Snowboarder Mercedes Nicoll was a four-time national halfpipe champion coming into last week's Sport Chek Air Nation Freestyle Nationals festivities at Quebec's Mount St. Louis.
But win No. 5 may have been the sweetest for the 32-year-old Whistlerite as she grabbed a score of 89.50 to edge out fellow veteran Katie Tsuyuki, who notched an 88.00. Kira Lengkeek was third but well back with a tally of 75.50.
The contest, held March 8, was just Nicoll's third event back in roughly two years after she sustained a concussion competing at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
"It's actually probably one of the best victories I could have asked for," she said. "I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to compete again and to win this title means more to me than anything."
While Nicoll has regained some of the moves she had in her arsenal before the crash, she doesn't have the full bag of tricks quite yet.
"I just wanted to put down a solid run and feel confident in my riding again. I just tried to keep it clean and that's about it," she said. "I got my frontside 720 back, so I'm really happy about that. I didn't have my 900 back. I haven't tried that since Sochi, but hopefully in training coming up, I'll wrap my head around trying that trick again."
Nicoll recalled having difficulty walking and talking after the Sochi crash and spent months just trying to get back to living a normal life. But even in the face of the challenges at the time, she held onto the determination that her most recent run in the halfpipe wouldn't be her last.
"I didn't want to end like that at Sochi," she said. "Listening to my body was huge in knowing when to come back, and not too soon. I didn't want to hit my head and go through all of that again too soon.
"In October, I ended up being symptom-free. I knew I had to get back into the gym all fall to build my muscles back up to do what I wanted to do. I was, again, listening to my body and knowing I was ready to get back in there."
After building her strength back up, Nicoll travelled eastward to recover as many of her old techniques as she could. Once there, she discovered she needed — and received — much more.
"I went to Calgary to train just to see what was possible in January. Just talking and being around the environment really helped me, and having positive people around helped me get through the mental barriers of it all," she said. "Dropping back into the pipe was obviously scary but was the most happy time of my life because I could do it again. I was just really overjoyed with tearful, happy emotions."
Nicoll had just two events under her belt before taking the victory, competing in the Park City and Sapporo World Cup events in February, placing 17th and 12th. She hopes the title provides a good omen for her in 2016-17.
"I'm super hopeful for next year. Obviously, after each Olympics, everyone's like 'Are you going to go to the next one?' After the last ones when I was on crutches with a black eye, I wasn't exactly sure if I was going to be able to and compete again," she said. "That will be the big goal, but right now, I'm just focusing on mini-goals."