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Two freeskiers set to go to junior worlds

Whistler, meanwhile, to host nationals this weekend

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Two Whistler Freeride Club athletes are set to ski in Europe for the first time.

And they'll do it on the biggest stage of their lives so far.

Olivia McNeill and Benjie McMaster are preparing to compete at the Freeride World Junior Championship at Kappl, Austria from March 21 to 23. "I've never skied in Europe and just doing that is a great opportunity in and of itself, but to be able to represent Canada at Worlds is pretty awesome," McNeill said. "Excited is probably the only way I can describe it."

McNeill, the defending junior NorAm champion, should be one of the favourites going in as she tops the podium more often than not on this side of the pond. However, she's trying to avoid having any preconceived notions of where she might fit into the global picture.

"I don't look too much at the rankings," she said. "I know the U.S. people and the Canadian people who are going, so I'm glad to have some people I know going into it.

"I'll just try to put down the best run I can with the opportunity to do it."

There will be a few changes from over here, with some new mountains to challenge.

McNeill will warm up at a European event prior to the world juniors in order to prepare for not only the different conditions, but new rules associated with European competition. All competitors will have to complete visual inspections as opposed to getting any chance to explore the slopes in a more up-close-and-personal fashion.

"I'm a little nervous for that, but I've been practicing a little and it's definitely a good skill to have, just in general," she said. "Binoculars help a lot.

"I'm trying to ski through things for the first time without looking over the edge if I've seen them from the bottom."

McNeill has generally had a busy season, but recently took a two-week break to rest up and recuperate in advance of the Europe trip.

"I'm always working on skiing through things that are maybe kind of scary but I know I can do," she said.

Benjie McMaster, meanwhile, has had some uncertainty in recent months, but is thrilled to be attending. He expected to be invited based on his position in last year's overall standings. However, the International Freeskiers and Snowboarders Association considered changing the age-cutoff rules in a way that would make McMaster ineligible.

"I'm turning 19 later in the year and they were going to say that if you're turning 19 in the year, you wouldn't be able to compete. I was worried about that all summer," he said. "But they didn't change it in the end, and so I got a spot."

McMaster, a first-year engineering student at the University of British Columbia, hasn't been able to compete as much as he'd like due to his studies, but he's still finding time to train.

"Strength training is a big one because it's a long run from the top compared to what I'm used to," he said.

McMaster explained he is looking forward to visual inspection, mainly to embrace fresh powder, a luxury that isn't afforded to competitors here. However, he acknowledged it'll be a challenge to ski unseen terrain, though he's been working on his preparation.

"We'll have fresh snow on the venue when we go, which should be a huge asset, I think," he said. "I've been trying to get out there, do some lines, some super long runs and just be in good shape.

"It'll definitely be a big change... We've been looking at runs and trying to turn it around, put it in your head and make sense of what it is. Then you come back with a picture of what the run is and ski down it."

McMaster particularly enjoys big jumps and drops, like those off Whistler's Peak Chair.

"I like big mountain terrain, big air, big rocks, so I try to keep my eye out," he said. "I try to avoid flatter landscapes and try to keep more of a slanted approach."

National event coming to Whistler

Closer to home, a plethora of competitors will ply their trade at the Junior Freeride Challenge from March 16 to 19.

Head coach Derek Foose will miss the event for the first time as he'll accompany McNeill and McMaster to Europe, but has had a major role in the event prep. He said if all goes according to plan, the Saudan Couloir would be used for finals like it has been in recent years.

"The snow is pretty good, though it looks like it's about to get pretty warm," he said.

Foose explained since several resorts have had underwhelming snow years, registration has already been filled up for weeks as riders look to get their winter fix.

"It's been a really tough year down in the U.S. They've had a whole bunch of events cancelled due to lack of snow, so we sold out two-and-a-half months ago and have a huge waiting list with all these American kids that are just looking for a result," Foose said, noting that in addition to the standbys from B.C. and Alberta, there's a healthy roster of kids from Colorado, California, Utah and even Vermont.

"We seem to be the place where people want to come."

While a lack of preparation could hinder the competition, Foose wasn't so quick to write the Yankees off. He looked back at some previous challenging WFC years and found that competitors were forged by the fire.

"Some of our best results years have been years where we've had low snowpack here so the kids are skiing on awful conditions and it's good for their technique in a masochistic sort of way," Foose said. "It's kind of the Dodgeball thing: 'If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.' If you can make this look good, you're really good."

Over 50 competitors from the Whistler Freeride Club are set to compete this weekend and, as Foose notes, sometimes there's a dark horse. In past years, kids who don't normally compete with the club end up on the podium, showing off the club's depth.

"The kids maybe do other sports or have other things on their plate, but they're still good enough to step in at a national event and land on the podium," Foose said.

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