Canada's Dara Howell driven to return to the top

Being an Olympic champion was overwhelming for Huntsville, Ont., native

Canada's Dara Howell driven to return to the top
Dara Howell is enjoying competing once again and already has her sights set on the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. © Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press

By Chicco Nacion, CBC Sports

It's not often that a defending Olympic champion enters the Games as an underdog. But that's exactly the position Dara Howell was in going into qualifications for the women's ski slopestyle competition.

The Huntsville, Ont., native took a couple of years off after winning gold in the inaugural competition four years ago in Sochi, as she didn't know how to handle the sudden fame.

Howell was a hero in her hometown. She was given the keys to the city and every person that drove by or into Huntsville knew Howell was from there because it read so on its welcome sign. At the time, she was only 19 — it was so much to take in.

"I didn't really realize what was going on, it was kind of thrown at me. As a young girl, I was just trying to figure out what I wanted and where I wanted to go in life," Howell told CBC Sports over the phone from South Korea.  

Now 23, Howell recently returned to the sport with a rediscovered love and while she finished 21st in Friday's competition, Howell feels at peace with herself.

"It's disappointing because you work so hard for that one moment [but] I don't think that winning a medal at the Olympics is what defines you — it's the journey you take to get there," Howell said.


Unconditional love and support

Howell knows she wouldn't be at the Games without the support of her friends and family, who kept her going when she thought about quitting altogether.

It made it all the more special that she was able to share her Olympic experience with them.  

"My parents have sacrificed so much for me. My dad travelled with me all season just to get me going again. Having my family and friends behind me means absolutely everything to me. Everyone that was here is so important to me. Win or lose, they love me no matter what," Howell said.


Back to basics

Part of her comeback meant rediscovering why she initially got into freestyle skiing — it was simply fun. Howell took a step back and realized that she's fortunate to do something she loves for a living.

She remembers watching the late Sarah Burke — a pioneer of the sport — and knowing right there and then that this was something she wanted to do.

Howell also spent some time working with Dana Sinclair, a sport psychologist, on coping mechanisms. One of her methods includes writing things down into what she calls her "evidence list," which serves as a reminder of her self-worth.

"Talking is good. I think 80 per cent [of the battle] is mental. Just having someone to connect with is so important, someone that gets sport. It's been cool to work with her, I love her to death," Howell said.

Weight off her shoulders

Howell is better prepared for any challenge that arises. Last November, she tore her MCL just before a World Cup event in Austria but was able to dig deep and continue competing. Missing the Olympics was never an option.

With the Games done and over with, Howell feels relieved and a weight has been lifted off her shoulders. But her comeback is far from complete.

Howell isn't content with just being on the World Cup circuit and is excited in the direction she's heading knowing there's a lot to improve on. As a former figure skater, jumps have always been a strength, but Howell knows that's no longer enough.

The sport has progressed so much in her absence and she's had to play catch-up — adjusting by improving her rails and adding rotations to old tricks.

The journey to Beijing 2022 is just beginning for Howell and she's taking in each moment every step of the way.

"Sport is what drives me and hard times were just part of it. You need them — good times and hard times," Howell said. "I've learned just to be easy on myself, work hard, and appreciate the people that love you. Give back as much as you can because so many people pay it forward."