Dara Howell has rediscovered her drive and passion for freestyle skiing.
It took tearing her ACL and a year of painful rehab to get there.
Howell, the Olympic gold medallist in slopestyle from the Sochi Games in 2014, opened her freestyle season earlier this month with a bronze medal at a big air World Cup in Modena, Italy in her first competition since coming back from ACL surgery.
While the third-place finish was a welcome achievement, Howell said landing her jump during qualifying was a much more important step in her comeback.
"I think the qualification stage was the most emotional I've ever been in a contest — it was almost a bigger moment than Sochi," Howell said in a recent phone interview with The Canadian Press. "Even though it was just qualification, and compared to gold at the Olympics it sounds strange but it just (took) so much hard work to get there and to achieve that.
"Coming off ACL surgery I really had my eyes set on that first contest and ... I was really hopeful for a top-6 (finish) going in. So yeah, I think I exceeded my expectations and it was a great start to the season."
The Huntsville, Ont., native finished first in qualifying in Modena with a 90.5-point jump on her second run. She had failed to land her first attempt in the qualifier, knocking her confidence down a peg in the process.
"You kinda get that moment of: 'Oh my gosh. A year of this and I just fell on my first jump and I have one more shot at it and I don't know what's going to happen,'" Howell said. "But I had prepped as best as I could and really focused on doing what I could do, and doing it the best I could do it in that moment."
Howell was supposed to compete again this weekend in Austria at the Stubai slopestyle World Cup but bad weather forecasted for Friday and Saturday forced organizers to cancel the event on Wednesday.
The next big air World Cup runs Dec. 13-15 in Beijing. A slopestyle World Cup isn't scheduled until January, which is perhaps a welcome break for Howell.
The 25-year-old said she prefers the thrill of big air's single jump to the more elaborate slopestyle discipline that's split into two categories — a technical rail portion followed by a series of jumps.
"I've just struggled with rails for a long time," Howell said. "When I was coming up through the sport I focused a lot on jumps and just maintained the rails that I needed to. But kids coming up now they focus more on both so girls are just really good at rails, which is great, but I'm just a little bit scared of them."
Howell injured her knee 14 months ago during a big air jump at the Cardona World Cup in August 2018, forcing her to miss out on an entire freestyle season.
She said the first three to five months of her rehab were "definitely the most difficult," and while she kept training daily for an eventual comeback, she questioned whether she really wanted to return to the sport.
"One of my friends said to me: 'Why are you training so hard if you're not sure you're going to go back?' And I really had to think about that for a while," Howell said. "It was that moment that turned it all for me. I was putting in that work every single day and I said to myself: 'I am good at this, I can do this, and I want to do this again.'
"That really put my focus back on track."
Howell made history at Sochi in 2014 — the year slopestyle made its Games debut — as the first athlete to be crowned Olympic champion in the discipline.
But Howell, then just 19 years old, struggled to manage her sudden fame when she returned to Canada as an Olympic gold medallist and took a two-year break from the sport.
She came back in 2017, in preparation for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, where she finished 21st.
"I was young, I felt I didn't handle things well," Howell said of her two-year hiatus. "I felt the pressure on myself overwhelming and it took skiing away from me in the sense that I was doing it not for myself and not because I enjoyed it, so it made sense to step away.
"I don't regret it because it's led me to where I am now, but I was in my peak and I might have been able to carry that forward, or I could have gotten injured on the hill, who knows?
"But I think it was this (ACL) injury that really led me back to my passion for skiing and my competitive drive."
With ski big air added to the Olympic program for 2022 (the snowboarding version of the event debuted in Pyeongchang in 2018), Howell now has another motivator to keep her in the sport.
She will be 27 by the next Olympic Games — she joked that her teammates already call her "Grandma D" — but Howell is committed to competing in both slopestyle and big air at Beijing.
"I want to be the best and having big air as an Olympic sport drives me into 2022," Howell said. "It's a new opportunity to push myself even more and see what happens."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 21, 2019.
Melissa Couto, The Canadian Press