New faces seek their own places on Canada's women's mogul team

Just 21, Saskatoon's Maïa Schwinghammer finds herself the veteran on Canada's women's mogul team. (Sébastien Berthiaume - image credit)
Just 21, Saskatoon's Maïa Schwinghammer finds herself the veteran on Canada's women's mogul team. (Sébastien Berthiaume - image credit)

It's a new era for the Canadian women's moguls team.

For the first time in two decades, there are no Olympic medallists on the roster of skiers and for the first time in 15 years there are no Dufour-Lapointe sisters on the World Cup circuit.

But there is a small group of hungry up-and-comers, led by a 21-year-old from Saskatoon, hoping to make their own mark on the world stage.

Maïa Schwinghammer knows there's a certain responsibility that comes with wearing the Maple Leaf around the globe. In this country, there is a steeped tradition in moguls with five Olympic medals on the women's side and six on the men's side, including three from current team member Mikaël Kingsbury, the most prolific World Cup skier in history.

"I definitely feel that. I try not to let the pressure get in my head too much. I have a lot of potential as an athlete and I've just been working so hard to try and really show that and hopefully that will come this year," Schwinghammer said on a recent call from Idre Fjäll, Sweden, where she's set to compete in the second World Cup of the season.

"If I continue the path that I am, it's always been a dream of mine to compete at the Olympics and to podium at World Cups and to follow in the footsteps of these amazing female athletes."

It's a changing of the guard on the Canadian women's moguls skiing team.

Dave Holland/Canadian Sport Inst
Dave Holland/Canadian Sport Inst

Started skiing at age 4

Chloe Dufour-Lapointe, a four-time Olympian and 2014 Sochi silver medallist, retired in the off-season at age 31, while 28-year-old sister Justine, the two-time Olympic medallist, is taking a break this season and skiing with the Freeride World Tour. Fellow Beijing Olympian Sophie Ann Gagnon, a 23-year-old from Whistler, B.C., is also taking the year off after the intensity of the last Olympic cycle, half of which was spent under COVID protocols.

All of a sudden, Schwinghammer, with 30 World Cup starts under her belt, becomes the most experienced woman on the national team.

One thing is apparent when you speak with Schwinghammer. She doesn't just like her sport. She loves her sport. And she has from the beginning.

It started as a four-year-old being towed by a rope behind a snowmobile on Lake Christopher, a village an hour and 45 minutes northeast of Saskatoon.

Her parents also used to own a ski hill close to Saskatoon called Blackstrap, a 45-metre slope.

"Not very high," Schwinghammer said with a laugh. "I loved it. I was pretty lucky as a kid to have my parents running that and I could just kind of roam free on the hill and learn how to ski."

It's in the genes as well.

Dad Rick, also born and bred in Saskatoon, spent time on the World Cup circuit in moguls, aerials and ballet skiing as well as working with FIS, the international governing body, where he built the sites for freestyle skiing at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

It was at those Olympics that her heart grew for the sport. She joined a freestyle skiing camp at Whistler for a month. "I absolutely loved it," she said.

She was in tears when defending Olympic champion Jenn Heil of Canada didn't win the gold medal (in fact, she sent the 2010 silver medallist a handwritten letter telling her she was the gold medallist in her heart). Eight years later, Schwinghammer found herself full circle, skiing at one of Heil's camps in Jasper.

"It was a pretty big camp for me. Jenn has always been my inspiration. It's a dream to ski with your idols."

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Aiming for consistency

One thing her idols have had is consistency. Heil, for instance, won five Crystal Globes as World Cup overall winner and four world championships, to go along with an Olympic gold and silver.

"I definitely have been working on (consistency) in my training a lot. It's one thing to train it all summer but bringing it into competition is a whole other battle. It's a work in progress, but I have one of the best examples of consistency in the world on my team in Mik Kingsbury.

"Consistency is just as much of a mental aspect as it is physical training. It just comes with experience, too."

Her coach Jim Schiman agrees.

"That's been one of our big things. Narrowing that bandwidth between the not-so-good runs and the great runs and the more we can narrow that and take the bottom part of it, the more success she's going to have.

"Maïa's always been a solid skier but just hit or miss, now she's a little more consistent with it. She worked extremely hard this off-season. She's definitely added strength, speed and agility.

"I think we should look at her as a consistent finalist (top 16), pushing for Super Finals (top six) at this stage. That would be my hope for her this year."

Normally, the Canadian women's World Cup moguls team features at least four athletes, if not more. However, this year, there are just two: Schwinghammer and Laurianne Desmarais-Gilbert, who started just six domestic World Cups before this season. Berkley Brown, a 22-year-old from Toronto with 20 World Cup starts, is returning from injury and not currently with the team.

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

Loves dual moguls

Two 'NextGen' athletes may get a shot at their first World Cups this season: 21-year-old Jesse Linton of North Vancouver, B.C., and 18-year-old Kaylee Koeler out of Quebec City.

"We have a lot of potential there with those women," Schiman said. "It's that first step of World Cup and performing to your capabilities and we just hope each year we build a little bit more and in four years time (at Milan Cortina), we're knocking on that door."

Speaking of the next Olympics in Italy in 2026, how does Schwinghammer feel about dual moguls being included as an official event for those Games?

"I love duals. I mean how cool is that?," she said. "We get to go to the Olympics now and we have two opportunities for a medal. It's so awesome. Duals is just so competitive and it definitely brings mogul skiing to another level and I love it."

Understandable. The best results in her career have come in the discipline, which features two skiers competing side-by-side in a head-to-head, elimination format. She was a silver medallist at the 2018 world junior championships and has two top-10 finishes on the World Cup circuit, both from last season (eighth in Alpe D'Huez, France and a career-best sixth in Valmalenco, Italy).

While it may be a new stage in women's moguls skiing in Canada, sometimes the advantage of turning a new page is that there's a blank slate.

That's fine by Schwinghammer.

"It's time for me to put everything I've been working towards together and hopefully make an impact."