Canada's ski cross team looks to continue Olympic dominance in Beijing
Women's qualifiers begin 10:30 p.m. Wednesday; men's begin 10:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Since the event's Olympic debut at Vancouver 2010, Team Canada has been a force in men's and women's ski cross.
The experienced Canadian Olympic ski cross team features two Olympic champions in Marielle Thompson and Brady Leman, and World Cup overall Crystal Globe winners Reece Howden, Kevin Drury.
Four Canadians will race in each of the men's and women's events.
Team Canada has never left a Games empty-handed in ski cross, a streak expected to continue in Beijing.
Howden targets golden Olympic debut
Howden won the gold medal at the Lillehammer 2016 Youth Olympic Games. Now, he's skiing for the full Olympic title.
"I was always asked when I was going to go to the big one after going in 2016," he told CBC Sports. "I wasn't developed on the World Cup in 2018, but I'm getting the chance now."
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While pursuing post-secondary education, Howden made his full-season debut on the World Cup in 2020-21 and dominated from the beginning. Before competing his first Olympics, he has already earned a Crystal Globe title and eight World Cup podiums.
"I guess you could say it hasn't sunk in, but it has," Howden said about being a contender. "The Olympics is going to be great, but I don't put a [ton] of pressure on it. If I ski the way I know I can, I know I can win."
This season has not gone the way Howden hoped, with no World Cup wins yet. However, the man they call "Big Rig" still enters the fray as a favourite with aggressive, strength-based skiing.
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"I know what I need to do. I've been on the podium quite a few times last year and racing against the same guys," he said. "I have a different technique than the rest of the guys. I like to come out of the gate first, so I have to stay leading and not getting passed."
Joined by 2018 Olympic champion Leman, and Drury, a 2020 Crystal Globe winner, Canada will be among the medal favourites.
Schmidt siblings ready for Olympic challenge
There's something about Canadian ski siblings.
Marielle Thompson, who won Olympic gold at Sochi 2014, is the older sister of Broderick Thompson on the alpine team. However, the Schmidt siblings — Hannah and Jared — will race the same track, and if everything goes to plan, stand on their respective podiums.
The siblings grew up competing in alpine racing at Mont-Tremblant, Que., before eventually discovering ski cross.
Seeing her brother's success, Hannah joined soon after. While she initially considered Milan-Cortina 2026 her goal, their performances on the World Cup this season secured them an opportunity to compete in Beijing.
"It definitely came as a bit of a surprise, but I think I've shown it in my results this season that I can be there," Hannah said. "I don't have crazy expectations for the Olympics result-wise."
While Hannah has yet to reach the World Cup podium, Jared has two bronze medals to his name, including this season in Arosa, Switzerland, and could challenge the podium on race day.
"Arosa proved that when I get myself in that right mindset, and I ski well, there's no reason why I can't be stepping on the podium on any given day." Jared said.
Madeline Schmidt, their cousin, made her Olympic debut in canoe-kayak at Tokyo 2020 but missed the podium.
When the Canadian skiers launch out of the Olympic start gate, it will be the first time they've raced at a World Cup equivalent level since Jan. 15 in Nakiska, Alta.
The group skipped the final pre-Olympic race in Idre Fjäll, Sweden, due to COVID-19 concerns, opting for a training block in Nakiska and Canmore, Alta.
While the Canadian team has relied on the track at Nakiska and a new national ski cross development centre, there were lighter moments on the road to the Olympics — the group went curling and played hockey.
"I think it was partially team building," Hannah Schmidt said. "Partly the coaches know that we're bummed that we couldn't see anyone else, so they want to make sure we still have fun.
"I'm not much of a hockey player, but I grew up figure skating with my brother," said Thompson, who's looking for a third Olympic medal. "I'm not much of a stick handler."
Who could medal?
This season, Canada has not dominated the women's World Cup, with Switzerland's Fanny Smith and Sweden's Sandra Naeslund in top-notch form.
The race is wide open on the men's side, but France's Terence Tchiknavorian and Bastien Midol are medal favourites. However, the Canadians will be in the mix.
The women's Olympic ski cross qualification begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday, with the men's qualification at 10:45 p.m. Thursday.
All of action will be streamed live on CBC Gem, the CBC Sports app and CBC Sports' Beijing 2022 website.