PYEONGCHANG — Marielle Thompson passed the finish line of the ski cross course at Phoenix Snow Park on Monday morning, and she smiled. She smiled wide and she smiled long.
For Thompson, the 25-year-old gold medallist from Sochi, that run, a turn down the Phoenix track with no company but herself, was her first attempt at any kind of a serious run since October, when she ruptured both the ACL and MCL ligaments in her right knee in a training accident.
The initial thought was that her season, including the Olympics, was over. But she has rehabbed aggressively, and despite not competing at all on the World Cup circuit, the ski cross coaches named her to the team. That probably wasn’t such a tough call: if the defending champion thinks she can give it a go, you probably let her try.
But no one knew how the knee would respond under race conditions. Monday morning provided the first evidence.
“I think you guys could probably tell I was stoked,” the Whistler, B.C., skier said. “I couldn’t take the smile off my face, from the bottom, all the way up the lift. It was nice just to get back out there and put down a couple of solid runs.”
She says the knee, at least from the experience of Monday’s two runs down the hill, is not something she thinks about when she’s at work.
“I mean, I think about it sometimes,” she says. “But when I’m skiing I’m full focused into the course, and I’m glad I can ski that way, just skiing how I can and not worrying about extra stuff.”
Thompson isn’t the only member of the Canadian team to have injury problems. Georgia Simmerling of West Vancouver, a bronze medallist in track cycling in Rio two years ago, would have been a ski cross medal contender here but she broke both her legs in the final World Cup event at Nakiska in Janaury. Kelsey Serwa, who won the silver medal in Sochi, hurt her knee in a training accident in December 2016. When Alpine Canada announced later that she would miss the remainder of that World Cup season, the release included this quote from Serwa, describing what happened when she landed hard after a jump: “The impact took a chunk off my lateral femoral condyle, which basically means there was a divot in the cartilage on a bone in my knee.”
I mean, ouch.
Serwa, the 28-year-old from Kelowna, B.C., said despite missing all that time last season, she feels, “surprisingly well.”
“I usually run at my body feeling about 80 per cent, but everything feels really good, actually,” she said.
Anyone who has ever witnessed a ski cross race can appreciate the certain lunacy that is required to even attempt it, let alone try it with a surgically repaired knee. And yet here Canada has two of the best ski cross athletes in the world, both doing exactly that. The sport, with its high speeds and big jumps and propensity for collisions and wipeouts — the heats run with as many as six skiers on the course at the same time, like someone decided to mash the super-giant slalom with short-track speed skating — looks like utter chaos to a casual observer, though the athletes insist that everything is under control. Well, semi-control.
“I think that’s what the draw is, too,” Serwa says. “There is that fine line, you know, it’s chaos and (also) total focus. We’re used to this kind of stuff.” Serwa glances over at the 22-foot halfpipe that is adjacent to the ski-cross course. “I would never go and hit a halfpipe, and I think that’s crazy,” she says. “We all come in prepared and know what we’re doing.”
Serwa, who has had a full season on the World Cup before coming to Korea, says it was good to see Thompson finally out there and racing.
“This was her first time back on a full track since October and, yeah, I mean, it’s like she never even left,” Serwa said. “She looks comfortable out there, and I hope she feels comfortable. It’s just really cool to see here come back, and it was obviously a lot of hard work.”
Thompson admits that there were doubts about whether the comeback could even happen.
“Right after I injured myself I was super disappointed, just because I thought I wouldn’t be here,” she said. But she credits an intense workout program, one with very little rest built in because there just wasn’t time for that, for getting her back into skiing shape. There will be more training runs, too, before the women’s ski cross races begin on Friday.
Thompson says she’s looking forward to getting out there with the other competitors, and skiing in traffic for the first time in four months.
She says the plan for now is “just make sure I’m skiing how I know I can, and we’ll see how it goes.”
And the course? “It’s good,” she says. “It’s fun, it’s really fun.”
If you say so, ladies.