Canada's top slalom skiers ready for World Cup opener
Marie-Michele Gagnon, Erin Mielzynski lead women's team
Canadian skiers Marie-Michele Gagnon and Erin Mielzynski will look to build on last season’s solid results when the 2013-14 World Cup slalom seasons begins on Saturday in Levi, Finland.
Gagnon and Mielzynski, who have both landed on the World Cup slalom podium in their careers -- Mielzynski won a 2012 race -- and are looking to take that next step: consistently being among the contenders on any given race day.
“They’ve shown and proved that they can mix it up with the best of them, particularly in slalom and giant slalom,” said Paul Kristofic, vice president of sports at Alpine Canada.
The two skiers, both 23, lead a Canadian women’s team that has changed dramatically since the last Olympic season. Veterans Emily Brydon, Kelly VanderBeek and Britt Janyk have all retired since the Vancouver Games, and the women’s group is now comprised of skiers whose best chance of success is in slalom or giant slalom.
Gagnon, who is from Lac-Etchemin, Que., is considered Canada’s best all-around skier, having top 10 finishes in three separate World Cup disciplines (Slalom, GS, super-combi). She was a mainstay in the top 20 in six slalom races last season, finding herself just one spot shy of a podium finish in Ofterschwang in March.
She's clear on her areas of improvement.
“I tend to pick up a lot of speed then mess up and lose a lot of time,” she said, of trying to balance abandonment and technique on the course. “I can be one of the fastest skiers in some sections but you’ve got to ski smart and ski consistent and strong.”
Mielzynski has improved her end-of-season standing in slalom every year since 2009. She finished 13th last season, thanks to five top 10 finishes, including a bronze medal performance in Zagreb, Croatia, in January. The year before, the Guelph, Ont., native posted Canada’s first World Cup slalom win in 41 years.
Kerrin-Lee Gartner, 1992 Olympic gold medallist and CBC alpine skiing analyst, said wisdom will come with experience. Gagnon and Mielzynski, she said, will both need to learn to be “kind to themselves” when the inevitable struggles occur.
“They’re both very strong perfectionists and want to be excellent every single day,” Gartner said.
Competition from abroad
Alpine Canada has confirmed three other racers for Saturday’s event: Brittany Phelan of Sainte Agathe des Monts, Que., Anna Goodman of Montreal, and Elli Teriwel of Sun Peaks, B.C.
Phelan notched her first top-10 showing in Zagreb, followed by a ninth-place finish on Jan. 29 at a world cup race in Moscow.
All five skiers will go up against Mikaela Shiffrin, the American teen who emerged as a star last season. Her prowess in the junior ranks was well known, yet she surprised the world’s best when she won the slalom world championships in February — at just 17.
“She’s a prodigy,” said Mielzynski. “She’s an amazing skier technically, she’s physically strong, she understands the sport and has been studying it since she was little.”
Shiffrin was followed closely in the standings by Tina Maze, of Slovenia. Maze, who finished second in slalom and downhill but finished first in the giant slalom, super G and super combined, won the overall World Cup title with more points (2,414) than the next two competitors combined.
Slovakian Veronika Velez-Zuzulova finished third in last year’s slalom standings, and has vowed to soldier on in this important Olympic season through a knee injury suffered in early October.
Maria Hofl-Riesch of Germany, who's twice won the discipline title, won last year's slalom race in Levi, followed by local Finnish favourite Tanja Poutiainen (the 2005 discipline champ), and Shiffrin.
Gagnon and Mielzynski were 10th and 14th in the 2012 Levi slalom, respectively.