On Tuesday, the countdown clock for the Sochi 2014 Games ticked down to 500 days — 500 days of training, preparing and competing for spots for Canada's Olympic and Paralympic athletes.
Canada's goal this time around is a little more modest. In 2010 we wanted to be first overall among nations for total medals, but instead placed third; however, we did win more gold medals (14) than any other country in the history of the Winter Games and our results were heralded as a triumph for Canadian sports, and the Own the Podium program that channeled record amounts of government funding into our national sports system.
Canada's goal heading into Sochi is aggressive; to be the first host nation to sustain its position in the overall medal count by placing third — a feat we accomplished with 26 medals this time around, but with new events on the schedule it could take a few more than that to repeat.
While it might seem like a lofty goal, in many ways Canada is better prepared this time around.
Our freestyle team won its seventh straight overall Nations Cup title last season, boosted by the strong results of three athletes in particular — Mikael Kingsbury was on the podium every single event and won eight gold medals to take the overall moguls crown, while Justine Dufour-Lapointe placed second overall in the women's moguls standings with one gold medal and seven more podiums. Meanwhile Olivier Rochon came out of nowhere to win the overall Crystal Globe in men's aerials with six podium appearances. In total, moguls and aerials athletes combined for 37 medals.
The freestyle program is expanding this year to include two new sports; ski halfpipe and ski slopestyle. Canada has solid medal contenders on both sides, with Kaya Turski of Montreal winning every pro slopestyle contest she entered last season and Rosalind Groenewoud taking the Association of Freeskiing Professionals (AFP) World Tour title in halfpipe. There are also strong contenders on the men's and women's teams, including Dara Howell, Megan Gunning, Keltie Hansen and others.
While most teams consider ski cross an alpine discipline, the FIS still groups it with freestyle. Canada is solidly positioned on both the men's and women's side, with Olympic champion Ashleigh McIvor and world champion Kelsey Serwa returning from injury this season. Meanwhile, Whistler's Marielle Thompson, in only her second year with the national team, captured the women's overall Crystal Globe with six medals, three of them gold. Almost all members of the men's team contributed, with Brady Leman, Chris Del Bosco, David Duncan and Tristan Tafel on the podium.
Cross-country, Nordic sports
While Canada's cross-country team failed to win a medal in 2010 they came agonizingly close a few times — then followed up with a series of results that have shattered previous records set by Canadians in international competitions. The last season was out of a dream, with athletes winning 14 medals on the World Cup circuit, three times more hardware than in the team's previous best season. The men's team was primarily responsible, with Devon Kershaw on the podium six times with two gold medals to place second overall, Alex Harvey winning three medals to rank sixth overall and Len Valjas winning three medals. Chandra Crawford won two medals on the women's team, with Crawford teaming up with Perianne Jones to win a bronze in the team sprint.
Canada's prospects in the other Nordic sports are not as strong, but the biathlon team did post its best season ever last year with several athletes placing in the top 10, and Canada does have a few strong prospects in women's ski jumping, which was added to the schedule for 2014.
Although the team continued to suffer from a rash of injuries, especially among speed skiers, the season ended reasonably well. The men's speed team had a streak mid-season that resulted in five medals for Erik Guay, Jan Hudec and Benjamin Thompson. The women's technical team caught fire at the end of the season, with Erin Meilzynski winning a slalom race — the first by a Canadian woman in over 40 years — while Marie-Michele Gagnon, Canada's most consistent skier in recent years, earned her first World Cup medal, a bronze, in a slalom a week later. Seven medals was far from a record for the team, but it was the team's best performance in more than five years.
Canada Snowboard has been in a bit of a flux recently, cutting funding from some programs while increasing it for others. The highlight last season was the women's snowboardcross team, which finished the season with Olympic champion Maëlle Ricker and Dominique Maltais contending for first overall on the World Cup points list. Maltais went on to win the Crystal Globe with four World Cup medals, while Ricker, coming back from injuries, finished with three medals. Chris Robanske won the only medal for the men's snowboardcross team, with Olympic silver medallist Mike Robertson retiring from the squad after sustaining a head injury.
Caroline Calve won her first World Cup alpine snowboard race for the team, while Matthew Morison won the men's teams only medal.
Canada didn't field much of a team at World Cup halfpipe events, but Canadian athletes did take part in top pro events with Whistler's Mercedes Nicoll coming close to the podium a few times and placing 13th in the world on the pro TTR world tour.
The 2014 Olympics will see the inclusion of snowboard slopestyle, which is good news for Canada with stars like Sebastien Toutant, Mark McMorris, Antoine Truchon, Maxence Parrot, Matts Kulisek and Spencer O'Brien ruling on the pro circuit. Toutant won the Burton US Open and placed second at the World Snowboarding Championships, Burton NZ Open and Billabong Ante Up.
Snowboarders won three medals at the 2010 Games, and are contenders to win at least that many in 2014.
Canadians could be hard-pressed to repeat their four-medal performance from 2010, but there are a lot of reasons to think they should be able to do it.
One reason; the consistency that Melissa Hollingsworth has found in skeleton. She blew her chance of a podium with an error on her fourth and final run in 2010, but has since come back strong and won four medals last season, with teammate Amy Gough adding two. Jon Montgomery, the men's Olympic champion, took last season off to train and prepare for Sochi.
Canada is also a contender in luge this time around, with Alex Gough placing fifth overall last season while earning three podiums. The relay team, which includes Sam Edney and the tandem of Justin Snith and Tristan Walker, also made the podium twice.
In bobsleigh, Olympic champion Kaillee Humphries reached the podium several times last season to rank third overall. Lyndon Rush also made the podium several times in two-man bobsleigh.
The other sports
Canada continues to field medal contenders in on-ice events like hockey, figure skating and curling, which contributed five medals — three of them gold — at the 2010 Games. In Curling, the Canadian men are ranked first in the world, while the Canadian women are in second. In figure skating, Canada's David Chan finished last season ranked first in the world in men's singles, while Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir finished ranked third in ice dancing.
It's still unknown whether the National Hockey League will release players to attend the 2014 Games, but the International Ice Hockey Federation's said recently that prospects looked good.