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Strong start for local competitors

Harle nabs two gold medals, Gagnon scores pair of bronzes at Canada Winter Games



In what ended up being a whirlwind tour, Teal Harle was briefly the king of Prince George.

The 18-year-old freestyle skier won a pair of gold medals at the Canada Winter Games, claiming top spot in slopestyle on Feb. 14 and then again in big air a day later.

In slopestyle, Harle posted a score of 86.50 in qualifying, the best by four full points. He then improved to an even 90.00, knocking off fellow B.C. skier Patrick Dew by 7.80 points.

In big air, Harle scored an 89.00 in qualifying, and though he declined slightly in the finals, his 88.00 score was good enough to get past Alberta's Davis Clement by 3.70 points.

The Whistler resident couldn't stay and bask in his glory, as he hopped a flight to Aspen, Colo. late Sunday to take part in the Aspen Snowmass Freeskiing Open, which runs from Feb. 19 to 22.

Reached by email in Colorado, Harle said he was thrilled with how he kicked off competition in slopestyle, landing each and every one of his runs and was well positioned heading into the finals.

"I'm really stoked to have landed all four of the comp runs I did. I was the (No. 1) qualifier at the end of the qualifier round and was feeling confident going into the finals," he wrote. "(I) landed my finals runs just as well as I did in qualifiers, if not better. The slopestyle course was really good, especially for the lack of snow they had. The park crew at Tabor (Mountain Ski Resort) killed it and kept it all in really good condition the whole event."

Taking the big air crown wasn't quite the same breeze, as Harle stumbled in his first round of the finals and was second heading into his final attempt. After being featured as an athlete to watch by the Canada Games Committee in advance of the event, Harle was finally starting to get a tinge of that corresponding pressure. However, he cranked one of his go-to tunes, "Wannabe" by the Spice Girls, and zig-a-zagged his way to the top.

"(T)here were some pretty big tricks getting thrown down and I had to be on top of my game," he noted. "The big air finals were pretty crazy. So many kids putting down some big tricks! I didn't land my first jump very well and was in second going into the second run. I got the (Spice Girls) playing at the top of the run right before I went to get me pumped and I ended up stomping my jump to grab gold. Anyone in that finals round had the tricks to win it and I was really stoked to win."

More challenges await Harle in Colorado, and he feels near the top of his game as he seeks to haul home even more hardware from south of the border.

"(The) Aspen Open is a much larger event with competitors from all over the world and on a much larger course," he explained. "(It's) not so much the medals or winning the Canada Games that give me the confidence, (it's) the way (I) skied. I had a ton of fun and was super stoked to have been consistent with my runs. Hopefully I can be just as consistent with my runs in the Aspen Open."

Though excited to take part in the Aspen event, Harle has some regret at not staying longer in northern B.C. to soak in the Canada Winter Games atmosphere, which he enjoyed in his short time up there.

"I felt like royalty there. It was all so well organized and so easy to have a great time," he said. "I wish (I) didn't have to leave so early for Aspen because I would have loved to stay longer and see more of what I didn't see."

Bronzes for Gagnon

Right alongside Harle in the medal table is fellow Whistlerite Sofiane Gagnon, who will return home with two prizes of her own.

Gagnon made her move in the finals on both days with slightly different results.

In slopestyle, Gagnon was seventh heading into the finals after scoring a 64. Her score actually dipped slightly to 61.20 when facing off against the rest of the top eight, but she was still ahead of the curve as she placed third, a half-point back of silver medallist Rachael Karker of Ontario. B.C.'s Elena Gaskell ran away with the gold after scoring 77.70.

The reverse happened in the next day's big air, as Gagnon improved her score from the qualifiers to the final, jumping from 76.30 to 79. However, Ontario's Gillian Golosky surged into second with an 80.60. Gaskell retained her golden grip with a tally of 83.60 in the finals.

Gagnon, 15, said she hadn't skied in front of a crowd this size before, let alone one where the masses were in support of her as a home-province athlete.

"It feels really good, especially bringing home the medals in my own province," Gagnon said in a phone interview from Prince George on Feb. 16. "It was a lot of fun."

The 2012 junior national champion felt she skied her best in both competitions, but felt her big air success was a bigger accomplishment because she attempted landed a mute 540 in competition for the first time.

"I was trying a new trick that I haven't done before," she said. "I tried it in training and in competition it went well for me. I'm so excited that I was able to pull that one out."

She explained the trick requires her to switch-ski, a style of skiing Gagnon bluntly said she's "never really done before and (she's) not very good at it." It came together at the right time in Prince George, though.

"I was just pulling out the trick that I knew I could do best and I gave it my all and hoped that it would be good enough," she said.

As for slopestyle, Gagnon explained the event isn't exactly her major area of focus — that would be the moguls.

"(But) I just did slopestyle because it's another passion of mine, but I don't really train slopestyle very much," she said. "It's harder to get into it, but in the end, I had amazing coaches and support from my teammates, so I was able to learn new things in training for slopestyle.

"It's a big accomplishment for me to come out like this with such little training."

In the Feb. 17 moguls competition, Gagnon was fourth heading into the finals and ended up staying there, finishing just 1.90 points off of a third podium appearance.

Whistler-Blackcomb Freestyle Ski Club's Maia Schwinghammer, 13, represented Saskatchewan, placing 13th in slopestyle and 14th in big air. She placed 20th in moguls.

Gagnon said skiing at junior and senior nationals, where she placed seventh in 2014, was a thrill, but the Canada Winter Games are an even larger spectacle.

"There's music, there's so much energy, spirit and passion from everybody," she said. "We're all here to ski the sport we love."

Alpine athletes held just off podium

Whistler Mountain Ski Club (WMSC) athletes have posted most of the top results of B.C. alpine skiers, but it hasn't quite translated into medals as yet.

In the male super-G on Feb. 15, all four made it into the top 10, as Kasper Woolley (52.03 seconds), Asher Jordan (52.15) and Alexander Valentin (52.17) placed fifth through seventh and Kyle Alexander (52.90) was ninth. Ontario's Declan McCormack won gold with a time of 50.97.

Jordan nearly broke through on Feb. 17, placing fourth in the giant slalom with a two-run combined time of two minutes, 8.16 seconds (2:08.16), just 0.05 seconds off the podium. Alberta's Liam Wallace charged to the win with a time of 2:04.63.

Woolley, meanwhile, placed ninth while Alexander and Valentin didn't finish.

As for the female events, Katie Fleckenstein was eighth in the super-G with a time of 53.82 seconds, while the top B.C. athlete was Kristina Natalenko's fifth-place showing (53.42). Quebec's Laurence Huot won gold with a time of 52.12. WMSC's other representatives, Ella Renzoni and Sierra King, were 19th and 24th, respectively.

The gals were at it again on Feb. 16 in the giant slalom.

Natalenko broke through for B.C.'s first alpine medal, taking silver with a two-run combined time of 2:15.03, though Ontario's Brianna Macdonald easily skied off with the gold after putting up a 2:11.97.

Renzoni was eighth with a time of 2:16.93, Fleckenstein was 10th with a time of 2:17.97 and King was 19th with a time of 2:23.17.

The slalom events were slated for Feb. 18. The competition was still in progress at press time.