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When Dominque Maltais arrived in Sochi her knee was so sore she had to have cortisone shots just to stand on her snowboard. But nothing was about to get in the way of her mission at these Olympics.
She’d taken bronze in the snowboard cross in Turin in 2006 and then crashed in Vancouver four years later, finishing 20th. Since then she had done little else but focus on getting back on the podium in Sochi.
“I’m ready to race,” she said before Sunday’s snowboard cross final. “Even with pain.”
And boy did she race. On a madcap day that saw crashes so hard one American had to be taken away on a stretcher, Maltais managed to avoid enough trouble and stay on her feet to claim the silver medal. She is now the first woman to win two medals in the event.
Czech rider Eva Samkova won gold and Chloe Trespeuch took bronze. Canadian Maëlle Ricker, the defending gold medalist, fell in her qualifying round and finished 21st.
For a moment it looked like Maltais wouldn’t even make the final. She’d had trouble with her starts all day and she got off to another bad one in the semi-final, putting her in fourth spot as the six riders flew down the hill. Only three would advance and Maltais had less than 90 seconds to figure out what to do. She managed to slowly close the gap and then made a sharp turn, passing two riders including Australia’s Belle Brockhoff who fell right beside Maltais. The Canadian stayed on her board but seconds later the leader in the race, Lindsey Jacobellis of the United States, cut down on to the course after a steep slope and wiped out in front of Maltais.
It was at that moment that her father, Gérald, stopped looking. He’d been holding his breath all day, unable to eat with his heart pounding every time his daughter took to the course. But this was too much. It looked almost certain that Maltais would go down with Jacobellis and he couldn’t bear to watch. Yet somehow she didn’t. Somehow she stuck to her line and deftly avoided the American.
“I knew Lindsey was going really high in those turns. And I was going for the inside line. I had no option, I had to go for it,” she said afterward. “That’s snowboard cross. Today one of my goals was to have no regrets.”
The final turned out to be far less dramatic. Samkova, who had been dominating the races all day, simply led from start to finish with Maltais following alone in second place.
When it was over Mr. Maltais, who is the mayor of tiny Petite-Rivières-St-Francois, which is northeast of Quebec City, finally took a breath. “Relieved,” he said with a huge smile when asked how he felt. “Every time she went down my heart was racing. It’s a sport where anything can happen. I was enormously relieved.”
For Maltais the silver medal marked the culmination of a four-year quest. Her fall in Vancouver had hurt her deeply. “It was the hardest time in my life and I just took the decision to take my life in my hands and just try to improve myself and get myself faster …for the next four years,” she said. “That’s what I did. The last four years, I was on a mission. Everything I was touching, everything I was eating, it was to be a better athlete, get faster on that course.”
As Ricker watched her teammate claim silver, she tried to come to terms with her own mishap on the course. She too had come to Sochi injured, having fractured her forearm last month in training. She competed wearing a splint, which hampered her start. Her fall in the quarterfinals “is probably something that is going to replay in my head for years to come,” she said afterward. “Not going to be able to shake this one off very easily.” Ricker is 35-years old and thinking about her future in the sport, where she has been one of Canada’s most dominant athletes. “I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for you,” she said when asked if she’ll stay in snowboard.
Maltais too is thinking about what to do next. Her knee felt fine during the race, but at 33-years of age she knows the pain is only hiding.
“I felt like I’m 20 years old,” she said Sunday when asked about the knee which she injured last month at the X Games. “But let’s see tomorrow morning if I’ll still feel like this.”
And then what? She’ll compete for another year and probably return to her job as a fire fighter in Montreal. Not a bad choice. She sure knows how to handle danger.