Brace yourself: Become a ski and snowboard cross instant expert

Everything you need to know about the high-octane events

Brace yourself: Become a ski and snowboard cross instant expert
Canadian ski cross racer Kelsey Serwa, left, and snowboard cross counterpart Brady Leman enter the Olympics as strong podium contenders. © Canadian Press

​By Benjamin Blum, CBC Sports

Ski and snowboard cross are the Olympic equivalents of piling a buffet plate too high while trying to fit the best of everything in a confined space.

They're not traditional downhill races, nor are they judged freestyle events, but the end result is a diverse, dynamic and often destructive display of athleticism and strategy.

Here's everything you need to know to instantly become a ski and snowboard cross expert:

History and format

  • Snowboard cross introduced at 2006 Olympics
  • Ski cross debuted at 2010 Games
  • Men's and women's events

How the events work

Both disciplines begin with individual qualifying runs to determine seeding. Afterwards, the event breaks down into a series of elimination rounds featuring four competitors going head to head... to head to head.

Only the top two finishers in each heat advance to the next round of elimination, making their way through the competition until the two finals: The small final determines fifth to eighth place, while the large final sorts out who walks away with medals.

The course features a series of jumps and banked turns, with a big jump located just before the finish line. Athletes race in quarters so close it makes the chariot race in Ben Hur​ look like a quaint carriage ride.

Danger zone

Ski and snowboard cross aren't contact sports, but collisions at high speeds are an inevitable part of the sport and serious injuries can occur at any part of the race.

Combining freestyle jumps, alpine speeds and bobsleigh-esque curves requires constant adjustment from the racers that increase the stress on their bodies as well as the likelihood of running out of space in a crowded field.

Two of Canada's top ski cross racers have dealt with significant injuries recently: defending Olympic champ Marielle Thompson ruptured her ACL and MCL during a training run in October, while Georgia Simmerling will miss the Games in Pyeongchang after breaking both legs in a World Cup race.

Racers to keep on your radar

Amazingly, Thompson's recovery has progressed to the point that she was named to Canada's Olympic team, joining Sochi silver medallist Kelsey Serwa and men's fourth-place finisher Brady Leman. She's also benefiting from a favourable schedule, as ski cross in Pyeongchang won't be contested until Feb. 23.

Chris Robanske and Meryeta O'Dine headline Canada's snowboard cross squad, but both will be in tough against several strong racers like France's Pierre Vaultier and Italy's Michela Moioli.

Canada's done well in the brief Olympic histories of both events, winning four snowboard cross medals — one gold, two silvers and a bronze — and back-to-back ski cross golds, courtesy of Thompson and Ashleigh McIvor, to go along with Serwa's silver.

Here's a look at the course in South Korea, complete with music evocative of what the post-apocalyptic Alps might sound like:

Secrets to sounding smart

Still not fully cross-fit yet? Just read these and you'll beat all your friends out of the proverbial starting gate:

  • Crossing over. Canadian medal threat Brady Leman was an alpine skier growing up and even competed for a year on the national team.
  • Do these sports seem familiar? Both ski and snowboard cross are reminiscent of motocross, which features off-road motorcycles on dirt courses.
  • You're good kid, don't get cocky. Not only is this a classic Han Solo quote, but it's also a bromide for any racer feeling too confident with a lead. At the 2006 Olympics, American Lindsey Jacobellis missed out on gold because of an ill-advised flourish.