The Canadians were the ones to beat in the women’s ski cross final at Sochi and all the competitors knew that. On Friday, they proved they were still the ones to beat.
Under grey skies, rain-laced snow and patches of fog, Marielle Thompson and Kelsey Serwa finished in the gold and silver medal positions in the same race as Canadians in the stadium belted out "O Canada" and waved the Maple Leaf.
Even though Serwa called the 1-2 finish was “miraculous,” there was little doubt that at least one of them would land on the podium and a good chance, given their phenomenal success on the international ski cross circuit, that both would.
“I’m super happy to be walking away with a silver medal and even happier to be sharing it with my teammate Marielle,” she said.
While Serwa and Thompson were each going for gold, they were not utterly ruthless and, at one point in the race, actually worked together.
“In the first turn, I gave [Serwa] a little space because she called ‘inside!,’” Thompson said. “We definitely try to help each other. I’m not going to cut her off and that’s how we went all the way down.
"We're all about girl power from the start. We're just having fun all day. I know Kelsey and we tried to help each other all the way down the course."
Translation: If Serwa had not been a teammate, no mercy would have been shown.
Ski cross is a mad, crowd-pleasing event, party roller derby, part drag race, where often the main challenge is simply staying upright as bodies collide on the steep curves and ramps. The third Canadian in the event, Vancouver’s Georgia Simmerling, was one who crashed in her heat, damaging her ankle.
Serwa, who competed with a lucky loonie and a silver Russian coin in pocket, and Thompson faced a French competitor and a Swedish competitor in the final. It really wasn’t much of a race. The two Canadians took early leads after explosive starts and never looked back, apparently unaware that France’s Opheli David had taken a spill. Her fall meant that Sweden's Anna Holmund was guaranteed a bronze, the first freestyle medal for her country in 20 years.
Serwa’s performance in the semi-final race a few minutes earlier put her phenomenal skills and competitive instincts on full display. She was trailing during most of the race and faced elimination but never gave up. In the final few hundred metres, she managed to steer around a downed competitor. Then she tucked down tight and blasted across the line, finishing no more than an arm’s length ahead of the third-place racer.
The ski cross medals contributed to a late surge in the Canadian medal count at Sochi, coming a day after the Canadian women hockey players and curlers took gold. Thompson’s gold put Canada in second spot, behind Norway, in the gold medal count, with eight, one ahead of Russia. The gold and silver together pushed Canada into third spot in the total medal count, tied with the Netherlands and only one behind Russia.
The ski cross medals proved Canada’s dominance of the freestyle events at Sochi, with four golds, one each in men’s and ladies’ moguls, one in ladies’ ski slopestyle and one in ladies’ ski cross. Canada won four silvers and a bronze in the same events, generating three 1-2 finishes in freestyle (Jan Hudec also won a bronze in an alpine ski event, the super G).
The eternally calm and unflappable Thompson, who is 21 and lives in Whistler, B.C., has taken the ski cross world by storm since her world cup debut in late 2010. She was just 19 when she won her first world cup gold medal. In the 2011-12 season, she won the Crystal Globe, meaning she was the overall world cup ski cross champion.
The more animated Serwa, 24, from Kelowna, B.C., is also highly decorated. She was the 2011 FIS World Champion in ski cross and the 2011 Winter X Games champion in Aspen. She has been prone to back and knee injuries, to the point her career was in doubt not long ago.
“Last year I actually thought about stepping away after I blew my knee again,” she said. "Once that came into my mind, I got really sad and realized I wasn’t ready for retirement yet and because I still had some energy left in the bank.”
Eric Archer of Vail, Colo., who is Canada’s head ski cross coach, said the confidence of Thompson and Serwa grew all week. “Marielle, she’s so calm, I wish I had her nerves,” he said. “She doesn’t show [nervousness] on the outside. She’s got a really good calm about her.”
He said Friday’s medals will no doubt boost funding from Own The Podium, the program that funds winning athletes and coaches.
Both Thompson and Serwa said they were inspired by Nik Zoricic, the Canadian skier who died two years ago after a severe crash in a ski cross world cup in Grindewald, Switzerland.
"Nick was a good teammate and a good friend and a brother,” Serwa said. “He was an amazing guy, he loved the sport and he helped us girls get to where we are."
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