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Canada opts for mix of experience, youth on Olympic snowboarding team

Four years ago, a 13-year-old Palmer Taylor was on the edge of her sofa watching the world's best snowboarders attack the Olympic halfpipe on TV.

QUEBEC - Four years ago, a 13-year-old Palmer Taylor was on the edge of her sofa watching the world's best snowboarders attack the Olympic halfpipe on TV.

During next month's Vancouver Winter Games, she's going to be much closer to the action as Canada's youngest snowboarder. Taylor, now 17, has joined a team of riders that Canadians will be counting on to produce Olympic hardware.

The 18 riders - 10 men and eight women from the sport's three disciplines - were formally introduced Monday in Quebec City.

Taylor, a member of the national development team, can't wait to challenge her heroes on the ice walls of the superpipe.

"My dad, he had his arm around me and I was like, 'Dad, I want to do that,"' recalled Taylor, who watched the 2006 Turin Games at her family's home in Collingwood, Ont.

"And what do you know? Here I am now."

The Canadian snowboard team will bring a mix of experience and youth to the Olympics. It will also carry some lofty medal expectations.

World No. 1 Maelle Ricker of West Vancouver, and second-ranked Dominique Maltais of Petite-Riviere-St-Francois, Que., will lead the way in snowboard cross, a bruising, high-speed event.

Maltais won Canada's only snowboard medal in Turin, where she captured the bronze.

Members of the men's boardercross team could also climb the podium in Vancouver.

The deep squad includes No. 4-ranked Robert Fagan of Squamish, B.C., Mike Robertson of Canmore, Alta., Francois Boivin of Jonquiere, Que., and 35-year-old snowboard-cross warrior, Drew Neilson of North Vancouver.

Jasey-Jay Anderson of Mont-Trembant, Que., the defending world champion in parallel giant slalom, returns to the Games for the fourth time. He will be gunning for his first Olympic podium.

Michael Lambert of Toronto, ranked No. 4 in the world, and Matthew Morison of Burketon, Ont., round out a strong men's alpine team that could also challenge for medals.

Riders Alexa Loo of Richmond, B.C., Caroline Calve of Aylmer, Que. and Calgray's Kimiko Zakreski will carve for Canada in the women's parallel giant slalom.

Inside the halfpipe, Taylor will join Olympic veterans Sarah Conrad of Halifax and Mercedes Nicoll of Whistler, B.C.

Oakville, Ont.'s Jeff Batchelor, Justin Lamoureux of Squamish and Brad Martin of Ancaster, Ont. will compete for the men.

"We are ready with the best, we are ready to take on the world and we will leave nothing behind when we tear down the runs on the Cypress (Mountain) bowl," Christian Hrab, Canada Snowboard's high performance director, said before the team's introduction.

"I invite every Canadian to turn on the television (and) watch our riders challenge for gold."

Hrab said the athletes were nominated based on their hard work and results over the last year.

Many of the Canadian riders were still fighting for Olympic spots heading into last week's World Cup events in Stoneham, Que.

Neilson was on the outside looking in for the final place on the snowboard cross team.

The former Olympian, who finished first on World Cup tour in 2007, opened the season with a disappointing 33rd place finish, and then couldn't crack the top-16 in the next three events.

But he battled to a fourth-place finish in Stoneham against a tough field of competition.

"I think that pulled it right out of the fire," said Neilson, who has battled back from a serious wrist injury that still aches when he's on the track.

"I'm not saying my coaches had written me off, but with the way my month was going I don't think they saw that performance coming, and it made a huge difference, for sure."

Neilson, a father of two, rebuilt his confidence just in time to qualify for an Olympics in his own backyard.

"I'm going to have so many fans there and friends there," he said.

"I can't explain how great it is to be 20 minutes from the place where I'm going to win a gold medal."

Supporters cheered on the snowboarders Monday as they made fashion-show-like entrances in a historic Quebec City theatre.

Taylor, who was all smiles throughout the ceremony, helped her cause with an impressive performance last month in Copper Mountain, Colo., where she finished seventh in an Olympic-calibre competition.

The event, a key qualifier for U.S. Olympic team hopefuls, was packed with halfpipe stars, including Americans Kelly Clark and Gretchen Bleiler - the same women Taylor watched on TV in 2006.

"It was really good riding against them, they really push you to ride better," she said.

Still, Taylor isn't putting too much pressure on herself heading into the Games.

"I just hope to kill it out there," she said.

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