Canadian ski cross team ready for Nakiska

Canada’s ski cross team is hoping to confirm its status as the No. 1 squad in the world by getting its 2012-13 season off to a strong start on home snow at the inaugural Audi FIS Nakiska Ski Cross World Cup this weekend.

As the leading ski cross nation in the world for the past four years, Canada put a racer on the podium at every World Cup event last year and they’re hoping to keep the streak going when the new season kicks off in Nakiska, Alta., from Dec. 6-8.

Canada’s team for Nakiska includes a formidable group of proven performers including overall World Cup champion Marielle Thompson, returning world champion Kelsey Serwa and veteran Danielle Sundquist on the women’s side. The men’s team is without reigning world champion Chris Del Bosco, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, but it still boasts Brady Leman – ranked No. 2 in the world, World Cup winner Tristan Tafel and veteran Dave Duncan.

“We’ve had great training camps leading up to Nakiska and I think the athletes are going to be really happy with the course,” said head coach Eric Archer. “We’re looking to get back on the horse. It’s the beginning of a long season so we want to get in there and race well. Hopefully we can grab a couple (of podiums).”

Thompson, of Whistler, B.C., became the first Canadian to claim an individual World Cup Crystal Globe in ski cross last season after racking up an incredible run of results that included winning the home World Cup stop in Blue Mountain, Ont. The 20-year-old is expecting to have a big fight on her hands as she tries to defend her title in 2012-13.

“We’ve had lots of good training and my skiing’s going well. I just want to race now – I’m getting excited,” said Thompson. “In Blue Mountain I did well in front of the home crowd so hopefully I will in Nakiska as well.

“I’m going to try to win the (Crystal Globe) this season – that’s what I’m going to try for – but there’s a lot of girls back this year (from injury) so I’m really going to have to work for it. Kelsey’s coming back strong so I’m looking forward to racing her.”

Last season, Serwa was the dominant female racer on the World Cup circuit before she suffered a knee injury in January. The native of Kelowna, B.C., has been flying in training but expects to have some rust as she prepares to race again after a long layoff.

“The knee feels good – no complications; no problems – it’s strong,” Serwa said. “I’ve done (fitness) testing and I’ve either got the same or surpassed (my results) on a lot of my tests compared to this time last year. It’s like nothing happened!

“We are a solid team and we all help each other, just like its been from the beginning. Marielle is really confident right now so I’m just going to feed off her confidence – maybe she’ll let me borrow some!”

Like Serwa, Sundquist, of Calgary, Alta., is returning from a long-term injury layoff – having last competed at the World Cup level in March 2011. Georgia Simmerling, of West Vancouver, B.C. – one of the team’s exciting young prospects – will also be one to watch after finishing ninth in the season-opening World Cup event last season.

On the men’s side, Leman, of Calgary, will be the skier to watch after his breakthrough 2011-12 season saw him win his first World Cup race and lose out on the overall World Cup title by a slim margin.

“I want to keep it rolling from last year,” said Leman, a former alpine racer. “I had some really good results. I finished No. 2 and there’s one more spot to climb.

“I’ll be gunning for the podium in every race, especially this one here at home. I have a bunch of family coming up. It’s going to be awesome. I hope we can pack that finish and make it loud for the Canadians.”

Leman won’t be the only hometown hero competing in Nakiska. Tristan Tafel grew up in nearby Canmore, Alta., and spent much of his youth skiing on the slopes of Nakiska.

“I’m absolutely ecstatic. It’s been a lifelong childhood dream of mine to race at home in my backyard,” Tafel said. “I trained at Nakiska for quite a few years with the Alberta Ski Team.

Nakiska has a World Cup now and the run they are using is just phenomenal. I’m so excited to race this run – it’s going to be amazing.

“Last year was my first year on the World Cup and I didn’t expect a podium. A follow-up podium is definitely what I’m looking for. I have the whole Bow Valley behind me – they’ve been supporting me – so this one’s for them.”

Duncan, of London, Ont., has four World Cup podiums to his name and seems to be getting better with age. Another racer to watch is Louis-Pierre Hélie, of Berthierville, Que., who raced on the alpine World Cup circuit last season before making the decision to switch to ski cross.

“Ski cross is a completely different sport for me coming from downhill,” Hélie said. “All the (alpine) guys were saying, ‘Oh yeah, it’s going to be easy,’ but I learned that it’s not. I’m training with the best guys in the world – I’m learning every day from those guys.

“I’m really excited about this event coming up. It’s in Canada and my family’s going to be there. I’m just going for experience in this race. I have full confidence in the coaches and I’m loving this team. I know it’s going to be a big learning season for me.”

The inaugural Audi FIS Nakiska Ski Cross World Cup – which is part of the Nakiska Snowdown festival – kicks off at the Nakiska Mountain Resort with training on Thursday, Dec. 6, followed by qualification on Friday and ski cross finals on Saturday.

“We are extremely proud to be a partner and the host in supporting Alpine Canada in their quest to be the best in the world!” said Matt Mosteller, vice-president of marketing for the Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, which operates the Nakiska Ski Resort. “A home event – the first in the Canadian Rockies – it is vital that the athletes get a massive crowd of support out to cheer them on as they challenge the world’s best ski cross athletes at Nakiska ski area.

“Most Canadians don’t know that we have the best ski cross athletes in the world. It is our goal to change that, get out this weekend and support these athletes and give your kids or friends a chance to meet, sign autographs and support these athletes.”

The Nakiska Snowdown also features the Monster Energy Snowmobile Freestyle event on Saturday, Dec. 8.