A new generation of talented young technical skiers will fly the flag for Canada as the 2012-13 Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup season gets underway in Soelden, Austria, this weekend.
Breakthrough stars Marie-Michèle Gagnon and Erin Mielzynski – who both claimed the first World Cup podiums of their young careers earlier this year – and Marie-Pier Préfontaine will wear the Maple Leaf with pride in Saturday’s ladies’ giant slalom race. Fellow up-and-comers Trevor Philp and Dustin Cook – as well as veteran Jean-Philippe Roy – will then suit up in Sunday’s men’s giant slalom.
Saturday’s season-opener gives Gagnon, of Lac-Etchemin, Que., the chance to show she can compete with the very best in the world in giant slalom as well as slalom.
“I feel like I’m the most ready I’ve been,” Gagnon said of her preparations for Saturday’s race. “We’ve skied more days on snow this summer and fall than ever before – we did three camps. I feel really ready – I’ve been skiing fast in both the disciplines.
“We’ve been pacing with the Germans and with the Finns and a lot of other teams and I have a pretty good idea of where I’m standing. I’m pretty confident coming into this year and I’m looking for some more podiums.”
Gagnon, a talented all-round skier, captured the first World Cup podium of her career with a third-place finish in slalom in Are, Sweden, in March. She ended last season ranked 26th in the world in giant slalom but fared better in slalom, with a 10th-place ranking.
“Definitely, giant slalom is a big focus,” Gagnon said. “I want to keep realistic goals because I’m ranked 26th as of now (in giant slalom) and I want to be top 15, so it’s a pretty big step. To achieve that means being more consistent, but if I do what I’ve been doing in training I should get there. It puts me in a better spot for (the) Sochi (Olympic Winter Games in 2014) if I’m top 15.”
Gagnon placed 25th in Soelden last year and 13th in 2010.
“I’ve done well there before. Soelden is pretty demanding physically,” Gagnon said. “You get to the bottom and your lungs hurt – it’s almost like you taste blood. It’s so intense and it’s super high altitude and it’s a long course. The GS (giant slalom) in Soelden is definitely the hardest on the women’s circuit but I like it and I think it can suit my style.”
Mielzynski, of Guelph, Ont., who last season became the first Canadian since 1971 to win a World Cup slalom race, is better known as a slalom skier and has more modest goals heading into this weekend.
“I will probably start last in Soelden or close to last. My points are not where they need to be but hopefully I can do what I did in slalom and fight my way from the back.
“It’s hard to have huge goals when you are sitting so far back and it’s your first (full) year (competing in giant slalom),” added Mielzynski, who competed in three giant slalom World Cup races last season. “It will be a step-by-step process but I want to be a two-event skier.”
Préfontaine, of Saint-Sauveur, Que., is a talented giant slalom skier who has spent much of the summer and fall working on her super-G skills. She’s looking for more consistency in 2012-13.
“I’m excited to start the season. It will be fun,” Préfontaine said. “I’m trying to work my way up in GS and super-G this year … and build from that.”
On the men’s side, Roy, of Sainte-Flavie, Que., is looking to build on a solid season after ending last season ranked 29th in the world in giant slalom. He’ll be joined in Sunday’s men’s race by talented youngsters Philp, of Calgary, Alta. – a student at the University of Denver and the reigning Canadian slalom champion – and Cook, of Lac-Sainte-Marie, Que.
“I’ve raced and trained (in Soelden) a couple of times now and have a better feel for the hill and more confidence in my GS skiing than in past years,” Cook said. “So I’m looking forward to it. I’m ready to charge and hopefully we have some solid conditions to throw down from the back!”
Philp made his World Cup debut at a slalom in Adelboden, Switzerland, in January but this will be his first start in giant slalom.
“I am very excited for Soelden. Given it’s my first GS World Cup race, I believe I have a lot to gain!” Philp said. “I just need to go out on race day and give it what I have, and with that we will just see what happens. My goal is to make top 30, qualifying for the second run. That would be amazing. I realize it will be tough, but it has been proven possible from bibs outside the top 30 many times.”
Roy is hoping to push for a first career World Cup podium after enjoying a consistent 2011-12 season.
“I want to ski like I know I can – like I’ve been skiing in training,” Roy said.
Overall Nor-Am champion Erik Read, of Calgary, Alta., would have been a candidate to compete in Soelden but the son of Crazy Canuck legend Ken Read will miss out due to a knee injury.
The first speed races of the season will be held in Lake Louise, Alta., on Nov. 24 and 25 for the men and Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 for the women. For more details, visit www.alpinecanada.org/winterstart.