As she looks back on her illustrious career, it would be easy for halfpipe snowboarder Mercedes Nicoll to hold up the 2010 Winter Olympic Games as her career highlight.
After all, her sixth-place finish was her best at her four Olympic Games and seven World Championships—and it came in her own backyard.
But on the day she made her retirement from competition official, May 15, Nicoll said her fourth and final Games this past Feburary in PyeongChang, South Korea stands out as her greatest accomplishment.
Nicoll, 34, said that's because a crash at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia left her no guarantees she'd snowboard again, let alone compete on the world's greatest stage. Concussion issues plagued her for well over a year afterward, but Nicoll eventually found herself well enough to challenge for a slot on the Canadian team in PyeongChang, where she finished 18th.
"I feel really great closure from the 2018 Games. Coming back from my injury, it took me four years to get the trick back that took me out (backside 900). I went into these Games knowing it would be my last, and my last contest," she said.
"I'm 34," she added with a laugh. "You can't be in the halfpipe competing forever."
As she soaked in the atmosphere of her final Games as a competitor, Nicoll's Olympic experience this year was highlighted by a "curveball," where she walked in the front line of Canadian athletes during the opening ceremonies.
"That was the icing on the cake to that closure," she said. "These Games weren't results-based for me, really. It was more just fighting my own battles and proving to myself that I can face my own fears directly, head on."
Nicoll knew it was special when she qualified for the Olympics late in the process after a gruelling competition schedule, but with some time in between, she feels an even greater appreciation for what she accomplished.
"It's an emotional road because I was crying then and I'm crying now," she said. "I'm so glad that I'm not afraid to show my emotions now, and this feeling that I'm having now—again, I'm proud of my whole career—but it's scary going into the unknown and leaving that team that I've been on for nearly 20 years."
One major lesson PyeongChang taught Nicoll is that not everything comes down to placement and numbers. This time, the cause for celebration was overcoming the numerous hurdles she did, from barely leaving her house to competing on the world stage again.
"I really thought Vancouver was the highlight, because that was the best result, but this Games was the icing on the cake because I went through so much and I really came back. I didn't know if I would snowboard again, so the fact I just persevered and learned more about myself, too," she said. "In the end, I was proud of myself, which you can't always say."
Nicoll plans to continue her work with Whistler Blackcomb's Ride With an Olympian program, and will continue accepting speaking engagements. After a successful turn at last month's World Ski and Snowboard Festival, she also hopes to find more hosting opportunities in the future.
"I'm open to new opportunities," she said. "If anyone has ideas of what I can do, tell me."
Jokes aside, transitioning from active competition to retirement can be unexpectedly difficult for a number of elite athletes, who can find themselves at loose ends without the career that had defined them for decades. Nicoll said she has a plan, and a support group, as she enters this new phase of her life."I know I won't be doing this alone. That's something that I found with my injury, is to always ask for help, which is not always easy," she said.
Nicoll will work with Game Plan, a wellness and transition program launched in 2015, to help her out.
"I'll probably be calling them a lot to see what I can do and to keep bettering myself throughout this crazy transition," she said.
As well, Nicoll, who has depression, works with the Bell Let's Talk campaign and will continue with her mental-health advocacy in retirement.
"I'm definitely all for that. I'm trying to keep depression on my own end at bay, keeping busy. The nice part about sharing my story, and how I just shared my blog about this transition (on her website www.mercedesnicoll.com) is that I'm an open person and I'm happy to share these stories," she said. "Especially when it comes to mental health, I don't think there should be a stigma and I will spend more time doing that as well."
Nicoll, who was born in North Vancouver and moved to Whistler at age 12, credits her upbringing in the resort for helping her achieve the heights she did.
"Whistler has been home my whole life," she said. "I owe everything to Whistler. I wouldn't be where I was without the community backing me all these years. I appreciate everyone at Whistler more than they know, I'm sure."