CALGARY — The Canadian ski cross team's final tune up before the Winter Olympics is on home snow
World Cup races Friday and Saturday at Nakiska resort west of Calgary feature a deep host team, particularly on the women's side with five Canadians ranked in the world's top 10.
So Nakiska results carry weight in which athletes are named to the Olympic team bound for Beijing's Winter Games opening Feb. 4.
"Definitely hard competition amongst each other," said Zoe Chore of Cranbrook, B.C. "We're competing against each other, but we're also using that to push each other to the next level.
"I think it's really helping us prep for the pressure that we're going to have in the Olympics for the people who do make it."
Four men and four women raced for Canada in 2018, but ski cross numbers are always contingent on how many Canadian athletes qualify in other freestyle disciplines.
Britt Phelan of Mont-Tremblant, Que., 2014 Olympic champion Marielle Thompson of Whistler, B.C., Ottawa's Hannah Schmidt, Courtney Hoffos of Invermere, B.C., and Tiana Gairns of Prince George, B.C., are jockeying for Olympic spots with Chore and India Sherrett of Cranbrook also podium threats.
Calgary's Brady Leman, the men's 2014 Olympic champ, Reece Howden of Cultus Lake, B.C., and Toronto's Kevin Drury are the front-runners for Beijing berths.
Ottawa's Jared Schmidt, Kristofer Mahler of Canmore, Alta., Edmonton's Carson Cook and Montreal's Chris del Bosco are looking to increase their chances in Alberta.
Timed qualifying runs are Thursday. Those advancing race sudden-death elimination rounds to determine the winners Friday and Saturday.
The Canadians won't travel to a pair of World Cups in Idre Fall, Sweden, next week because of the risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus en route.
Anyone travelling to Beijing must produce two negative pre-departure tests to board a plane, so avoiding the virus has taken precedence over competing. Russia's ski cross team didn't travel to Canada.
"We're not actually attending the next World Cup before the Olympics in Sweden, which really sucks but it is what it is," said Howden, the defending men's World Cup champion.
"That's probably going to be a big stress off our shoulders in terms of just eliminating the possibility of picking it up during travel.
"Basically after Nakiska, we're going to be locked down, hanging out. We're going to be able to do some training here at Nakiska and then also trying to figure out some gym situation so we can stay away from the public."
Phelan, an Olympic silver medallist in 2018, almost didn't make it to Nakiska. The 30-year-old had COVID in December and a last-minute negative test cleared her to compete.
She finished second at the last World Cup held at Nakiska in January, 2020 before suffering a season-ending knee injury the following month.
"Certainly a very long knee recovery. Almost two years," Phelan said. "This race two years ago was really the one I'd replay in my mind. It was my last really good race before getting hurt."
While Nakiska is open for public skiing, viewing areas for the race are closed and the course fenced to create a buffer zone between the racers and the public.
As a Canadian team sendoff for Beijing, it will be muted.
"My parents and a lot of family were actually going to come, but when the new protocols kind of came out, they just called it and decided to watch it on TV, because they wouldn't have much access at all to us as athletes," Thompson said.
The race forecast is for temperatures of minus-1 C and a mix of sun and cloud.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 13, 2021.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press