Road To The Olympic Games

Snowboard pioneer Canada's newest golden girl

From the beginning, Maelle Ricker has always been a trailblazer.

15-year veteran Ricker crowned Queen of Cypress

Gold-medallist Maelle Ricker poses between the silver and bronze medallists France's Deborah Anthonioz, left, and Switzerland's Olivia Nobs, right, on the podium Tuesday at Cypress Mountain. ((Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images))

From the beginning, Maelle Ricker has always been a trailblazer.

When she was a little girl growing up in North Vancouver, her dad wanted her to take up skiing — she learned to snowboard.

When she first jumped on a board, she had visions of someday winning a medal at the Olympics. The podium dream was ambitious enough, but snowboarding wasn't even in the Olympics in the early 1990s when Ricker was cutting her first tracks on Blackcomb Mountain — making the goal even more far-fetched.

Ricker didn't see it as an obstacle and had faith that if she worked hard enough, her dreams would fall into place.

"I fell in love [with the sport]," Ricker told CBCSports.ca. "Then my two passions just collided at the right time, and I was able to go to the Olympics and snowboard for a living. I was really lucky."

The 31-year-old Ricker got into snowboarding in her teens, learning from her older brother, Jorli.

Early success

She arrived on the World Cup circuit in the 1996-97 season, reaching the podium twice in her rookie season as an 18-year-old.

By then, her dream of being an Olympic snowboarder was starting to take shape, but not in the discipline that would eventually lead to national-hero status today.

Only the halfpipe and parallel giant-slalom board events were included in the 1998 Nagano Olympics and the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. Snowboard cross was added for the 2006 Torino Olympics.

Ricker finished fifth in the halfpipe at the 1998 Games, then won her first World Cup gold in a snowboard cross event later that year.

Ricker realized that "boarder cross," as it was called in its pre-Olympic days, was her true calling.

Though she aimed to reach the podium in 2002, the punishing nature of the two snowboard disciplines had begun taking its toll on her body.

Battled through injuries

A knee injury kept her out of the 2002 Games.

"I was so upset,'' she said at the time. ''It definitely angered me but made we want it that much more."

It wouldn't be the only time Ricker would have to deal with an injury-related setback. In the past decade, she's had eight knee surgeries and one very forgettable helicopter ride off a mountain.

It happened at her second Olympics in Turin.

After finishing 23rd in the halfpipe competition, Ricker was a medal contender in the snowboard cross. She recorded the fastest qualifying time, but in the final, the worst-case scenario became a reality.

Ricker crashed hard in the race and had to be flown by chopper off the mountain.

The wipeout left her with a concussion, torn muscles in her back and neck — and worst of all, a fourth-place finish.

She hit her head so hard that doctors had to give her the news about what happened in the competition. Even today, Ricker said there are parts of the Torino final that she can't remember.

There were those who wondered if Ricker would ever be the same again, and if she could compete again in a sport where violent crashes are part of the game.

But Ricker never had a doubt. Her will to succeed pushed her to continue competing even after the sixth, seventh and eighth knee operations.

Canadian snowboard fans cheer their Olympic Champion Maelle Ricker during the snowboard cross on Tuesday. ((Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press))

Score settled in Vancouver

She entered the 2010 Vancouver Olympics as a hometown favourite and World Cup leader. And there was that unfinished business from Turin.

Then she fell during her first qualifying run Tuesday at Cypress Mountain.

But not once did the pressure get to her. Ricker said she never entertained the thought of not making it through to the medal round.

She got back up and produced one of the fastest qualifying times of the day in her second run.

"What she's battled through is phenomenal," Ricker's coach Tim Milne said of the veteran snowboarder, who wears two knee braces.

Not only is this an example of a veteran Canadian athlete delivering when it counts, she was also able to exorcise personal demons while lifting the spirit of an entire country.

Ricker's perseverance through all the adversity she has faced — first as a snowboarder with no Olympic event, then battling through a slew of injuries — has given the country a gift she never had.

An Olympian role model for Canada's young female snowboarders.