The snowboard cross course at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games delivered a golden legacy for Maëlle Ricker and a world of hurt for her teammate Dominique Maltais. Four years later, on a sunny Sunday afternoon at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park in the mountains above Sochi, the fortunes of the women were reversed.
Maltais, the 33-year-old from Petite-Riviere-St.François, Que., sailed down the challenging Olympic course, with its soft snow and daunting jumps, to finish as solid second to 20-year-old phenom Eva Samkova of the Czech Republic. In Vancouver, Maltais was the reigning world champion favoured to win gold, but she’d crashed hard on a training run just before her qualifying run, and failed to advance to the finals.
This time, it was Ricker, the gold medalist in Vancouver, who failed to advance after she crashed out in the quarter-finals. Moments after her fall, a gutted Ricker was still looking for answers.
Asked what contributed to her losing her edge and crashing out. She could only shrug. “I’m not sure. Maybe you guys can see it better than my perspective at this point,” she said. “I’m a little bit in shock. Suddenly something [about the race] is going to replay in my head for years to come, I think. I’m not going to be able to shake this one off easily.”
Her teammate Maltais well knows the feeling. A bronze medalist in the 2006 Turin Games, she was devastated by her failure in Vancouver. She stepped away from the sport for four months and lost the will to compete. She became a reclamation project for the backers of B2ten, the quiet money financiers who are bankrolling 19 Canadian athletes in Sochi, providing extras in coaching, travel, equipment or other needs not covered by their sports federations.
For Maltais, one of the most gifted boarders in the sport, B2ten pulled out all the stops. They trained her off-season in Quebec (the rest of the Anglophone dominated sport trains in B.C.). They invested in sports psychology, board technology, built a dry-land set-up to practice her starts, hired assistant coach Francois Boivin and sent a therapist to accompany her to key World Cup races.
“For me, what happened in Vancouver wasn’t normal,” said Maltais. “I took my life in my hands and I decided to have revenge and show the world how good I can be and how fast I can be on the course. The last four years I’ve been improving myself and focusing to get faster on that kind of track. Just for today, and I made it happen today.”
On Sunday, two of the founders of B2ten, businessman J.D. Miller and former freestyle skiing coach Dominick Gauthier, were among the first to congratulate her. Also in the crowd was her ecstatic father, Gérald Maltais, the mayor of their tiny, riverfront town where Dominique is a local heroine. If past practice holds true she is certain to be fêted in grand style on her return.
Her father admits he was too nervous to watch all of her quarter-final and final races. The quarter-finals, where Ricker went down, was a crashfest. Maltais made an aggressive but clean pass that sent another rider out of control. In the finals, Maltais, taking an inside passing line, narrowly averted disaster when American Lindsey Jacobellis wiped out ahead of her and almost took Maltais along for the ride.
Snowboard and ski-cross are among the most injury-prone sports in the Olympics. Two boarders were carried off the hill Sunday on stretchers. A day earlier, Russian freestyle skier Maria Komissarova endured six hours of spinal surgery after breaking her back on a training run on the same course.
Ricker, 35, was racing with a splint, just weeks after an emergency operation for a fractured wrist, the latest in a score of injuries she’s had over her long career.
Maltais injured her knee during an X Games event in Aspen several weeks ago, and was racing with a cortisone injection. B2ten had flown her home from Aspen and assigned a therapist full-time, getting her back on snow within six days of her injury “I felt so much better than I was a month ago. I felt like 20 years old,” said Maltais after her race. “But let’s see tomorrow morning if I I’ll still feel like this.”