Ashleigh McIvor, the first female Olympic gold medallist in the sport of ski cross, announced her retirement from competitive ski racing on Friday.
The 29-year-old from Whistler, B.C., realized her dream of winning the women’s ski cross event at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games and has decided to go out on top – as the reigning Olympic champion.
A world champion, X Games silver medallist and World Cup winner, McIvor suffered a serious knee injury in 2011 but made a successful return to snow earlier this year.
“This has been the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make in my life,” said McIvor, who recently announced her engagement to Vancouver Whitecaps soccer star Jay DeMerit. “It means the world to me to have had success in the Olympic debut of our sport, at home. I couldn’t have dreamed it up better myself!
“I’ve gone back and forth in my mind, wondering if I’m making the right decision to retire. But I’ve already done more in the sport than I ever imagined would be possible. And there’s something to be said for going out on top – as the reigning Olympic champion.”
McIvor, who has been competing internationally since 2004 and has been part of the Canadian ski cross team since it was formed in 2007, is one of the sport’s true pioneers.
Following her historic victory in Vancouver she became the face of ski cross in Canada but her public profile extends well beyond sport. McIvor has worked with some of the world’s top fashion photographers, strolled down a runway in New York and starred in major advertising campaigns.
“The timing works, as far as making the transition to the next phase of my career – making the most of the opportunities that have presented themselves based on the success I’ve had as a ski cross athlete,” said McIvor, who plans to free ski and continue working with sponsors including Oakley, Whistler Blackcomb, Stockli Skis, Bell, iSign Media and COLD-FX. “I will always be a skier – I’m just shifting my focus from racing to freeskiing again. I look forward to continuing to represent my partners and sponsors in the media, working with photographers and enjoying skiing in its purest form without the pressure of competition. I will continue to cheer for my teammates. I have always been their biggest fan – even when racing against them.”
McIvor tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee during a training run at X Games in January 2011. She had surgery and returned to training earlier this summer. Although her injury had healed to the point where she felt able to return to competitive racing, it was still a factor in her decision to retire.
“My knee is still on the mend and I would be trying to push it to get results this season and put myself in a position to perform at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia,” McIvor said. “I’ve decided that it’s more important to me to be able to ski recreationally – now and for the rest of my life. I have career opportunities that are time sensitive and a great life outside of racing.”
McIvor will forever be associated with the gold medal she won at her home Games, but she admits it’s taken time for the significance of her achievement to sink in.
“What it actually means is becoming clearer and clearer to me. At the time, I tried to avoid thinking about the significance of it so that I didn’t get consumed by the pressure,” said McIvor, who decided to treat the Olympic final like any other race and enjoy the experience.
“It really felt like I was just doing what I do and that I was the lucky one who had success on that given day. Now I’m finally starting to realize the impact that the Games had on our nation and it’s finally setting in that I contributed to that success. I worked hard and learned from my experiences in sport before the Games so that I could go in with a strong mindset and shine through the expectations and pressure. I think the most interesting part is that instead of feeling completely elated or ecstatic when I crossed the finish line, I felt relieved that I hadn’t let everybody down. I think it’s hard to have success like that if you are just doing it for yourself.
“I truly feel that anyone, having grown up the way I did, with the opportunities I’ve been given, could have gone out and done what I did. I’m just the lucky one who got to represent what we Whistler people are all about.”
McIvor retires with 11 World Cup podiums to her name. She has already passed the torch to a new generation of female ski cross stars that includes longtime teammate Kelsey Serwa, of Kelowna, B.C. – the reigning world champion – and fellow Whistler skier Marielle Thompson – the overall women’s ski cross World Cup champion.
“I do my absolute best to share what it is that has made me successful with my teammates,” McIvor said. “I think a lot of it is transferable – and we work well together, as a team. That’s why we are the No. 1 team in the world. I have every confidence that Canada will bring another ski cross medal home from Russia in 2014.”
Brady Leman, the No. 2-ranked ski cross racer in the world, said his teammate helped put the sport of ski cross on the map.
“Ashleigh’s definitely given the sport of ski cross a face in Canada,” Leman said. “Her win in Vancouver was huge for our sport. It put a big exclamation point on ski cross being the newest alpine ski sport and something to watch.
“She had a lot of great results over the years and she was always a really fun teammate to have on the road. Her training style was always a little different than mine – she was always so laid back. She was always having fun, which was a little bit of a breath of fresh air. It was awesome to see her get so much recognition for what she’s done.”
Willy Raine, a coach with the Canadian team, said McIvor has “done everything she could do” in the sport of ski cross.
“She’s won the Olympics, she’s won a world championship and she’s won a World Cup,” Raine said. “She’s been a leader – she’s been there since Day 1. To be part of the team and watch her win in Vancouver was incredible. I’m definitely going to miss her being part of the team. The sky’s the limit for her.”
McIvor says she has learned a lot from ski racing and will take those lessons with her as she builds a new career for herself.
“My career has taught me a lot about perseverance and chasing your dreams – tackling your goals one step at a time and avoiding getting too overwhelmed by that end result that you’re hoping for,” she said. “Working with a team has taught me a lot about group dynamics and relationships and has allowed me to make lifelong friendships and create memories that I will cherish forever. Competing in an individual sport with and against those teammates has taught me a lot about leadership and the concept of working together for the greater good of the group. Most of all, I have learned how to learn. I learn from my mistakes.”