Don’t Cross Canada on a Snowboard

11 03, 2009

published in Bell T.V. Magazine

Snowboard cross, or SBX as it’s known, is not for the faint of heart. The latest recruit to the pantheon of the Olympic games from the minor leagues of extreme sports, it requires snowboarders to hurtle down an obstacle course strewn with moguls, steep pitches, sharp curves, and spines (jumps with 90° angles), all the while jostling for position with three other hard-charging riders for the quickest route to the finish line.
Accidents of the “Oh-my-gosh, that-cart-wheeling-snowball-is a-human-being” variety are frequent.
So when people learn what Dominique Maltais’ day job is – she’s a firefighter – they’re often inspired to seek connections between it and the fact that she’s a two-time Canadian champ in SBX and, along with several teammates, a serious gold-medal contender in the sport’s debut Olympics.
For their part, journalists are often inspired to flights of hyperbole. “Maltais burst onto the scene the way a flammable liquid ignites when a match is tossed. Quickly. Explosively,” gushed the Vancouver Sun.
Alas, Maltais quickly extinguishes the suggestion of any link. Putting out fires and burning down icy slopes really don’t have anything to do with each other, she maintains.
“I’m not scared of fire, I like action and I like adrenaline, but I don’t think being a firefighter makes me stronger on my board,” says the 25-year-old.
Where Maltais comes from – not what she does for a living – is a better clue to who she is and why she does what she does. Home is Petite-Rivière-St-François, a tiny village in Quebec’s Charlevoix region. It was the St. Lawrence River, spread out in front of the town, which drew the first settlers 330 years ago. Now, however, it’s what’s just behind the town which attracts most visitors: the mountain with the the highest vertical drop – by a long shot – of any Canadian ski resort east of the Rockies, the aptly named Le Massif.
It was there than the adolescent Maltais first began boarding – and got hooked. “Me without snowboarding is impossible… I need to ride,” she says. “I need to compete.”
Compete she has, and successfully. Maltais was the 2003 and 2004 Canadian SBX women’s champion; big spills at the wrong time are all that have stood between her and the world champion title.
Even if Maltais is determined not to have any part of them, more big SBX spills are inevitable in Turin. Likened to the chariot races in Ben Hur as well as NASCAR on snow, the event is the wildest in the snowboarding family of sports, which debuted at the 1998 Nagano, Japan Olympics with half pipe and giant slalom. The events became instant fan favourites especially among the X and Y generations who find the carving rhythm of downhill skiing too old school – and maybe just a bit short on highlight-reel wipe-outs.
“It can happen so quick that someone can crash in front of you and make a big mess,” explains Maltais’ teammate François Boivin who captured silver in the 2005 World Championships. “It’s like bang, bang, bang and everybody gets injured.”
Where GS riders must be excellent carvers, and half pipers must pull off aerial maneuvers that would make a Snowbird pilot flinch, SBX competitors have to be adept at both the alpine and acrobatic elements of their sport.
“There is always the fastest line and the safest line and they are not always the same line,” explains North Vancouver’s Maelle Ricker, 27, a veteran rider who sped to bronze at the 2005 World Championships in Whistler.
Going for broke can win races but since a single spill can nullify years of preparation, maintaining your bearings and being strong on your board is key to success in SBX. Strategy also plays a major role. Since the top two boarders in each race advance until there are only four riders left to fight for a spot on the podium, a rider can take gold without having won a single heat.
Conversely, as Maltais found out at the World Championships last year, you can dominate your qualifying heats and still go home empty-handed. After setting a torrid pace and registering as the fastest qualifier, Maltais was the favourite going into the four-boarder podium decider run. Her dream of winning, however, slipped away when she took a tumble midway through the race. It was the same story at a World Cup event in Switzerland last October when, leading the pack in the final, Maltais misread a jump and crash-landed.
“I crashed as did the second and the third girls who were following me, so the girl behind all of us passed us and won the race, Maltais remembers. “She was a bit lucky [but] it’s snowboard cross so sometimes that happens.”
Things will be different in Turin, Maltais hopes. To fulfill her dreams one competitor she’ll definitely have to overtake along the way is Ricker, who is known for her explosive starts. Getting out front right of the gates is important in SBX because then you don’t have to deviate from your preferred line to catch up to the leader.
“It’s usually a cat-and-mouse game,” says Ricker. “I’m out front and the other girls are chasing me down. I have to work on finishing my race how I started it and making sure I’m ahead at that finish line.”
While she’s not sure why she’s so quick from the get-go, it may have something to do with her pre-heat ritual. “If I’m feeling a bit sluggish I might take a ball of snow and put a little bit of snow on the back of my neck in the start gate. It jumpstarts my nerves and gets me to wake up.”
While Canada is poised for the podium in SBX and has an enviable success rate in events making their Olympic debut – remember snowboarder Ross Rebagliati and our short-track speed skaters – there will be stiff competition in Turin from the American, Austrian, and French squads.
“If you had to name a [dominant] country it would be Canada,” says former World Cup champion snowboarder Tara Teigen, “but there is an aspect of the sport that involves luck, so on any given day I could name four competitors from four different countries that could win.”
Still, if Dominique, Maelle, and François have their way, after this Olympics they may have to rename the sport Canada Cross.

Dominiqe Maltais: Crashed through a fence in the final but got recovered and boldly finished the run to earn a bronze.
Maelle Ricker: Also crashed out in the finals and finished fourth. Ricker was airlifted to a hospital in Turin for observation. She did not suffer any major injuries.
Francois Boivin: was eliminated in the quarter finals.

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