Sochi Spirit: Whistler’s Snowboard Olympians [Whistler Traveller]

In Portfolio, Writing by Steve0 Comments

Originally Published in Whistler Traveller Magazine

Whistler’s Snowboard Athletes

BY STEVE ANDREWS

In February and March of 2010, Whistler hosted the biggest celebration of the town’s history when it welcomed the world for the Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games. The entire village was packed with tens of thousands of athletes and spectators witnessing the pinnacle of human performance. The Games’ legacy stretches far and wide in Whistler, from the iconic rings at Celebration Plaza to the Athlete’s Training Centre at Cheakamus Crossing (which served as the 2010 Athletes Village).

Whistler’s Olympic history dates back far before 2010. Over 50 years ago, the original developers of Whistler Mountain chose the area for its potential to one day host the Games. But the legacy goes far deeper than being a venue for attracting the world’s best athletes. In fact, some of the world’s best athletes grew up in Whistler, train in Whistler, and continue to call Whistler home.

Whistler athletes are present in a variety of winter sports, but no discipline has been as stocked with local talent as Snowboarding. The huge terrain, deep snow, and excellent park/pipe crews here help incubate some seriously talented individuals. The first snowboarding gold medal ever handed out was to Whistler local Ross Rebagliati in 1998, and since then Canadians have always been in the running for top spot.

In February 2014 several athletes and coaches who call Whistler home will likely be heading to Sochi, Russia to represent Canada in the 22nd Winter Olympics. We had a chance to interview a few of them to find out more about Whistler’s ability to groom some of the world’s best competitive snowboarders.

Maelle Ricker, 2010 Snowboard cross gold medalist, didn’t have much of a choice for riding in Whistler. Her father, Karl Ricker, a retired geologist, was one of the first people to actively explore the area’s immense peaks. His passion for skiing rubbed off on Maelle, who has been sliding on snow almost her entire life. Her competitive career started early as a little kid in the Nancy Greene Ski League, and as she switched to snowboarding so too did her ability to win competitions. She has competed on the National team for over 15 years, and was one of the first X-games gold medalists in Snowboard cross. But the highlight of her career was being the first Canadian female to win a gold medal on home soil, and only 20 minutes away from where she grew up.

“Winning the gold medal was unreal. Growing up in BC my whole life, going to school 20 minutes from where the venue was … the backdrop was … the chance to stand on the podium was indescribable really. It was definitely an overwhelming moment.”

She credits much of her success to the fact that the mountains around Whistler are as good as it gets. “I think it comes down to the terrain,” she says. “We have such amazing terrain in Whistler that challenges the best of ‘em. We also have access to all different styles, whether it’s free-riding in deep powder, speeding down a freshly groomed run, or free-styling in our amazing park and pipe.”

Mercedes Nicoll has been living full-time in Whistler since she was 12 years old, but the family had been coming here her whole life. As a teenager she started competing in snowboarding, because it was “more fun than figure skating,” she smiles. While she never planned that it would take her to the Olympics, it was sort of predestined in her family. “By going to the Olympics, I broke the ‘Nicoll Curse’,” she says with a giggle. “My dad was supposed to be in the Olympics for ski racing, but he broke his leg and missed out. My grandpa was also supposed to go for bobsledding, but it was the same time as his honeymoon, so he opted to be with my Grandma instead.”

But once she entered the stadium in Torino, Italy in 2006, she knew she was on the biggest stage of her life. “It was never my dream to go to the Olympics or anything; it just kinda flowed. The opportunity came about and I kind of fell into that.” What she fell into was only the biggest sports spectacle in the world. “Once you walk into the stadium and see people passionate about watching you and watching sports, that’s a whole other field. It’s amazing. Especially in 2010, watching Canada come together like that – that will never happen again.”

And her heart for her hometown is also full of thanks. “Growing up here made me who I am today. The opportunities here for snowboarding – the mountains, the easy access – have made my whole career possible. It’s shaped not only my career but who I am. People sometimes don’t believe that this is an actual town and people actually grow up here. I admit I feel extremely lucky and thankful that my parents moved here … because I love training, competing, and travelling the world, but I still really like riding powder, and nothing is better than here!”

For Dan Raymond snowboarding started out as a way to meet people and get involved in the Whistler community. But over the past 14 years he has made a career out of competitive snowboarding. “I thought competing would be a mellow weekend thing. It turned out to be so much more,” Raymond remarks. He started to win local half pipe contests, and in a few years found himself on the National team, travelling the world to compete in World Cup events, and capping his career at home in the 2010 Winter Olympics.

“Competing for your country is the biggest opportunity and honour. It was the best of both worlds combining everything I loved – snowboarding and travelling. The more I travelled, the more I realized how perfect it is to call Whistler home.”

Last year Dan was chosen to be the new coach of the Canadian National Snowboard Team. He has traded in his snowboard for a clipboard, helping the next generation of athletes become the best they can be. Working long hours handling everything from travel logistics to driving the bus, he couldn’t be happier. “There’s no bigger honour than being able to help the athletes reach their goals. The passing down of knowledge feels good when you see it in action. I’m looking forward to seeing the riders excel on the biggest stage in the world in Sochi.” He pauses to laugh. “I’m probably going to be more nervous than them when the time comes!”

It is hard to say where the Canadian Snowboard team would be without the Whistler community. Maelle, Mercedes, and Dan all testify that their friends and family, the mountain staff, and the natural terrain as being integral to their success. The combination of the mountains and the people provide a setting that is one of the best breeding grounds for some of the world’s finest snowboarders. And without a doubt the immense hometown pride shown by all Canadians for our athletes in 2010 has instilled invaluable confidence for the next Games. But don’t’ take our word for it … Check out the Canadian National Snowboard Team (and all athletes) at the 2014 Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Sochi, Russia from February 7th – 23rd.

For more information:

Sochi Olympics:  olympic.ca/games/2014-sochi/ ;  sochi2014.com/en/

Canada National Snowboard Team:  canadasnowboard.ca/en/team/

Maelle Ricker:  maellericker.tel

Mercedes Nicoll:  mercedesnicoll.com