A Mountain of Riches

Canada’s ‘old lady of boarder cross’ strikes gold on Cypress

Maelle RickerWest Vancouver’s Cypress Mountain has brutalized Olympic fans since the start of these Games, but it’s been good, very good, to Canada’s athletes. It’s thrown rain, fog and wind at spectators and athletes, and forced harried Vancouver Olympic organizers to cancel 24,000 standing-room tickets, lest fans drown in a sea of mud. But Tuesday afternoon the rain stopped, the fog lifted and local gal Maëlle Ricker tamed her hometown hill. She stormed down the snowboard-cross course to win Canada’s second gold of these Games, and the fourth Canadian medal on the mountain in four days. On Monday, teammate and fellow boarder Mike Robertson took silver off the same course.

Ricker’s first qualifying run was “a disaster,” she said, but she pulled it together on her second and final chance. Teammate Dominique Maltais, a bronze medallist in Turin, fell twice and didn’t advance, a shock that didn’t knock 31-year-old Ricker off stride. Once into the finals, the veteran of three Olympics never looked back. In the start gate, she followed her usual ritual and put a chilling dump of snow down her back. “It gives me a little zip,” she said. Her race strategy was simple enough. “I tried to explode out of the gate,” she said later. The next challenge, she knew from the frequent falls on the rutted, treacherous course, was to stay on her feet. “It was really, really hard today to get a clean run all the way down the course.” Ricker, the “old lady of boarder cross” as she puts it, did that in style. She was so far ahead of second place Deborah Anthonioz of France it seemed she was racing alone.

At the base of the hill, her parents and friends among a crowd of 8,000 went wild. In a classy move, bronze medallist Olivia Nobs of Switzerland used hand signals to whip the crowd into a frenzy before Ricker took the podium. It was a storybook finish and a sweet homecoming for the daughter of a geologist father and a biology teacher mother who grew up on the North Shore boarding on Cypress and its neighbouring mountains. Across the water in Vancouver, the Heritage Horns atop Canada Place blared the first four notes of O Canada in celebration, the sound echoing off the mountains and across the city.

It’s a joyous contrast to Turin, where ­Ricker’s Olympic experience was, quite literally, forgettable. She crashed 10 seconds into her final run, and was knocked unconscious. She was airlifted off the course with a concussion and other injuries. To this day, she has no memory of the race. Technically, she finished fourth in the event—an experience she likened to “seeing the love of your life on the subway but never getting to meet them.” All that changed Tuesday. Come what may, she’ll always have Cypress.

A day earlier, Mike Robertson, a low-key contrast to the dynamic and bubbly Ricker, took silver. The 24-year-old Olympic rookie from Canmore, Alta., is so laid-back you have to fight the urge to check his pulse.

He led most of the way down the undulating course, only to have American Seth Wescott, the gold medallist in Turin, slip past at the finish. It was the kind of race that should get adrenalin gushing like a Cypress Mountain monsoon. And, well, Robertson sat on the ground for a moment to collect his thoughts, and then he smiled some. And of his thinking during the dogfight at the finish line? “I was just like, awwww, he’s winning two golds,” Robertson told reporters.

And reporters were just like, dude, you just won a silver medal after being robbed of gold. Shouldn’t you be, like, happy, or angry? Or something? “I’m pretty stoked,” he insisted. “I guess I’m a pretty mellow dude, but I’m burning up inside.” That didn’t send reporters running for fire extinguishers, for there was little evidence of smoke, or ire.

Reporters, desperate for a quote with some muscle to it, tried another tack. What do you have to say to the people of Canmore, one asked. “Hello,” said Robertson.

At that point, it was time to resort to that hoary cliché of a question: do you feel you won silver or lost gold? Robertson gave it some thought. “I’m probably on the fence,” he said. “I cannot complain with a silver medal.” Then he added, lest people think he wasn’t hungry enough: “Any medal is good but, of course, gold is the best colour.”

Later, teammate Rob Fagan offered reporters an explanation of Robertson’s calm emotional state. “You wonder if he’s even remotely in the room,” says Fagan, who finished fifth. “He stares up to his own little world.” And you know what, Fagan added, it works.