Road To The Olympic Games

Freestyle Skiing

Dara Howell, freestyle skier, returns for Winter X Games

Freestyle skier Dara Howell had rocketed from an unknown 19-year-old to her sport’s first Olympic champion. But Howell’s instant transformation eventually turned scary.

After gold medal in slopestyle, 'I had no idea what I was in for'

Canadian Dara Howell, who won gold in Sochi in ski slopestyle, struggled with the pressure and demands in the months afterwards. She nearly gave up on the sport. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

When Dara Howell reached the bottom of ski slopestyle course in Sochi, she had no idea how hard it would be to climb back to the top again.

Her Olympic gold medal on Feb. 11, 2014, changed her life. The freestyle skier from Huntsville, Ont., had rocketed from an unknown 19-year-old to her sport's first Olympic champion – thrust into the national spotlight alongside teammate and bronze medallist Kim Lamarre.

But Howell's instant transformation eventually turned scary.

"I had no idea what I was in for," she said recently as she prepares for the X Games, Thursday to Sunday in Aspen, Colo. "It was such a high that went to such a low."

It's a struggle Howell has never shared publicly.  

Overwhelming pressure

From Sochi to the summer of 2015 – well over a year – Howell considered never competing again.

She was overwhelmed by media appearances and increased pressure. "I wasn't sure where I was going, what I was doing. It was a scary feeling, you rely on your parents so much I wasn't sure how to handle everything," she said.

Howell grew up in cottage country in rural Ontario. Until recently, her parents Doug and Dee owned a waterfront lodge, where they lived and ran a family business for almost 50 years.

"Dara's a very quiet person," said Doug Howell. Growing up Dara would sit in the lodge office in her pyjamas, while Doug and Dee worked. Now, Doug goes on the road, "cooking and carrying skis," while Dara competes.

Shortly after Dara attended the 2014 Junos, Doug noticed a change.

"She basically ran away from home," he said. But not in a conflicted way. "She couldn't come downstairs because people wanted to take a picture with her. She went into a shell."

The summer of 2014 Howell spent time training in Toronto and with her boyfriend, Winnipeg Jets forward Mark Scheifele. They met in person at the Junos but knew each other through Scheifele's dad, who spends time at the Howell lodge.   

"I try to be the best thing for her every day," said Scheifele. "I try to give her every opportunity to be having fun, that's the way I was brought up." That first summer Scheifele introduced Howell to golf and she showed him wakesurfing.

"I had to forget about all the other stuff, the media, the success, and just focus on me," said Howell.

After Sochi, Howell avoided serious training for nine months, including the start of last season. She competed only twice. At the X Games in January of 2015, Howell won bronze in ski slopestyle. She had been training on snow for just four weeks.

"She's pretty special when she gets on a jump," says her coach Toben Sutherland, who runs the national ski slopestyle program. "She's more like the 5,000-hour rule," said Sutherland, making an adaptation to famous theory by the writer Malcolm Gladwell, which suggests people need to practice their craft for at least 10,000 hours before becoming an expert.

Howell turned 21 in August, by then coming around to the idea of a full season. She mentions "balance" and "fun" as two crucial elements she lost.

"It was just so unexpected I think, I mean it was amazing and I wouldn't want it any other way," she said.

As it turns out, winning in Sochi might have been the easiest part of Howell's competitive journey in ski slopestyle. Returning to the top will require conquering mental obstacles that only emerged after her initial success.

"Even coming into the season I wasn't sure 100 per cent," she said, and is now "halfway there" with the X Games ahead. "I'm happy to be skiing and I'm working my way up again to 2018."

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