Canadian aerials skier Marion Thénault adapts to life as Olympic medal contender
21-year-old began aerial career in 2017, quickly becoming a factor on world circuit
Like many young athletes, Marion Thénault grew up wanting to compete in the Olympics.
Although gymnastics at the Summer Games peaked her initial interest, she is ready to make her Olympic debut on snow as an aerials skier at Beijing 2022.
In the summer of 2017, Thénault stood around the water ramps in Quebec City. Music blared in the background, the sun sparkling off the ramps, pools, and her skis. It was different from anything she had done before.
"I grew up in gymnastics, so I was not used to that kind of energy, I guess, and everyone was around and laughing and jumping, and I couldn't believe that was training. It was very fun," Thénault told CBC Sports.
At 17-years-old, the experienced gymnast attended an RBC Training Ground in 2017, a Canada-wide athlete development pathway where athletes test their physical abilities and showcase themselves to coaches from sports that may not be top of mind, like bobsleigh and aerials.
WATCH | Marion Thénault — a natural in aerials:
The program was designed to find athletes with transferable skills, and develop them to an Olympic level with Team Canada, and it was there where Thénault found her way to aerial skiing.
At that RBC Training Ground, she caught the eye of Rémi Belanger, a former gymnast and aerials athlete, who had become a coach with Freestyle Canada.
"I could see that she had a good vibe; she was very confident," Belanger told CBC Sports. "She wasn't scared. She seemed very adventurous and wanted to work hard in the first training session."
Belanger invited Thénault to a trampoline session, and the teenager from Sherbrooke, Que., impressed.
From that initial session, Belanger knew Thénault was going to the Olympics.
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"The first time she came on the trampoline, I knew we had a diamond — I knew she was going to the Olympics in three years," he said. "Her acrobatic aerial awareness was just so good. That was the first thing that caught my eyes."
Heading into her first Games, she is ready to challenge for the podium in the mixed team event on Feb. 10 at 6:00 a.m. ET, as well as her individual event on Feb. 13 and Feb. 14, both at 6:00 a.m. ET.
All events are streaming live on CBC Gem, the CBC Sports app, and CBC Sports' Beijing 2022 website.
While she had the off-snow talent, the former gymnast didn't know how to ski. She spent her first season of training, in 2017-18, working with a ski coach 3-5 times a week, learning the basics while also training acrobatics on a trampoline.
"When I think about the past four years, it is really cool, because I was always learning," Thénault said. "When you first learn, the learning curve is really fast and easy, so it was very fun."
She quickly advanced through the system, eventually joining the Canadian team in Ruka, Finland, for the start of the 2018-19 season, competing in her first Europa Cup event, a level below the FIS World Cup.
"I was very nervous because it was so different [than gymnastics]," she said. "I was a complete beginner."
That season, she built from a ninth-place finish in Ruka to winning the 2019 Canadian championships. In the following campaign, she won her World Cup debut event in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in March 2020, roughly two years after taking up the sport.
Back on the water ramps in the summer of 2019, Thénault added six new tricks to her repertoire, continuing to improve ahead of her first World Cup season. Everything came quickly to the teenage athlete, but on the World Cup things changed.
From beginner to contender
"My dad would say I was always on this cloud," Thénault said. "I just stayed on that level for so long. It was so fun, but even though I was new and nobody knew me, I wanted to podium."
Once an athlete who didn't know where to stand after her run, Thénault was a medal contender.
"I was always a beginner for a long time, and then 'poof' I'm competing for a medal at the Olympics? I'm just not used to being one of the best in the world," she said. "With the stakes higher, I need to handle that pressure and be able to jump with the same passion."
Thénault feels ready and excited for the Beijing Games. She picked up a silver medal on home snow in front of her parents at a World Cup in Le Relais, Quebec, a result that pushes her into Beijing on a high note.
A few minutes before her Olympic competition, she will do what she always does pre-jump. She'll separate from others, go through her visualizations and let the jump come to her. "Sometimes it comes, sometimes it doesn't, but when it does, it's the best feeling in the world.
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