Although she's only 25 years old, there was a time when Ashleigh McIvor seriously considered retiring from the sport of ski cross. She was winning and placing at the top contests, but a series of injuries kept her sidelined for the better part of three seasons.
But with a chance to compete at home in the 2010 Games, she returned to racing last season with the startup national team, placing fourth and fifth in World Cup races before being sidelined once again with an injury.
She had a slow start to this season, barely cracking the top-30 in the first two events before earning a silver medal in Flaine, France, followed by a seventh place finish at Lake Placid. At the World Cup and Olympic test event at Cypress last month, she earned her second silver medal behind teammate Aleisha Cline, which she followed up with a fourth place finish in Norway, a third place finish in Sweden, and, in her best performance yet, a gold medal at the World Championhips in Japan.
McIvor is now ranked third overall in the ski cross standings with 309 points, tied with Katharina Gutensohn of Austria. She could move up as high as second with a 39 point swing in the last two events. She has just three events remaining this season, including two World Cup events in Switzerland and the World Cup finals in France.
Her goals are to return to the podium, and to finish in the top three overall on the World Cup circuit - something that would not be possible if she opted for early retirement.
"I thought about (retiring from the sport) lots, I had so many injuries," she said. "The important thing for me is to realize that they're all temporary."
Being part of the first ever Canadian Ski Cross team has also given McIvor confidence. Instead of competing on her own, funding from Own The Podium 2010 has provided the team with three coaches, massage and physiotherapy, ski technicians, training camps, and a general level support she only dreamed of five years ago when she competed in the first season of World Cup ski cross.
She also has strong teammates to race against. There are five Canadian women in the top-20 of the overall standings, more than any other national team.
McIvor acknowledges that she is, to a certain extent, racing against her teammates to be named to the Olympic team, but that hasn't affected the team dynamic.
"That's all part of it, being part of an individual sport and working as a team," she said. "We're all going for the same thing, but we keep it positive and feed off each other's results. And it's great to have so many good skiers to train with.
"It makes it fun, and enables us to train like we're racing all through the summer. There are enough guys and girls on the team that we can train in heats of four like a real race. But the biggest thing is that we've all been brought together, no other countries have this kind of team yet."
The team dynamic bears out on the men's side as well, with four Canadians in the top-20, led by Chris DelBosco in second place overall. At the World Cup event at Cypress the Canadian men swept the podium, with DelBosco in first, Stanley Hayer in second and Whistler's Davey Barr in third.
But while expectations may be high for the team, McIvor says she hasn't been feeling the pressure.
"We definitely raised the bar at Cypress, but I don't buy into all that," she said. "I just like to go out there and have fun. I wouldn't do it if I didn't enjoy it."
McIvor, who has a background in ski racing, also isn't worried by the increasing number of World Cup alpine racers switching over to her sport.
"Every year I see more alpine racers come over (to ski cross), and every year I'm concerned they'll go out and kick our butts. I'm realizing now that there's a lot more to it, and that alpine skiing is just one factor in being a good ski cross racer," she said.
"You need to be a good technical skier, alpine-wise, and you need to have been out on the big mountain and backcountry, and have that ability to push yourself and overcome fears. A huge component is just being good at making quick decisions because the course comes at you fast, and remaining calm when you're in traffic and basically skiing with three girls right beside you."
The team's five medals at Cypress were not the result of any home field advantage, as the team has had little time to practice on the course. However, McIvor said that the skiers knew that the course was built by Whistler's Jeff Ihaksi, which gave her more confidence.
"Some of us have raced longer than others and have skied his courses before," she said. "Just knowing he put it together is comforting in itself. You look at it and you want to just send it, you don't have to worry that the transitions are in the wrong spot, or that you're going to end up sideways off a jump. It's the best course in the world right now, I love it."