Duncan wins ski cross World Cup

Veteran Dave Duncan celebrated winning his first career ski cross World Cup race Saturday, while Kelsey Serwa and Brady Leman all but punched their tickets to the 2014 Sochi Olympic Winter Games with second- and third-place finishes as Canada owned the podium at the Audi FIS Ski Cross World Cup in Innichen-San Candido, Italy.

For Duncan, originally from London, Ont., and now living in Whistler, B.C., it was a particularly sweet moment after years of battling niggling injuries and coming close but never quite making it onto the top spot on the podium. The 31-year-old is one of the original members of the Canada Ski Cross team that was formed at the end of 2007 and he led Saturday’s final from start to finish to take top honours in the first of two back-to-back World Cup races. Leman, of Calgary, Alta., battled back from a tough start in the men’s final to jump into a podium position and he almost snatched second place with a late push at the line.

Serwa, of Kelowna, B.C., continued her fine comeback from injury with her first podium of the year. With their top-three finishes, Serwa and Leman all but confirmed their spots on the plane to Sochi.

“I feel like this day has been coming for a long time,” said Duncan, who now has five career World Cup podiums but likely needs one more before the end of January to ensure he qualifies for nomination to Canada’s team for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.

“There’s definitely been some ups and downs but I’m elated to finally get this first victory and get this monkey off my back! I don’t have the words to describe what this means to me.”

Duncan, who was second in Friday’s qualification round, was flying out of the start gate all day and he was first and second, respectively, in his first two heats before winning his semifinal and then the final.

“My start was on today. It made my day a lot easier,” said Duncan, a hard worker off the hill who saw his tireless efforts in the gym pay off Saturday. “In the semi (Sweden’s Victor Oehling) Norberg and I were side-by-side out of the start. I gave him the room but I sat back and down below I was able to generate speed and make the pass. In the final it was a battle with (Switzerland’s Alex) Fiva. I got position and held on all the way to the finish.”

Duncan, who had previously had one second-place result and three third-place finishes on the World Cup circuit, saw his dream of representing Canada at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games dashed when he suffered a broken collarbone prior to the finals getting underway.

“My injuries have never been debilitating. My knee has been healthy – it’s been the shoulder or the collarbone,” Duncan said. “I know what I’m capable of when I’m healthy. I’ve made winning a World Cup my goal ever since I started. I’ve been fully dedicated and to finally get this victory means a ton.”

Leman, who was also third in the season-opening World Cup race in Nakiska, Alta., played his part in a thrilling final, which saw him battle right to the line with Switzerland’s Fiva.

“I had my worst start of the day in the final. I didn’t get as good a pump on the first (feature) and got hung up a bit,” Leman said. “I made some moves at the bottom but got outreached at the line in a photo finish. Fiva – the dude has long arms! The start was huge today. It got me into the final and I have another chance tomorrow.

“That’s two podiums this year. (Pre-qualifying for Sochi) is a big load off, for sure. It’s also great to see Dunc finally win one. He’s been in a bunch of finals and everyone who trains with him knows what he’s capable of.”

Chris Del Bosco, of Montreal, Que. – so often the man to beat in ski cross – and Tristan Tafel, of Canmore, Alta., were both eliminated in their round of 32 heats.

“Del had some bad luck in his first heat. He kind of got squeezed and crashed but he will be ready for tomorrow,” said Eric Archer, head coach of the Canadian team. “Tristan did okay in his heat but he got held up by the guy in first and the guy in third made a move and shuffled him back into third.

“Brady and Dunc were really focused in their starts today and really strong at getting into the lead.”

Serwa, completing a strong comeback from knee surgery for the second successive year, won her first two heats and advanced from a dramatic semifinal that was initially led by her teammate and 2012 Crystal Globe winner Marielle Thompson.

“It’s always good being in a heat with a teammate and we work well together,” said Serwa who was second behind Thompson before a series of events changed the complexion of the race.

“I was like, ‘Oh yeah, two Canadians going through to the finals.’ This is all going through my head and then I was swinging wide on the jump and Karolina (Riemen-Zerebecka, of Poland) landed on me and Fanny (Smith, of Switzerland) passed me. Then all of a sudden Marielle’s ski popped off.”

Both Thompson – who won Friday’s qualification round – and Riemen-Zerebecka did not finish, with Smith and Serwa advancing. In the final Smith and Serwa did battle again, with the Swiss racer coming out on top and Sweden’s Anna Holmlund finishing third.

“In the final I was confident heading in because I had been beating Fanny out of the start and was really starting to dial it in. I was calm and focused,” said Serwa, the 2011 world champion and X Games gold medallist. “I won the start and then we just got tangled up coming out of the first or second turn. I followed her down to the finish.”

Serwa, who was fourth in Friday’s qualification round, had likely already done enough to qualify for nomination to Canada’s team for Sochi but Saturday’s result offers a little more certainty.

“My knee feels way better than it did at this time last year and I’m really starting to figure things out,” Serwa said. “I was not planning on racing the second race tomorrow but I think at this point I would be silly not to!”

Thompson, who qualified for nomination to Canada’s team for the 2014 Games through ‘Method A’ after winning the opening World Cup race of the season in Nakiska after previously winning silver at the 2013 world championships, won the small final Saturday to finish fifth, and her teammate Georgia Simmerling, of West Vancouver, B.C., was second in the small final to finish sixth overall. Danielle Sundquist, of Calgary, was eliminated in the first heat and finished 24th overall.

“Marielle had some bad luck in the semi. She would have been in the final for sure,” Archer said. “Marielle and Georgia getting first and second in the small final was great.”

The second of back-to-back World Cup races is scheduled for Sunday. Following Saturday’s results. Smith now leads the women’s World Cup standings with 216 points, while Thompson is second (190), Serwa is fifth (141) and Simmerling is seventh (95). Switzerland’s Armin Niederer leads the men’s standings (146), while Leman is fifth (120) and Duncan is seventh (114).