Less than half an hour before the biggest race of her life, Dominique Maltais was bent over the Cypress Mountain snow, spitting up blood.
She’d crashed hard on her back in her final Vancouver Olympic training run – a massive blow that at the same time may have cost her a medal, and totally transformed her snowboarding career.
And now, the 33-year-old from Petite-Rivieres-St-Francois, Que., goes into the Sochi Olympics as the woman to beat.
“Vancouver. . . I was fully ready and I was expecting success, but I crashed, I hurt myself, almost killed myself there,” Maltais said. “I learned a lot about myself too. I know exactly what I want. Everything I’m doing, everything I’m touching, everything I’m eating, it’s all about performance, and being a better person, to reach the top of my potential for these Olympic Games.”
Maltais managed to drag herself to the start gate that day on Cypress, but the crash, coupled with a nasty spill earlier in the week, had her rattled. And there’s no room for nerves or second-guessing in the harrowing, rough-and-tumble sport of snowboard cross.
And the Canadian who was ranked No. 2 in the world at the time failed to advance past her qualifying run.
The 5-11 blonde, who won bronze in a crash-filled race at the 2006 Turin Games where the sport made its Olympic debut, may well have retired after Vancouver if she’d achieved her goal of a medal.
She’s feels so fortunate she didn’t.
“When I’m looking back on the big picture after a couple of years, if I had won or had good results in Vancouver, I probably would stop. But I wouldn’t have won the three Crystal Globes (as the World Cup season’s overall winner) that I won the last three years in a row,” she said. “Plus it’s all about the great experience, people that you met, the places you visit.”
After taking a few months off following the Vancouver Games, Maltais roared back to reel off two World Cup victories in as many days – her first wins in almost four years – in early December 2010.
A few months before Vancouver, Maltais was diagnosed with celiac disease, which is a sensitivity to gluten. She drastically altered her diet, eliminating gluten, as well as dairy.
“Now it’s a huge difference, you can’t compare,” Maltais said.
Post-Vancouver, she took more control of her life. Where she’d once just followed the coach’s training plan, she opted to involve herself in every aspect of her training. She changed how she worked out in the gym, making her workouts more specific to her sport.
“So it’s not like just bench pressing 120 pounds, I wanted to be fast out of the gate, I wanted to have really quick legs,” she said, as an example.
Now on the shady side of 30, and a seasoned veteran in her sport, she was surprised at her rate of improvement.
“I couldn’t imagine still improving myself after a couple of years on the World Cup circuit, but I did over the last three years,” Maltais said.
“I was setting goals and putting more pressure on my shoulders,” she added. “Since Vancouver, I’m just doing everything to make myself better. And not just be good, be perfect. Physically I’m feeling strong and healthy, mentally I’m really good too. I’m really focused, pushing myself every day, and I think the hard work is paying off right now.”
It is indeed, as Maltais is 4-for-4 in World Cup podium finishes this season, and leads the overall World Cup standings.
She won gold and silver over a two-day span earlier this month in her final races before Sochi, World Cup medals No. 34 and 35 on her illustrious career.
Maltais and her longtime friend and teammate Maelle Ricker make up a mighty 1-2 Canadian punch in the event. The 35-year-old Ricker won gold at the Vancouver Games, making up for a disappointing fourth-place finish in Turin that saw her crash in the final and rushed to hospital with a concussion.
Maltais jokingly made a gesture of support for her friend and teammate when she hoisted a Canadian flag that had “Marry me Maelle,” written on it, and signed “Dom 3:16.”
Maltais grew up in the shadow of Le Massif de Charlevois ski resort in sleepy Petite-Rivieres-St-Francois, a town of less than 800 people. Her father Gerald is the town’s mayor.
Her first forays down the mountain were on skis. She first strapped on a snowboard at age eight in a less than auspicious beginning.
“It just didn’t work, I started crying like a baby,” Maltais said, laughing. “I was skiing before and I never had problems to learn the sport, but after (trying snowboarding) I was like ‘There’s no way I can get that sport.’ But then the year after that experience, it just went well.
“It was more the freedom of the sport I loved, the way it looks, snowboarding was more like freestyle stuff, powder and free riding, so I was curious about it.”
Maltais is a trained firefighter, but has put her second career on hold for the past eight years as she set her sights squarely on the Olympic podium. She was one of just 22 women on the 2,300-member Montreal fire department.
“I’ve always been really strict with myself, I’m someone who really likes working hard, physical work, working as a team, helping people, good atmosphere, having fun,” Maltais said. “There’s no routine too in (firefighting) so that’s the part that I really like, and I’m really excited to go back to work.”
She said Sochi will likely be her last Olympics.
“I’m really excited, but I’m really sad because that means it’s probably going to be the end after that,” said Maltais, who might compete on the World Cup circuit a couple more seasons. “But it’s good, for me I’m giving everything right now, I’m still pushing, I want to make sure I’m going to finish my career with a good ending, so I’m putting every effort, all the energy that I have to make it happen.”