Canada’s ski cross team double-heads for Nakiska

Canada’s ski cross stars will have a double dose of home snow advantage to kick off the 2013-14 season – and a golden opportunity to punch their tickets to the 2014 Sochi Olympic Winter Games – after back-to-back World Cup races were confirmed for the second annual Nakiska Ski Cross World Cup in December.

Ashleigh McIvor charging the course
Ashleigh McIvor charging the course

Nakiska Ski Area – a 45-minute drive west of Calgary, Alta., and the venue for alpine races at the 1988 Olympic Winter Games – will host ski cross World Cups on consecutive days from Dec. 6-7 to open the 2013-14 Audi FIS World Cup season.

With the qualification period for nomination to Canada’s Olympic team closing in January 2014, staging a “double” for the first time on home snow gives top Sochi medal hopefuls including Brady Leman, Chris Del Bosco and Kelsey Serwa the chance to get a crucial year off to the best possible start.

“It’s awesome. Having one race at home to start was good but now we have two great chances to perform well, early on, in front of a home crowd,” said Leman, of Calgary, Alta., the top Canadian male ski cross racer for the past two seasons.

“It would be nice to get a couple of good results really quickly and get the qualification sorted. It’s a big year and obviously a lot of people have a big goal in February.”

In addition to featuring back-to-back World Cup races, this year’s event will be staged on a wider track, made possible thanks to a $15,000 project to upgrade the Mighty Peace run at Nakiska Ski Area. The run, which was part of the original men’s downhill at the 1988 Games, was extended an average of 15 metres in width and star course builder Jeff Ihaksi – who built the ski cross track for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games – has been brought in to work his magic.

“We’ve always done really well on Jeff’s courses before – Vancouver and Blue Mountain (Ont.),” said Leman, who will be going for gold in Sochi. “We really like his courses and I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do with Nakiska.”

World championship silver medallist Marielle Thompson, of Whistler, B.C., has already pre-qualified for nomination to Canada’s Olympic team. The rest of the Canadian squad can still pre-qualify with ‘Method B’ criteria, which is based on at least two top results from this coming season alongside a maximum of two from last season. The qualification process is complicated by the fact that ski cross racers are competing for spots against skiers from the other freestyle disciplines, so a strong start is essential.

“It’s always fun to compete at home and having the first event is great – let’s make the rest of the world come to us,” said Eric Archer, head coach of Canada’s ski cross team. “With a double event in Canada we have eight opportunities leading up to the end of the qualification period. As far as I’m concerned our guys have to go out there each and every day and do their best – just do their job.

“We’ve got a lot of guys in the mix,” added Archer, who had three men and four women competing in ski cross in Vancouver – with retired star Ashleigh McIvor winning gold and Del Bosco finishing fourth as the sport made its Olympic debut. “It would be great to have four men and four women qualify but we have a very strong national freestyle team.”

The inaugural Nakiska Ski Cross World Cup, held in December 2012, was considered a big success and set new standards for race organization and safety. Over the summer, the track was widened to allow organizers to build a different kind of course for the 2013 event.

“We think this could be the best course on the World Cup circuit,” said Nakiska Ski Cross World Cup chief of race Jim Sidorchuk. “That was our goal and the reason for undertaking the widening project. We will have a longer course with more defined features. It’s going to be bigger and better.”

This year’s event will feature training on Dec. 4 and 5, followed by qualification and finals on Friday, Dec. 6 and Saturday, Dec. 7.

“We’re delighted to be able to build on the success of the inaugural Nakiska Ski Cross World Cup event by hosting two races this year,” said Pete Bosinger, Alpine Canada’s director of events. “It’s great news for our Canadian athletes and the sport of ski cross as a whole, and ensures we will be able to attract a world-class field to the only ski cross World Cup races held in North America this season. We wouldn’t have been able to stage this event without the support of key sponsors and partners including Sport Canada and the Government of Alberta.”

Around 190 of the world’s best ski cross racers will compete for more than $80,000 in prize money. The event is free to attend and will feature a special kids’ zone. CBC will broadcast the races after the event.

“Fitting its Olympic heritage and incredible diversity of skiing terrain, Nakiska is so proud to be the host of one of world’s greatest races, the Nakiska Ski Cross World Cup,” said Matt Mosteller, vice-president of marketing for the Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, which operates the Nakiska Ski Resort. “Our team and all of Canada can be proud of the incredible athletes who have dedicated themselves to this sport and will be putting their heart and souls into winning a medal for Canada at Sochi 2014. This event is a must-see as it clearly is one of the most exciting Olympic events.”