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Canada's Marielle Thompson looks to cap improbable comeback in women's ski cross

Canada's Marielle Thompson is the defending Olympic champion in women's ski cross, but enters the competition just four months after a serious knee injury.

Defending Olympic champ is competing just 4 months after serious knee injury

Canada's Marielle Thompson, right, and Kelsey Serwa, left, look to defend their respective gold and silver medals in women's ski cross. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

By Chicco Nacion, CBC Sports:

Canada showed its depth in the men's ski cross with Calgary's Brady Leman winning Olympic gold, Toronto's Kevin Drury finishing fourth, and London, Ont., native Dave Duncan placing eighth.

And the same can be said on the women's side where Canada has an embarrassment of riches.

Whistler, B.C.'s Marielle Thompson is the defending Olympic champion and has three Crystal Globes as the overall World Cup champion. Kelsey Serwa, from Kelowna, B.C., picked up silver behind her in Sochi and is a Winter X Games and world champion.

"Canada and Switzerland are the only two teams to send four men and four women to fill their [max] quota. It's because they're consistently dominant on the World Cup circuit," said 2010 Olympic ski cross champion and CBC analyst Ashleigh McIvor ahead of Thursday's elimination rounds (8 p.m. ET).

McIvor said Serwa is one of the most technically sound skiers and it would be a surprise if Serwa didn't win a medal.

The other two Canadians are Brittany Phelan, from Mont Tremblant, Que., and Cranbrook, B.C.'s India Sherret, who rank seventh and ninth, respectively, in the World Cup rankings. Either might have been left off the squad if the fourth-ranked Georgia Simmerling hadn't suffered an injury in the last World Cup race before Pyeongchang.

All eyes on Thompson

But all eyes will be on the 25-year-old Thompson, who is returning just four months after tearing her ACL and MCL in a training run just before this year's World Cup season.

Thompson has undergone an accelerated rehab program just to get back on the snow and she's done more than just that posting the fastest run in seeding, followed by Serwa and Phelan.

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There's no question Thompson has the talent, but McIvor believes it's all about her mental mindset going into the races.  

"The biggest thing with Marielle is that even if her knee is feeling strong, it's a confidence issue," McIvor said. "Ski cross is an all or nothing sport. You can't just cruise and take it easy ... is she 100 per cent confident because there are so many split second decisions to be made under pressure between the start and finish line. 

"If there's any hesitation or lack of trust in your body and joints, you're putting yourself at risk for a more substantial injury." 

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McIvor's former teammate, Julia Murray, competed in Vancouver 2010 and made the quarter-final just less than a month after tearing her MCL and medial meniscus, but there were some repercussions.

"She worked her butt off and was very dedicated to everything the physio told her to do. I don't know that it was the best decision for her long-term because she hurt her knee again," McIvor said. "This is definitely on top of my mind. Marielle could literally do two or three more Olympic cycles if she takes care of herself."

Being fearless

Over the years, Thompson has earned a reputation for starting strong and maintaining that lead. She has said fear never enters her mind when she's in the start gate. She is only thinking and visualizing about the task that literally lays ahead. 

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"When I'm competing, my mind is on the track and what I need to do to make it down the run first. When I'm in the start gate, I'm just focused on being relaxed because that's how I need to be to do my best," Thompson told CBC Sports last March.  "When I'm about to go, what's coming at me? What features are there? What do I have to do with my feet? What do I have to do with my body? It's just that first initial impulse." 

Another comeback

Serwa is also making a comeback of her own after suffering some cartilage damage in her knee during a training run in December 2016. The 28-year-old underwent her third knee surgery and considered retirement.

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Serwa decided that she still had more to give to the sport and was back on her skis eight months later. She is sixth in the World Cup rankings but insists getting over the mental hurdle of an injury is still a work in progress. But it won't stop her from doing what she loves.  

"Having an injury and going back to sport can make an athlete more fearful," Serwa said. "We're all human. If I'm nervous at the start gate and I go down the course and nail it — you appreciate that feeling so much more because you're like, 'I overcame that fear, trusted myself, and let myself go.' It's amazing what you can accomplish with that."