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Ski cross squad opening Olympic year at home

Healthy Canadian team hosting back-to-back World Cup races at Nakiska



Both Whistlerites on the Canadian ski cross team are building towards their first Olympics, but have followed very different paths to get there.

By winning Canada's first individual Crystal Globe and capturing a world championship silver medal long before she could call herself an Olympian, Marielle Thompson's route to Sochi has been somewhat unconventional.

Veteran team member Dave Duncan, meanwhile, has had to wait four years for his Olympic chance after breaking his collarbone on a training run at Cypress Mountain just two days before his race in the 2010 Games.

Both will get their seasons underway on home snow this weekend, when Nakiska, Alta., will host back-to-back World Cup races on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 6 and 7.

Thompson, 21, is looking to build off a strong finish to the 2012-13 season. In addition to the world championship medal she earned in Norway last March, she also ended the winter with podium finishes at two of the last three World Cup races and a victory at the Junior World Ski Championships in Italy.

"Last year started off a little slow, but I figured it out at the end," she said while in Whistler last week. "I'm really looking forward to this year because I feel like I'm back where I need to be to do well. I'm feeling confident."

Thompson came into the season as the defending World Cup champ and struggled out of the gate, failing to qualify for race heats at four of the first six races. However, her late-season turnaround helped her finish as the seventh-ranked skier in the women's standings at the end of the campaign.

The three-time World Cup winner said she became "way too serious" at the beginning of last season and started to feel more comfortable once she lessened the expectations she was putting on herself.

"I've figured out that for me to do well I just need to enjoy my skiing and have fun every time I go down the course," said Thompson.

Duncan's season seemed to go the opposite way, as he advanced to the semifinals in two of the first three races, including a season-high fourth-place finish at Val Thorens, France before Christmas. But the results were tougher to come by the rest of the winter, as the London, Ont., native kept getting squeezed out in quarter-final heats.

"It started off fairly well, but then it just kind of petered out," Duncan said of his season on Monday, Dec. 2 from a team pep rally at a Calgary elementary school. "I allowed myself to get pulled in too many directions and didn't focus as much attention on competing as probably I should have."

But the 31-year-old can be fully focused on racing this winter, aided in part by the fact that he'll be 100 per cent healthy.

"It's nice going into a season not having to deal with constant injuries like I have some years," said Duncan, a two-time Winter X Games medallist. "I find that's kind of been the difference-maker in how my seasons have gone, because when I go into the season healthy I have great success, but when I go in with nagging injuries, it's more of a battle."

The entire Canadian team appears healthy for the first time in a while, which should help the squad make a bid to reclaim the Nations Cup. Canada surrendered that title to Switzerland last year after bringing it home each of the past four winters.

The 2011 men's and women's world champs, Chris Del Bosco and Kelsey Serwa, both missed long stretches of last season but are always among the favourites in any race. Brady Leman, who was the No. 5-ranked skier in the men's standings last year, will continue to be a podium threat on a weekly basis, while part-time Whistler resident Tristan Tafel has been a consistent performer by finishing 15th in the World Cup rankings two years running.

Georgia Simmerling and veteran Danielle Sundquist round out the women's squad, while Louis-Pierre Hélie, Ian Deans and Mathieu Leduc make up the rest of the Canadian men's roster.

"I feel like anyone on the team could podium on any given day," said Thompson. "We all have our strengths and we're definitely excited for the season to start. It's been a lot of work this offseason and summer and hopefully it's going to pay off."

Thompson has already qualified for the Olympics — "a weight lifted off my shoulders," she said — but is the only team member to officially earn their way to Sochi. Duncan said he's trying not to look too far ahead and that if he skis fast, "the rest will take care of itself."

Jeff Ihaksi, the Olympic course-builder from 2010, has overseen the expansion of the track being used at Nakiska this weekend. Considering the success Canadian skiers have realized on Ihaksi's courses in the past, this weekend's races should play to the host nation's strengths.

"Hopefully we can get a sweep of the podium right off the bat," said Duncan.