Earning a spot on any Canadian national team is not easy. But making the women's freestyle skiing moguls team is exceptionally hard. With big names like 2014 Olympic champion Justine Dufour-Lapointe and her sister, Chloe, the Olympic silver medallist, already leading the team, finding one's place might seem like an uphill battle.
Just ask new team member Alex-Anne Gagnon, who is competing at this weekend's World Cup event at her home hill: Val Saint-Côme, Que.
The 20-year-old has been on the national team for three years, but 2015-16 is the first season she's had her very own spot on the World Cup circuit.
"Since I got on the [national] team I got many Nor-Am podiums and it was still not enough [to make it on the World Cup circuit] because the team is so strong," Gagnon told CBC Sports. "That was the hard part for me because I knew I could do it.
"I just needed to prove to everyone else that I deserved it."
Making the team
It wasn't until last season, when she earned her 11th Nor-Am podium, that she secured the only open spot on the team. It already included five of the top six mogul skiers from the 2014-15 season: Justine, Chloe and Maxime Dufour-Lapointe; Andi Naude and veteran Audrey Robichaud.
"[Making the team] could have never happened because everyone on the national team is so good," said Gagnon.
"I train with the five best in the world. I couldn't ask for more to improve every day."
The series of events was well-timed for the Terrebonne, Que., native, with Pyeongchang 2018 just two years away.
"Because I'm on the World Cup team anything could happen," said Gagnon. "If I do really good next season I could qualify for the Olympics.
"I couldn't wish for better timing for me. I can't describe it."
But many events come before the Olympic qualifiers, including this weekend's World Cup. Gagnon feels confident about competing at Val Saint-Côme. She knows the course; it's where she learned to ski, and she made three podiums in her last three Nor-Am events at the mountain. Her parents own a condominium just 200 metres or so away from the base of the track where she'll compete.
"[Val Saint-Côme] is not the easiest course, it isn't easy on the body," said Gagnon, who finished 11th at last year's event. "I would say the snow condition makes it hard.
"It's either icy or it's going to be really firm; it's never going to be super soft snow like you see in the west."
Close to first podium
Gagnon doesn't make concrete goals because she can't control how others ski. Her plan this weekend is to ski the competition run just as well as her best training run, which should get her to the finals.
But having finished fourth, fifth and sixth in three of her last four World Cups, she's heading in the right direction — one she's hoping leads to her first World Cup podium.
"I haven't got a podium yet, but I know I'm turning around," said Gagnon. "I'm hoping if I keep doing what I'm doing it's going to pay off soon."
When asked how it would feel to make the podium after working so hard to get on the World Cup circuit, Gagnon laughed in excitement.
"Oh my gosh – I don't think I have any words to describe that feeling," she said. "I don't know what's going to happen.
"When it does, I'm going to freak out."