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Halfpipe star Alexandra Duckworth goes public for funding

Whistler-based rider looking to qualify for 2014 Winter Games

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A few years ago in a boardroom somewhere it was decided that Canada's halfpipe athletes had little to no chance to win medals in 2014. As a result, Own the Podium cut funding to the sport to a bare bones $25,000 last year — not nearly enough to field a World Cup team or hire a coach.

That left Canada's halfpipe athletes relying on sponsors and paying their own way last season, and concentrating more on higher visibility pro events rather than World Cup competitions.

There are some signs that the program is in the process of being revived. Former national athlete Dan Raymond was named as the national team's head coach for the coming season. And, despite the lack of funding, several athletes have every intention of representing Canada at the Games in Sochi.

Among them is Nova Scotia-Whistler transplant Alexandra Duckworth, who has two national-champion wins (one in slopestyle) and a win at the Canada Games. Recently she has taken the unusual step of putting a video on Pursuit (www.pursu.it/campaign/alex-duckworth/) with the goal of raising $8,652 for the coming season — a crucial one with Duckworth and hundreds of other athletes competing to earn quota spots for their countries and themselves at the 2014 Games.

It's an unusual step for the athlete, and one that could pave the way for other athletes working around the usual sponsorship dance and taking their appeal directly to the public.

Duckworth, who Pique reached while training in New Zealand, said it's been a hard road recently for Canada's snowboard halfpipe athletes.

"I'm entering my fifth season as a national team rider," she said.

"The team is now five people; the smallest it's ever been as far as I know. The support the program receives varies from year to year, depending on who Own the Podium, the governing body of sport funding in Canada, deems to have podium potential — kind of backwards considering it's often the result of retired athletes who determine the destiny of funding for their discipline for the up and coming generation, regardless of who the up-and-comers are, or what potential they have demonstrated.

"In a sense, this system caps the potential of really talented riders, who compete in a field that hasn't historically received Olympic medals. And what's wrong with sixth place at the Olympics? Mercedes Nicoll is one of the best riders in the world. Does it make sense that a sixth place finish warrants zero program funding?"

While the program has a coach this year, Duckworth noted that the team has no program funding. "We don't have the resources to function as a team and really take advantage of Dan. Costs related to our travel, accommodation, registration, facilities, etc. are all dependent on our own means."

Duckworth said those limitations make it harder to ensure that the team will have a presence at the Games in 2014. For one thing, she will have to divide her time between the pro TTR tour — where sponsors want athletes and where the most prize money is up for grabs — and the FIS World Cup tour, which is where athletes have to compete to earn points and quota spots for the Olympics.

As well, athletes on the national team have to follow the World Cup tour to keep their position on the national team — and even if they don't get a lot of funding right now there are other perks to being with the national program like university tuition, a cell phone plan, access to their global medical plan, and more.

Duckworth is encouraged that the FIS and TTR tours are working more closely than before, and says there are less conflicts this year.

"For example, this year we're seeing less competition (between) tours, and less conflicts between the two systems," Duckworth said.

"Canada Snowboard has been adapting to these changes so that team selection isn't based solely on FIS points, but a combination of the FIS and TTR. I think this means a bright future for the upcoming generation of Canadian snowboarders; they won't have to deal with this trade-off as much as my generation of national team athletes."

However, Duckworth pointed out that the Olympics are still based entirely around FIS, and you need to rank in the top 30 of FIS rankings to go to the Games in 2014.

Duckworth does receive $18,000 per year through the national carding system for senior-level athletes, but otherwise is paying 100 per cent of her own training and competition costs for the coming season.

There could be other funding through the provincial government and national level sponsors, but Duckworth said she's not currently enrolled in those programs.

Pursuit, which launched on Sept. 30 with five athletes, is her biggest hope right now.

"Pursuit's emphasis on linking an athlete with his/her community and various networks is a huge part of the support required to make it in this game," she said.

Her goal of $8,652 was based on her airfare costs to get to World Cup events this season. "Ideally, I can blow this initial goal out of the water and raise enough for all of my travel costs, including accommodation, training costs and coaching fees."

Duckworth has ramped up her own training, working on more inverted tricks and more airtime. She's also focusing on making her runs more creative, which is where she sees the biggest window of opportunity.

As well as halfpipe, Duckworth is a slopestyle national champion and with slopestyle in the 2014 Games she knows there is a chance to compete for Canada in both disciplines — although she knows it will be hard.

"I would love to be a dual discipline athlete in Sochi," she said.

"The trouble is trying to progress and stay healthy throughout the season, competing in two disciplines. The halfpipe and slopestyle schedules really do conflict a great deal. I've learned over the years that competing in both really takes away from your focus and progression."

"That said, halfpipe is my current focus but depending how the qualification process plays out I'm not writing off the possibility of jumping into a few last minute slopestyle quails."

In the meantime, Duckworth would like to see more Canadians supporting halfpipe, which has been an Olympic discipline through five Olympic Games.

"I'd hate to see the Canadian team slip from five people to zero," she said.

"It's such an important part of snowboarding's history and I'd hate to see Canada miss out on that because of funding politics."

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