Canadian freestyle skier Rachael Karker skies for joy post-Beijing

CALGARY — What Rachael Karker wants to do in her first season after winning an Olympic medal is unwind and ski.

The Canadian earned halfpipe bronze in her Olympic debut last year in Beijing behind champion Eileen Gu and Canadian teammate Cassie Sharpe.

Karker's weeks leading up to Beijing felt fraught with risk.

Possible injury or catching COVID-19 factored into every decision.

She declined her X Games invitation to Aspen, Colo., in order to stay healthy for Beijing.

Objective achieved, the skier from Erin, Ont., hit the reset button for 2022-23.

Karker won December's World Cup season-opener in Copper Mountain, Colo., where she and Canadian teammate Amy Fraser finished one-two in women's pipe.

Karker extended her streak of World Cup medals to nine straight dating back to the 2019-20 season.

The 25-year-old headlines the host Canadian team into the second and third World Cups of the season Thursday and Saturday evening in Calgary's "Snow Rodeo".

"I was pretty burned out after the Games," Karker told The Canadian Press. "I don't think I skied until September. It was a lot last year.

"With COVID, I feel it was three times more stressful than a normal Olympics. I'm just trying to get back into it, find some nice clean runs and find the joy in it again.

"There's less external pressure and it's more trying to go and ski my best without thinking about what that leads to in the future."

Gu will compete in Calgary after sitting out the season-opener.

The American-born athlete hit international stardom winning halfpipe and big air gold, as well as slopestyle silver, for host China in Beijing.

Canada's Sharpe, who won Olympic gold in 2018 and took silver behind Gu, won't compete in Calgary.

The 30-year-old from Comox, B.C., is taking some personal time this season, said Freestyle Canada high-performance director Julie Steggall.

In 2014, WinSport expanded Calgary's superpipe — the biggest in Western Canada — to its current dimensions of 6.7 metres high, 22 metres wide, 160 metres long and a vertical of 83 degrees.

Calgary was an occasional training stop for retired American snowboard legend Shaun White because of the pipe's dimensions and night lightning.

"Having permanent lights here, it's the perfect place to train day skiing and night skiing," said Karker, who moved to Calgary in 2016.

She and Fraser were stumped when asked to estimate how many times they've dropped in to Calgary's pipe in their lives.

Karker thought thousands and Fraser's answer was "hours and hours."

"I wouldn't be on the team if this wasn't here because I would never have had the exposure," said Fraser, a Calgarian who was eighth in Beijing and scored her career-first World Cup medal in Colorado.

The 27-year-old came to halfpipe as an adult. The pipe's ease of access accelerated her entry.

"My experience was I had to work to afford to ski," Fraser said. "During the day, you're working. If it was a regular hill, I'd miss all the time I could be in the halfpipe.

"When I was in university classes, I'd come at 7:30 or 8 at night and ski."

Calgarians comprise the majority of the Canadian halfpipe team.

Brendan Mackay, Noah Bowman, Andrew Longino and twin brothers Evan and Dylan Marineau will compete in their home pipe Thursday and Saturday.

Simon D'Artois of Whistler, B.C., rounds out the men's national team that will be augmented by several NexGen and provincial skiers in Calgary.

Mackay was a double men's gold medallist in Calgary's two World Cups last season.

He and Bowman placed second and third respectively in Colorado where Canadians claimed four of six possible medals to kick off this season.

Karker, Fraser and Dillan Glennie of Courtney, B.C., are the Canada's women to watch in Calgary, where Karker hopes her home-pipe comfort is an advantage.

"I ski here all the time so there's a lot less stress when you come in," she said. "You know where everything is. I know this pipe.

"It's not like you show up for two days of training for a contest and you've never seen it before and you're figuring it out. That is what we do almost every event. That stress is taken away when you're here."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2023.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press