Canada’s Thompson wins Nakiska Ski Cross

Canada’s ski cross team got its 2013-14 World Cup season off to a hot start in freezing conditions on Saturday as Marielle Thompson won the women’s final and Brady Leman finished third in the men’s race in Nakiska, Alta.

Thompson, of Whistler, B.C., dominated all three of her heats and did the same in the final to take top honours and become the first Canadian ski cross racer to punch her ticket to the 2014 Sochi Olympic Winter Games.

Leman, of Calgary, Alta., produced a typically gutsy performance to advance from a tough semifinal and came within inches of second place in the men’s final as he made a last-gasp push at the finish line. Kelsey Serwa, of Kelowna, B.C., completed a strong comeback from injury by winning the women’s small final to take fifth place overall, while Mathieu Leduc, of Comox, B.C. finished 12th.

“I’m super excited that I could make this great crowd that’s been out in the cold all day proud and I’m excited our team’s doing really well,” said Thompson, the 2013 world championship silver medallist. “It’s all about the start on this course. I was in that far gate so I knew I had to have a rocket start. I pulled one off and just led the whole way down.

“It’s just super wild that I can represent Canada in the Olympics.”

Thompson, who in 2012 became the first Canadian to win an individual ski cross Crystal Globe as the overall World Cup champion, was flying out of the start gate all day, where her dad, Rod, was working as a volunteer.

“My dad was lifting the start gate at the top. He was cheering for me every time – it was pretty cool,” said Thompson. “This is going to be great for my confidence. I had some great results at the end of last season so I was really trying to build on those coming into this season.”

Swiss ace Fanny Smith finished second in the women’s final and French veteran Ophelie David was third.

Serwa, who came into the week unsure whether she would race following knee surgery, won her first heat and then edged out teammate Georgia Simmerling, of West Vancouver, B.C., in the quarter-final. In the semifinal she got stuck at the back of a stacked heat and was eliminated. However, she made a superb pass to win the small final to seal a strong return from injury.

“I felt really good about my race today. In my first race back from knee surgery I couldn’t ask for more,” said Serwa, the 2011 world champion and X Games gold medallist, “I messed up the start a few times and that got me but apart from that I’m really happy. The knee held up great. Having Brady and Marielle on the podium is great. We couldn’t ask for a better start to the season.”

Simmerling has been skiing fast in training but was passed by Serwa in her quarter-final and was eliminated after crossing the line in third.

“We were super excited to be starting next to each other but we both messed up our starts pretty badly so it didn’t start well for us from the get-go,” said Simmerling, who was ninth, of racing Serwa. “I’m skiing really well, my confidence is up, and I know I can ski with those girls. I need to ski more aggressively when it comes to heats, though. That’s for sure.”

The other Canadian woman to qualify for Saturday’s round of 32 heats was Danielle Sundquist, of Calgary, who was third in her heat and did not advance.

“I had a great start, but I made a dumb mistake. I left the door open,” said Sundquist, who finished 19th. “I’m not too happy with myself right now.”

Leman, who was ranked No. 2 in the world two years ago and has set some big goals for this season, had to work hard for his place on the podium. He won his first two heats Saturday but found himself at the back of the pack in his semifinal before he managed to claw his way into second place to advance. In the final he almost caught Switzerland’s Armin Niederer, but ended up just behind the Swiss ace and the winner, France’s Jonas Devouassoux.

“I was feeling good all day. This course is long and tiring and I felt like that really suited me,” Leman said. “I had to make a couple moves in the semis to make the finals and once I was there I wanted to win so bad. I’m happy that I still came away with a medal with bronze.

“It was a tough race and I was close to getting silver but just ran out of room there at the end.”

Leman grew up in Calgary and he was cheered on by a large group of family and friends on Saturday.

“It’s huge for me to race at home,” Leman said. “It’s so cool all my family comes up to see me race. I was just taking pictures with my grandma – it’s super special to have a good performance with my friends and family watching.”

Temperatures approaching -30C led to Friday’s race being postponed to Saturday, while Saturday’s race was cancelled. Although temperatures were much warmer at the start of the round of 32 heats on Saturday, later in the day it became extremely cold and conditions were uncomfortable for racers, coaches, volunteers and fans.

“It’s cold out here and it’s hard on the body but I’ve done thousands of runs at Nakiska and in the Rockies so I’m used to the conditions,” said Leman, who hasn’t officially qualified for Sochi but believes he’s likely done enough. “I think I need one more decent result but the podium was the big one I needed. I ticked that off in the first race and it’s over and done now.”

Earlier in the day Leduc had a strong race to advance to the quarter-finals and a career-best 12th-place result.

“It’s only my second year on the World Cup and it’s the first time making it past the first round,” Leduc said. “I had some opportunities in that second heat and I didn’t take them. A little inexperience, I think, but I’ll build on this.”

Dave Duncan, of London, Ont., who was 17th, and Louis-Pierre Hélie, of Berthierville, Que., who was 31st, were both eliminated in the first heats.

“Today was just not my day,” Hélie said. “I got served by the ski cross Gods and couldn’t do anything where I was. It’s just frustrating because I was ready.”

Eric Archer, head coach of the Canadian ski cross team, was a happy man after seeing some strong performances from his team.

“To get a first and a third, two podiums, that’s what we expect. We’ll see if we can keep this thing rolling,” Archer said. “Mar(ielle) needed a 12th place to confirm her for Sochi and she put an exclamation mark on it. Now we can focus on the overall for the season.

“Kelsey was awesome. I don’t know if she expected it but we did. She put in the work and she trained hard and did the extra things she thought she needed mentally and it was great for her to get back in there and win that small final. We’re going to have to do this every week to reclaim the Nations’ Cup as the No. 1 team on the World Cup circuit. It’s going to be a fun winter.”

The second annual Audi FIS Ski Cross World Cup at Nakiska featured a longer, bigger and bolder track built by star course builder Jeff Ihaksi. Pete Bosinger, director of events for Alpine Canada, praised the work of officials and volunteers, which allowed the racers to compete on a great track in difficult conditions.

“It was an incredible event. The volunteers made it happen in these cold temperatures,” Bosinger said. “They were out there all day keeping the race rolling.

“It was a safe race, the track was good and we had some exciting racing out there. This is an event that’s going to be known as a classic on the circuit and one that Canadians will be proud of for years to come.

“I’d like to thank Hermes Management, Audi, the Nik Zoricic Foundation, the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, Nakiska Ski Area and all of the sponsors and supporters who made this event happen. The conditions were challenging but we ended up having a great event with some great results for the Canadian crowd.”

During Friday’s qualification round, Chris Del Bosco, of Montreal, Que., Tristan Tafel, of Canmore, Alta., and Tyler Murray, of Abbotsford, B.C., were eliminated after finishing outside the top 32. Only the fastest 32 racers advance to the round of 32 heats.

Next up for Canada’s ski cross team is a World Cup race in Val Thorens, France, on Dec. 14-15.