Canadian ski-cross queen Ashleigh McIvor crowned Olympic champion – Metro US

Canadian ski-cross queen Ashleigh McIvor crowned Olympic champion

WEST VANCOUVER, B.C. – When Ashleigh McIvor was an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia, she wrote an essay for her English class on why ski cross should be in the Winter Games.

She couldn’t have imagined she would become its first Olympic champion.

The 26-year-old native of Whistler secured a place in Olympic history Tuesday, winning the inaugural women’s ski-cross event in near-whiteout conditions before a packed house at Cypress Mountain.

McIvor, one of the favourites to end up on the podium, threw her arms into the air as she crossed the finish line, then jumped up and down like a kid on Christmas morning.

Hedda Berntsen of Norway won silver while Marion Josserand of France took the bronze.

Kelsey Serwa of Kelowna, B.C., just missed making the final to finish fifth. Julia Murray of Whistler was 12th and Danielle Poleschuk of Winnipeg 19th.

In making her case for her sport’s inclusion in the Games, McIvor delivered a paper that compared ski cross to BMX racing, which was about to make its Summer Olympic debut in Beijing.

“Ski cross is just a new form of ski racing, which has been around for ever – racing your friends to the bottom,” said McIvor. “The FIS (world governing body of skiing) is really interested in keeping up with the next generation and keeping the Olympics cool.”

From the moment she was granted her wish – ski cross gained entry with the International Olympic Committee’s approval in November 2006 – McIvor made reaching the Games one of her primary goals. She was one of the first members of the Canadian national ski-cross team, and remains her sport’s most vocal supporter.

“It’s such an amazing spectator sport,” said McIvor. “Huge features, bank turns and it doesn’t need additional infrastructure. The snowboard cross is already there. The same qualifying, same volunteers, same gate judges, it’s such a similar event.”

In contrast to the nature of the high-octane sport in which she is now an Olympic champion, McIvor was subdued, almost shy, when receiving her gold medal at a ceremony later Tuesday. Greeted by an enthusiastic crowd of flag-waving fans when her name was announced, McIvor raised her hands and gave a modest wave but refrained from belting out an off-key rendition of ‘O Canada’ as skeleton gold medallist Jon Montgomery did at his medal ceremony days earlier.

Reaching the top of the Olympic podium may not have been McIvor’s motivation for getting into skiing, but even at an early age, it was clear she would be a star on the slopes.

A natural daredevil, McIvor began skiing down her parents’ carpeted steps at age two. As a child, she spent her summers traversing rugged terrain on her bike, and her winters blazing down the ski hill.

She became so good at both that she routinely skied with and against boys at the Whistler Mountain Ski Club, and raced them on her bike. And she won – a lot.

That combination of natural skill and competitive fire made ski cross the perfect sport for McIvor, whose promising alpine ski career was cut short at 16 when she broke her leg at the national championships at Sun Peaks. Following a difficult two-year recovery, McIvor was drawn to ski cross after watching it on video.

After winning her first-ever ski cross race seven years ago – and subsequently qualifying for the X Games – McIvor was hooked. Sponsors and ski companies lined up right away, recognizing that the combination of movie-star beauty and raw talent made her an instant superstar.

She enjoyed plenty of success in X Games, and spent time extreme skiing in North America. But it wasn’t until 2006 that McIvor began realizing the Olympics might be in her future.

Last March, McIvor was Canada’s first ski-cross racer to secure a spot on the Olympic freestyle team – which served as both a blessing and a curse. She was thrilled to have a Games spot locked up well in advance, but the early nomination only made the wait that much more difficult.

Tuesday’s performance made it worth the wait – not only for her, but for the group of more than 50 friends and family that showed up to watch her.

“This is unbelievable,” said Ashleigh’s mother, Marilyn. “I just really wanted to have a good, fair race and I didn’t want anybody to get hurt – and it’s just such a bonus. She has worked so hard to get here and she’s such an amazing athlete, we couldn’t be prouder.”

The throng also included Ashleigh’s boyfriend, Chris Del Bosco, who finished a gut-wrenching fourth in Sunday’s men’s final after crashing in the final stretch.

“She’s just an incredible skier,” said Del Bosco, who received a warm ovation prior to the final. “She’s good at everything – the jumps, the start, the turning, gliding, everything.

“She’s an amazing competitor and she just has a blast every time she’s out there.”

The high-drama ski-cross event features four skiers navigating a course with bumps, jumps and turns in a race to the finish line.

McIvor is also an avid dirt-bike enthusiast in her spare time, and even built her own house. And when it comes to confidence, few can match her. Nowhere was that more evident than in Tuesday’s competition, where she admitted she felt like the gold was hers to lose.

“It’s weird, this is like the only race in my life where I just felt like I was going to win,” said McIvor. “I used to think it was bad to think that way, that I was going to jinx it or I’d be so disappointed if I then didn’t win. I don’t know … I just had a really good feeling about this race.”

Having her sport included in the Olympics brought with it something McIvor wasn’t accustomed to – the hopes of a nation. Despite acknowledging that the pressure to win was great, McIvor said it didn’t bother her.

“I just tried to channel it into positive energy, realizing that, because we’ve had all this funding from (Own The Podium), we were so well-prepared for this event,” she said. “The pressure was really just people who had a whole bunch of high expectations for me, and that just made me more confident.”

McIvor still remembers the essay vividly, and offers a smile whenever it’s brought up. And although she’s thrilled with what she has done, she’s even more proud of where she did it – in her own backyard, not far from where she first conjured up thoughts of becoming an Olympian.

“Skiing in the back country and just racing your best friends from the top to the bottom, that’s what ski cross is all about,” said McIvor. “And who can represent Canada better than a girl from Whistler?”

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