There are only two rookies joining the 13-member national ski cross team this year, and both of them are from Whistler.
Last week, Canada Ski Cross confirmed that Marielle Thompson and Stanislas Rey would be joining the team for the 2010-2011 season. Both grew up in Whistler and are graduates of the Whistler Mountain Ski Club. Both joined the B.C. Ski Cross team and national development program hosted at the Whistler Mountain Ski Club the past two seasons. Both dominated at the Nor-Am Cup level, and both won the overall Nor-Am ski cross title.
This season they'll be joining the national team, which is arguably the best in the world. Every veteran athlete on the team has won at least one World Cup medal, and both the men's and women's team swept podiums last year. Whistler's Ashleigh McIvor won the Olympic gold medal while Chris DelBosco placed fourth for the men after a crash in the finals.
For Rey, 22, it's an advantage to be able to train with the best in the world.
"The team is super-competitive, and it's really good to have one of the best teams in the world," he said. "In the world, we have three girls in the top five, and the guys are all in the top 15 or 20 in the world, while the second-best is DelBosco. It's cool to train with them and try to chase them down, because I know if I can get close to them I can do well in World Cups too. And I've been learning a lot because they've all been doing this for a while, too."
Rey has already travelled with the team, filling in as a team ski technician for the first part of last season. He would tune the team's practice skis. For the second half of the season he stayed closer to home and raced in the Nor-Am circuit.
Rey thought he would be a ski racer, but a few years ago started to reconsider his options.
"One of my coaches told me to try it out and see if I liked it," he said. "I was having a rough year on the alpine side, so he told me to give it a shot. In 2008, I went to nationals at Red Mountain, and thought it was fun. But I still wanted to do something in Alpine so I went back for one more year. I didn't earn any points (at the start of the season) and then I broke my thumbs in January. So I took a break, and did a couple of ski cross races at the end of the year and just got hooked."
Last year, 2010-2011, was his first full season racing ski cross.
How much did he enjoy it? So much that he built his own training ramp in his backyard.
"With alpine I was doing mostly lower body and core work, but now I'm doing more upper body stuff so I can be more explosive out of the start - because that's really the key. I built my own start gate in my yard so I could train starts, with a gate that I welded with a friend. That will help this season, hopefully."
It's a 35 degree ramp with the same plastic inserts they use at the water ramps.
Rey's goal is to rank in the top-20 overall by the end of the season, as well as to qualify for the world championships and the X Games. But he's patient - the ultimate goal from the start is to represent Canada in the 2014 Winter Games.
"I wish I started a couple of years earlier so I could have tried to make it for 2010 in Vancouver, but Sochi is the next step and I'm trying to work towards that."
Rey considers ski cross to be the ultimate in skiing, combining racing and jumps and other obstacles into a single event. The fact you race alongside others adds a twist.
"It's pretty exciting to have people around you, I wasn't used to that at the beginning," he said. "It always makes it different, you're either trying to find a way to get around people or to stay in front, so there's a lot going on. In ski racing, it was just about going around gates and making a certain number of turns."
While a few years seems like a short time to make the national team in any sport, Rey's background as a ski racer goes back more than a decade. And he's taking the opportunity seriously - all summer, when he was still a B.C. Ski Cross team athlete, he would work construction all day, then go to the gym. He rode his mountain bike four times a week and went to every Toonie Ride. And, of course, he used his backyard ramp to practice his starts.
For Marielle Thompson, who turned 18 this year, it was a surprise to find out that she would be joining the team on the World Cup circuit.
"I didn't really know for sure if I was going to be running in the World Cup until last week, so that was kind of surprising, but all in all I really wanted to go up to the next level from Nor-Am and FIS - it just happened a bit quicker than I imagined."
Thompson got her start while ski racing with the Whistler Mountain Ski Club. She took part in the local Atomic Cross series hosted by Whistler Blackcomb (now the Whistler Blackcomb Ski and Snowboard Cross presented by Powerade) and really enjoyed it.
"It was something new," she said. "I thought I'd try it in my first year, and didn't know then that I'd continue to like it. I think that's because it's a combination of everything - it's jumping, it's turning, and it's the extra adrenaline of having three people beside me. To me it's the most fun you can have on skis because it combines everything."
Thompson has avoided setting any goals for the season, and says she won't event think about that until she has her first World Cup event under her belt.
"I have absolutely no idea how I'm going to do," she said. "It would be nice to see how I stack up in that first race, and see how I can improve from there."
Like Rey she worked all summer at a family cabin, but fit in training wherever she could. The last six weeks have been a whirlwind, with training at the Whistler High Performance Centre and travelling around the world to ski on snow.
"Up until recently I've been as far away as the Caribbean for a holiday. Then this year - the last month and a half - I've already gone to South America and Europe, both for the first time. It's pretty different."
As well as a background in ski racing, Thompson was a competitive figure skater growing up - something she says has helped her in ski cross, from feeling comfortable on edge to launching into the air.
"It's helped a lot with the gliding and being comfortable in the air," she said. "Also, skating is kind of scary because you have a lot of people watching you and you're being judged. There are a lot of people watching ski cross as well.
"I think skating is definitely a good cross-training sport. My brother used to figure skate when he was younger, and now he's on the B.C. Ski Team. It helped both of us, I'd say."
Thompson just graduated from high school in June, but decided to postpone post-secondary school to focus on racing. She's taking a few high school courses to improve her grades, and says she might start going to school part-time next summer to go along with racing ski cross.
The national team is leaving for Europe on Dec. 2 to train and will race in a Europa Cup event before the start of the World Cup season at Inichen/San Candido, Italy from Dec. 18 to 19.