Ashleigh McIvor, the first female Olympic gold medallist in ski cross, announced her retirement from competitive ski racing on Friday.
The 29-year-old from Whistler, B.C., is a world champion, X Games silver medallist, World Cup winner and she realized her dream of winning the women’s ski cross event at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games.
In 2011, McIvor suffered a serious knee injury, but made a successful return to snow earlier this year.
"This has been the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make in my life," said McIvor, who recently announced her engagement to Vancouver Whitecaps soccer star Jay DeMerit. "It means the world to me to have had success in the Olympic debut of our sport, at home. I couldn’t have dreamed it up better myself!
"I’ve gone back and forth in my mind, wondering if I’m making the right decision to retire. But I’ve already done more in the sport than I ever imagined would be possible. And there’s something to be said for going out on top — as the reigning Olympic champion."
Pioneering the sport
McIvor, who has been competing internationally since 2004 and has been part of the Canadian ski cross team since it was formed in 2007, is one of the sport’s true pioneers.
"Amazing athlete, great champion & all around awesome person @ashleighmcivor announced her retirement today. Congrats on an amazing career!"—Canadian alpine skiier Mike Janyk via Twitter
Following her historic victory in Vancouver she became the face of ski cross in Canada but her public profile extends well beyond sport. McIvor has worked with some of the world’s top fashion photographers, strolled down a runway in New York and starred in major advertising campaigns.
"The timing works, as far as making the transition to the next phase of my career — making the most of the opportunities that have presented themselves based on the success I’ve had as a ski cross athlete," said McIvor at Friday's press conference with Alpine Canada, the national governing body for alpine, para-alpine and ski cross racing in Canada.
McIvor added that she plans to free ski and looks forward to "… enjoying skiing in its purest form without the pressure of competition. I will continue to cheer for my teammates. I have always been their biggest fan — even when racing against them."
Still nursing knee injury
McIvor tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee during a training run at X Games in January 2011. She had surgery and returned to training earlier this summer. Although her injury had healed to the point where she felt able to return to competitive racing, it was still a factor in her decision to retire.
"My knee is still on the mend and I would be trying to push it to get results this season and put myself in a position to perform at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia," McIvor said. "I’ve decided that it’s more important to me to be able to ski recreationally — now and for the rest of my life."
McIvor will forever be associated with the gold medal she won at her home Games, but she admits it’s taken time for the significance of her achievement to sink in.
"It really felt like I was just doing what I do and that I was the lucky one who had success on that given day. Now I’m finally starting to realize the impact that the Games had on our nation and it’s finally setting in that I contributed to that success," she said. "I think the most interesting part is that instead of feeling completely elated or ecstatic when I crossed the finish line, I felt relieved that I hadn’t let everybody down. I think it’s hard to have success like that if you are just doing it for yourself.
Passing the torch to her teammates
McIvor retires with 11 World Cup podiums to her name. She has already passed the torch to a new generation of female ski cross stars that includes longtime teammate Kelsey Serwa, of Kelowna, B.C. — the reigning world champion — and fellow Whistler skier Marielle Thompson — the overall women’s ski cross World Cup champion.
"I do my absolute best to share what it is that has made me successful with my teammates," McIvor said. "I think a lot of it is transferable – and we work well together, as a team. That’s why we are the No. 1 team in the world. I have every confidence that Canada will bring another ski cross medal home from Russia in 2014."
"Congrats to my #Teammate4Life @ashleighmcivor on her retirement from racing SkiCross. So proud of her and excited to see her new successes!"—McIvor's fiance and Vancouver Whitecaps' Jay DeMerit via Twitter
Brady Leman, the No. 2-ranked ski cross racer in the world, said his teammate helped put the sport of ski cross on the map.
"Ashleigh’s definitely given the sport of ski cross a face in Canada," Leman said. "Her win in Vancouver was huge for our sport. It put a big exclamation point on ski cross being the newest alpine ski sport and something to watch.
Willy Raine, a coach with the Canadian team, said McIvor has "done everything she could do" in the sport of ski cross.
"She’s won the Olympics, she’s won a world championship and she’s won a World Cup," Raine said. "She’s been a leader — she’s been there since Day 1. To be part of the team and watch her win in Vancouver was incredible. I’m definitely going to miss her being part of the team. The sky’s the limit for her."
McIvor says she has learned a lot from ski racing and will take those lessons with her as she builds a new career for herself.
"My career has taught me a lot about perseverance and chasing your dreams — tackling your goals one step at a time and avoiding getting too overwhelmed by that end result that you’re hoping for," she said.