The 2011-2012 season has been a relaxing one so far for Whistler's Mercedes Nicoll, although that's not necessarily a bad thing.
It started with the announcement that the national halfpipe team had been all but cut from Own the Podium funding, with just $25,000 in the budget for the entire sport. Canadian athletes still had the option of competing on the pro tour with their sponsors, but the lack of snow almost everywhere but Whistler this year resulted in the cancellation of several events in the middle of the season.
As a result the 29-year-old Olympian was at home for the second half of December and almost the whole month of January, training in the superpipe and doing runs in the terrain park. Usually it would be Nicoll's busiest time between travelling and competing.
"It's been a weird season with all the contests getting cancelled in January, so I was really just close to home," she said. "Now we're super busy, but there was a huge six-week lull because there wasn't any snow anywhere."
Despite the late start, Nicoll has been making up for lost time. This past weekend she attended the Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain in California, where she placed fifth overall. Pique caught up to her in between powder runs on Thursday, after three days of training in the Mammoth pipe had been cancelled by high winds.
"Really weird season," she repeated. "But, I'm riding powder."
The weekend before the Grand Prix she was at the FIS World Cup at Stoneham, Quebec where she placed fourth overall. The week before that she was in Oslo, Norway for the non-FIS World Snowboarding Championships — a pro event sanctioned by the World Snowboard Federation and TTR World Snowboard Tour. She fell in her last run and placed 10th, but was the only Canadian rider to qualify for the finals.
In fact, she's been the top Canadian halfpipe athlete in every event so far this year.
To keep her skills sharp during her unscheduled break, Nicoll has been training with Whistler Valley Snowboard Club coach Joe McAdoo. She used the time to put together a new run with harder tricks that she debuted at Oslo. It didn't earn a podium there, but she's getting closer every week.
"The pipe has been good, so basically I've just been riding that and the jumps and trying to get better," she said. "This year I put a new run together and took it to the World Championships in Oslo. I'd never done it before, so I was actually pretty happy with that (10th place). I want to keep working to make it better, and get more solid tricks — and bigger tricks — in my run.
"That's one great thing about this sport, there are always new things to learn."
Other than progressing, Nicoll isn't too sure what's going to happen in the future. She doesn't have a lot of events planned in the spring, but is setting up photo and video shoots — including a backcountry hut shoot with Erin Hoge.
As a competitive rider, she continues to get Sport Canada funding, but the lack of funding for the team means that things are up in the air. She has no idea what the future will hold.
"I wish I could say," she said. "I would like to go to the next Olympics and try to qualify, but a lot is still up in the air with Canada Snowboard. I guess we'll see in the spring what they decide to do with the team."
In the meantime, the possibility that X Games could come to Whistler is a bit of good news for Nicoll and other local riders.
"That's super exciting for Whistler, and I was really happy to hear about that. It's a great event, and it would be great for Whistler and all the athletes in Whistler, too," she said.