With the Winter Olympics coming over the horizon, it’s tempting to want to wrap Canada’s top athletes in bubble wrap so they stay in one piece over the next few weeks.
Sorry, can’t happen, says snowboarder Maelle Ricker, the reigning Olympic champion in women’s snowboard cross.
The start of Ricker’s season was delayed by a concussion, but she vows she won’t back off between now and February, when the Winter Games will be held in Sochi, Russia.
“You can’t be hesitating or hanging back or holding things back,” she said Friday at Lake Louise. “It doesn’t work that way. That’s just not the way to look at it. You’ve got to keep your level of riding, keep progressing and hopefully you peak in February.”
Ricker became the first Canadian woman to win a gold medal in a home Games when she won in 2010 in Vancouver.
She says a training crash “sent me on my head” earlier this month in Austria. The 34-year-old from Squamish, B.C., returned to Canada with a mild concussion instead of racing the first World Cup of the season in Montafon, Austria.
The cobwebs cleared in time for Ricker to compete at the Sportcheck Snowboard World Cup in Lake Louise, which is the closest boardercross race to home she’s had since winning gold on Cypress Mountain.
Ricker and Dominique Maltais of Petite-Riviere-St Francois, Que., qualified Friday for the women’s quarter-finals, semifinals and finals Saturday.
Calgary’s Chris Robanske was first in men’s qualifying. He’ll be joined in Saturday’s main event by teammates Rob Fagan of Squamish and Kevin Hill of Vernon, B.C.
Robanske, Ricker and Maltais have already qualified for Sochi.
Ricker is also the reigning world champion after winning this year’s title in Stoneham, Que. Maltais, 33, won the overall World Cup snowboardcross title each of the last three years and was a bronze medallist at the 2006 Winter Games.
Robanske’s World Cup win at Blue Mountain in Collingwood, Ont., last season was the first by a Canadian male since 2007.
Maltais opened this season finishing second in Montafon. She’s been a model of consistency and her reward has been the crystal globe that goes to World Cup champions.
“You have to be on it pretty much every race,” Maltais said. “I love what I’m doing. I’m always looking to improve myself.
“Everything I’m eating, everything I’m touching is to make me a faster, better athlete and a better person too.”
Maltais and Ricker make Canada a double medal threat in women’s boardercross in Sochi. The two women are supportive of each other and will high-five each other even before going head-to-head in a final.
“I have so much respect for Dom when we’re on course,” Ricker said. “She’s really pushed the level the last few years. It’s really made our whole girls’ team rise up.
“When we’re on course, we’re definitely not trying to take each other out. That’s not the idea. The idea is we both get to stand on the podium.”
Instead of racing each other in four-boarder heats as they do Saturday, the snowboarders race alone against the clock in qualifying. The top 32 men and 16 women advance.
Maltais was second and Ricker fifth among women. Robanske was the fastest man with Fagan third and Hill 16th.
Lake Louise is a rare race close to home for Robanske, who learned to snowboard at Calgary’s Canada Olympic Park at the age of nine. He crashed in Montafon and is racing with injured soft tissue in his right elbow.
“What we do is extreme and injuries happen,” Robanske said. “If anything, it’s kind of an advantage for me. I put less pressure on myself when I have something wrong or something’s not working. I think I’m going to have a good day tomorrow.”
Ricker has achieved the pinnacle of her sport, but she doesn’t see Sochi as a place where she can’t do better than she did in Vancouver.
“I don’t think about that at all,” she said. “If you’re thinking about that then maybe you’re kicking yourself in the butt.
“The big thing that most of us are looking for is that feeling of the perfect run where everything comes together. I really hope it’s going to produce a good result, but one thing I definitely realized in Vancouver was it was the whole journey leading up to that day and that’s sort of where I’m at right now.”