Dara Howell hands her dad a plate of spaghetti and a piece of chicken as they chat about her new helmet, her goggles and the weather. Then they bump fists and she’s off on another training run.
It’s a beautiful Monday morning at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park and Howell and her teammates are going through their final preparations for Tuesday’s ski slopestyle competition. She’s a favourite to win the gold medal, along with fellow Canadian Kaya Turski, and the pressure is building, at least for Doug Howell.
“As the day goes on and I get away from it and start thinking about what she needs to do and worrying for her, I start to worry,” he said.
Mr. Howell is among a handful of people watching this morning as skier after skier flies down the course practising flips and spins with varying success. It’s a familiar place for him. The two have been together at almost every race since Howell took up the sport five years ago, with dad serving as her confidante and sounding board for his 19-year old daughter.
“I’m the support person,” he said. “I’m her back up. Just to be here to advocate for her if I have to. Just to listen when I have to, that’s about it.”
Other family members are here too, her mom, aunt and grandmother. But only Mr. Howell is at the training run. “Her mom, Dee, gets her to venues, gets her to training and gets her to coaching. But when it comes to competitions it has been Dara and I all along,” he explained. “When things are not going right and nobody seems to be listening to her she’ll come and talk to me.”
There is plenty to be nervous about. While Howell and Turski, 25, are considered favourites, the judging is a question mark. Several athletes in the snowboard slopestyle said they had no idea what the judges were looking for and many observers questioned the scoring. The winner of that event, Sage Kotsenburg of the United States, had rarely won on the pro tour while the favourite, Canada’s Mark McMorris, came third despite being a pro tour stand out.
Turski is also coming back from knee surgery last summer to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. And there are plenty of other contenders including Keri Herman of the U.S.
Back in the Howell’s hometown of Huntsville, Ont., where the family runs a resort called Pow Wow Point Lodge, the excitement has been building for days. Stores are full of “Go Dara Go” signs and pretty much everyone will be watching Tuesday’s final, even though it will be the middle of the night in central Ontario.
“It’s just incredible,” Mr. Howell said of the support from home. “People have built snowmen in front of their house and they’ve put ‘Go Dara Go’ on the snowmen.”
Mr. Howell said his daughter has switched off her phone and stopped following most social media in order to stay focused. And he marvels at how she handles her growing following. “I don’t know how she does it,” he said. “I find it as a parent that’s not competing I find it overwhelming at times.”
For now Mr. Howell plans to spend Monday trying to take his mind off Tuesday’s final. He and Dee are heading to the Canada-Finland women’s hockey game. But they won’t be out too late.
“I promised her I’d be here by 8 o’clock [Tuesday] morning and it’s a two hour trip for sure [from their hotel in Sochi],” he said. “So I’ve got a short night.”