous, even though most could do them with ease. “They changed the rules when new school [events like slopestyle] came to be strong, because they realized they were losing athletes to new school.”
The success of freestylers such as Brassard and Jennifer Heil helped boost the program in Canada. Kingsbury and Maxime Dufour-Lapointe have said they got involved after watching Bilodeau and others compete. And Howell took up her event after watching the late Sarah Burke, a trail-blazing freestyle skier.
There are still challenges. These sports, particularly slopestyle and halfpipe, are relatively small in terms of participation. They are also largely confined to North America, with few competitions or athletes in Europe or Asia. Once countries in those regions begin to take them up, Canada’s dominance could fade.
But for now, Canada rules the mountain and its freestyle program has tremendous depth. Howell and Justine Dufour-Lapointe are still teenagers, and Kingsbury is just 21.
There’s also a cocky new attitude, a sense that Canadian freestyle skiers aren’t happy just competing in the Olympics, Winter X Games or world championships.
“We’re a strong country and we’re ready more, I think, than ever,” Kingsbury said this week after winning his medal. “We’re not going in a completion just to be somebody who competes. We’re all going there to win the most medals.”