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Freestyle Skiing

The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Canadian Dara Howell throws down memorable run en route to ski slopestyle gold

Posted: 02/11/2014 2:12 AM | Comments: 0

Last Modified: 02/11/2014 8:44 AM

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia - On a day when ski slopestyle queen Kaya Turski crashed out after being laid low by a virus, fellow Canadian Dara Howell stepped up and threw down a memorable run.

The dominant performance earned the bubbly 19-year-old from Huntsville, Ont., gold in the inaugural Olympic ski slopestyle competition Tuesday. Quebec City's Kim Lamarre nailed her final run to claim bronze behind American Devin Logan and complete a day of thrills and spills at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park.

Slopestyle is Don Cherry's kind of Olympic sport — rock 'em, sock 'em on skis. It is high-risk, high-reward stuff, combining eye-popping tricks with stomach-cringing crashes.

Turski showed amazing grit in popping her shoulder back on the course after her first fall. And sixth-place Yuki Tsubota of Whistler, B.C., was stretchered off the course and taken to hospital with a suspected jaw injury from a tumbling crash-landing of truly Olympic proportions.

But the day belonged to Howell and her exclamation-point first run in the final.

"At this point in time I think it's one of the most exceptional runs that's ever been done by a girl," said Peter Judge, CEO of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association and the Canadian freestyle team leader. "Not only the execution of each of the tricks but the overall cleanliness and flow of the tricks, the DD (degree of difficulty). (In) almost every piece of it, she excelled."

Howell's winning run earned a score of 94.20, well ahead of Logan (85.40) and Lamarre (85.00), with the teenager nailing the switch misty mute 9 jump (an off-axis full twisting flip) that she alone does on the women's circuit.

"I think that's the best run I've ever done in my entire life," said an ecstatic Howell, who was cheered on by a vocal, red-clad pod of family including her parents.

"The course just worked for me today," she added, "I could not be happier."

While Howell mastered the changing conditions, others paid for them with their bodies.

Japan's Chiho Takao needed to be helped off the course at the bottom after crashing in the first qualifying run. Sweden's Emma Dahlstrom also took a nasty tumble, catching her ski on a rail before hitting it hard with her body and sliding off.

Amazingly both took their beating and came back for more in a sport that will definitely leave a bruise. Ironically the only mark Howell had was two stitches on her nose, courtesy of knocking over a lamp in her room at the athletes village.

Canada has now won three gold and six medals in the first three events of the Olympic freestyle ski competition here. And the ski slopestyle performance helped take the edge off the U.S. winning both golds in snowboard slopestyle, with Regina's Mark McMorris capturing bronze Saturday for Canada's first medal of the Games.

Despite Tuesday's success, it was a bittersweet day for Canada with gold medal favourite Turski crashing in both qualifying runs and failing to advance to the final.

The 25-year-old from Montreal was going after the Grand Slam of slopestyle, having already won the sport's unofficial triple crown. She came into the Olympic competition as reigning slopestyle champion in the three other major events: X Games (2014), X Games Europe (2013) and world championships (2013).

But beset by a debilitating virus, her Olympic journey ended in qualifying and not atop the podium as widely expected. Not feeling her normal "oomph," she was hesitant as the virus took its toll physically and mentally.

"I don't think I've ever cried for 10 days straight in my life," said Turski, adding that she didn't know what kind of virus it was. "So in a way I'm just glad it's over. I just want to go in my bed and take some medication and just relax."

Turski slid off the box at the top of the course on her first run and landed face down, taking her time before gingerly getting back up and slowly skiing down. She separated her shoulder in the fall — it happens about twice a year, she explained — and popped it back in herself on the course.

On the second run, she fell on the final jump.

Lamarre and Howell were third and fourth, respectively, behind Turski in the most recent X Games.

The ever-evolving sport combines tricks off rails and boxes and jumps off big hills and comes with a language all of its own.

Here is Howell describing her winning run: "Disaster onto the down rail, blind 2, slid the second rail, switch out of the cannon, to switch-cork-7, to switch misty 9 mute to flat 5 bow and arrow."

While the sport is exciting to watch, the nature of the course denies those in the stands from seeing much other than on the big screen. The skier suddenly emerges high in the air on the penultimate jump before disappearing behind and then flying over the final hill as if propelled by a catapult.

The skiers trained Monday in soft, comfortable conditions, only to arrive Tuesday to face icy, fast conditions that turned slow and slushy as the day progressed. The slower conditions made it difficult for skiers to hit the speeds they needed at the jumps which led helped produce the crashes.

"You had to have pretty significant internal fortitude to fight your way through all the day. Certainly Dara and Kim both had that," Judge said.

Some reporters wondered openly about the physical toll of the sport.

"Crashes do happen," said Lamarre. "They don't happen all the time but it is part of the sport. You can't always be perfect and land everything."

Their sport also comes with some attitude. A few of the women wore their baggy ski pants low, like teens and their jeans, with enough space in the bum to carry their helmet.

Silver medallist Logan plans to party in Las Vegas with her friends in the days ahead, with a new tattoo also in her future.

"I turn 21 on the 17th so there's definitely going to be some celebrating," she said.

Howell and Lamarre finished 1-2 in qualifying. Howell led after the first run of the final and, going down last, was able to cruise down the second knowing she had the gold.

The 25-year-old Lamarre had a disastrous first run in the final, sliding off a rail at the top and then crash-landing on a jump to stand 11th. She put it together with the penultimate run of the competition to win bronze.

Howell and Lamarre both paid tribute to Canadian Sarah Burke, a trailblazer in the sport who died in a halfpipe training accident in January 2012.

"This medal is definitely for Sarah," said Howell, who competed with a sprained knee suffered in training. "She pushed the sport so much and she always wanted to see the progression, to see girls throwing kind of what the guys are throwing. And always had a smile on her face and loved what she did."

Added Lamarre: "She was beautiful from the outside but man was she beautiful from the inside."

She said she thought of Burke, looking up before the last run and thinking "Sarah, let's do this together."

The medal for Lamarre, whose grandmother Ginette Seguin competed in alpine skiing at the 1956 Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo, follows a string of knee injuries and surgeries that forced her off the national team for a while.

"I feel like I'm still dreaming," she said. "This is surreal. I feel so good right now. Very proud of myself."

While part of the Winter X Games, slopestyle ski did not debut at the FIS Freestyle World Ski Championships until 2011.

Five judges, each scoring out of 100, evaluates the run with an eye to amplitude, style, diversity, difficulty and execution of tricks. The scores are then averaged.

Men's slopestyle ski goes Thursday.

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