The take-no-prisoners sport of ski cross can be unpredictable even in non-COVID times, but with the pandemic throwing an extra wrench into the Canadian team’s preparations for Beijing, this group of Olympic contenders is ready to expect anything heading into their final Winter Games tuneup.
Having decided against travelling to the following weekend’s final pre-Games World Cup race in Sweden to minimize the risk of exposure, a pair of World Cup races in Nakiska, Alta., on Friday and Saturday represents the Canadian athletes’ last opportunity to push their Olympic case.
Brittany Phelan, who captured the silver medal in Pyeongchang and battled COVID-19 over Christmas, says the experience has made her accept the unknown, and simply try to appreciate each day.
“It didn’t look like I was going to make it to this race,” she says. “So now that I am it’s like, you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, especially in this day and age. So just really want to optimize the opportunities when they’re there because you never know when they’re going to be there again.”
Canada sent four men and four women to compete in ski cross four years ago in Pyeongchang, but the exact number of berths available for Beijing can fluctuate depending on the number of spots Canada gets in other freestyle skiing disciplines.
With Canadian women making up five of the current top 10 in the FIS Ski Cross World Cup standing though, led by third-placed Phelan, the competition this weekend is expected to be fierce.
“[It’s] definitely hard competition amongst each other,” said 17th-ranked Zoe Chore. “I think we’re taking that as we’re competing against each other, but we’re also using that to push each other to the next level. So I think it’s really good competition.”
On the men’s side, Brady Leman knows all about the sharp edge to be found at the pinnacle of his sport, having captured gold in South Korea four years ago. Currently ranked 11th in the World Cup ranking, Leman has found some familiarity amid the uncertainty owing to the first World Cup race of the season taking place at Secret Garden in China on the Olympic course.
The Calgary native finished second on that occasion, back in November, and though he describes the course as a tight layout that encourages aggressive racing with little passing and lots of contact, his experience there leaves him feeling confident.
“This year is probably the most prepared going into a Games just because it feels like we were just in China, we were just there,” he said. “We saw the venue. We realize what a headache it’s going to be to get in and out of there. We know more or less what to expect with the course.”
The fact that Canadian athletes won’t be in Sweden’s Idre Fjall for the final pre-Games World Cup might also turn up the pressure on this weekend’s races. Though the ski resort of Nakiska will be open to the public, the ski-cross course itself will be closed off, and not even the competitors’ family members will be allowed to attend the races.
Once the World Cup event has wrapped up, the Canadian racers will use the resort for their final pre-Olympic preparations as well.
“We’re just going to be locked down hanging out until we go,” said Reece Howden, the 2021 Crystal Globe recipient as the men’s World Cup series champion. “We’re going to be able to do some training here in Nakiska and then also trying to figure out some sort of gym situation so we can stay away from the public. We have a pretty good plan.”
But while Howden says he’s “not too worried about getting [COVID-19],” the spectre of the coronavirus will hang over these Games, along with possibility of an Olympic ski-cross event without one or more of its principal protagonists.
Marielle Thompson, who knows all about the unpredictability of her chosen discipline after crashing out in the round-of-16 four years ago having won gold in Sochi, says the unpredictability of the coronavirus merely mirrors the unpredictability of her sport.
“You obviously don’t want that to happen to anybody but in a sport like ski cross, anything can happen,” she said. “The top guy or girl can be out in the first round on any given day so you never really know, so just try to stay safe and hopefully test negative.”