When 400 juvenile skiers from 27 countries arrive in Whistler to compete this week, Team Canada will be waiting for them, and it's a squad that will include a few local racers eager to see how they stack up against the world's best.
The 22nd annual Whistler Cup gets underway on Friday, April 4, with three Whistler Mountain Ski Club (WMSC) products on the host nation's official U16 roster. Laura Swaffield will be on the girls' team, while Max Kirshenblatt and Finn Iles will join the Canadian boys after each of the athletes secured spots on the squad with strong results at the Can-Am Western Championships at Apex in March.
"It's awesome," Swaffield said of getting to represent her country. "My performance at Can-Ams, they weren't as good as they could have been, so I was a little surprised to be named to Team Canada, but it's awesome to be here with the rest of the girls from across the nation."
More than 60 skiers from the WMSC are expected to participate in this weekend's event, which is the largest international youth ski race in North America, and has seen many of its alumni go on to become Olympic and world champions.
Kirshenblatt is one of several skiers in the U16 age group who will race the Whistler Cup for the fifth and final time, and he's eager to make a good impression in his last races at the youth level.
"I'm feeling confident with my skiing," said Kirshenblatt, who won the boys' super-G at the Can-Ams to ensure a spot on Team Canada. "It's awesome to be racing on the same run I ski every day. I know everything about the hill that there is to know, and there's nothing left to do but to ski down the course."
Team Canada will be comprised of 18 of the fastest boys and girls in the country, with the WMSC's own Rob Boyd leading the team as coach.
"Representing Canada is a big part of this event," said Boyd. "Bringing some pride and patriotism to the team is something special for everyone."
The Canadian team won the U16 Nations Cup title in 2013 after racking up the best finishes in slalom, giant slalom and super-G, and Kirshenblatt said he learned a lot from some of the Whistler club's athletes who contributed to that victory.
"There was a group of seven of them that really prepared me for what was to come this year, and how to deal with adversity," said Kirshenblatt. "I think that was a really strong tool for me to use.
"Jack (Crawford) won the super-G last year and hopefully I'm going to follow in his footsteps."
Each of the three Whistler skiers on Team Canada — plus Kasper Woolley, who will ski for Team B.C. this weekend — recently returned from a successful trip to Italy's Topolino youth races. That's an experience that will serve them well not just this weekend, but as they progress beyond youth racing in future winters, said WMSC U16 head coach Jeff MacLennan.
"We also had another tour of duty in Italy back in January where we also had a number of other athletes in the group go over and experience a lower-level tier event in Italy, but also to whet the whistle and break the ice so to speak," said MacLennan. "We're really happy that we're continuing to have a global launch pad with this U16 program."
Joining Woolley on Team B.C. are Whistler skiers Alexander Valentin, Griffin Renzoni, Asher Jordan and Masashi Tsutsumi on the boys' side, and Gabrielle Smith and Katie Fleckenstein on the girls' team. But whether they're skiing for their country, their province or just themselves this weekend, MacLennan said he's expecting his athletes to continue turning in the solid results they have all season.
"I'm very proud of what the whole team has done," he said. "The whole team in general has rose to the top.
U14 RACERS HOPE TO BUILD OFF STRONG SEASON
The WMSC's U14s, led by head coach Jordan Williams, have been impressive in races this winter as well, even though some weather cancellations and even a broken chairlift at Hemlock pared the team's race schedule down this year.
"Lately, in a lot of the kids, we've seen some big jumps in their ability," said Williams. "I've been really impressed, especially with the first-year girls that came in, who really seem to push each other.
"I think some of our U14s could really show up and have some good results."
Ella Renzoni will lead the local girls at the Whistler Cup after nearly sweeping all of the girls' races at the U14 provincial championships, and reaching the podium three times at the B.C. Winter Games. On the boys' side, the local club boasts B.C. Games medallist Nathan Romanin and top-five provincials finisher Myles Kowalczyk, among other skiers who have been solid and consistent all winter.
Though the WMSC has many skiers who can contend for podiums or top-10 results in both age groups, the international racing experience will be special for athletes no matter where they're capable of finishing.
"The biggest part of Whistler Cup that I like best is there are so many different people here compared to our normal races," said Swaffield, who is excited to be back at the event after missing the last two Whistler Cups with injuries. "It makes it so much more fun because you get to meet new people... see how they ski and all come together to do the same sport."
Racing in the Dave Murray National Training Centre on Whistler Mountain begins at 10 a.m. each of the three days. Visit www.whistlercup.com for full details and schedules.