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Yeti Summit

A Champion’s Life – The Story Of Maëlle Ricker

November 5, 2015

By: Michel Beaudry

She’s like the girl next door. You know, the one with the tousled hair and the ready smile: always cheerful, always kind. She’s soft-spoken and understated… almost shy… certainly not one to seek the spotlight. But don’t be fooled. Behind that self-effacing façade lies the soul of a warrior. One of the country’s most decorated athletes, Squamish resident Maëlle Ricker has won just about everything there is to win in international snowboard cross racing. She’s an Olympic and World Champion, a two-time X Games gold medalist and a two-time Crystal Globe winner as the overall World Cup leader.

For the last twenty years, Ricker has been entertaining sports fans around the world with her fierce will to win and her unerring eye for the finish line. She’s resilient, strong-minded, disciplined and very, very competitive. In other words, she lets nothing get in her way on race day.

So how do you reconcile that fierce warrior spirit with Maëlle’s unassuming nature off the race course? It’s a mystery to her too, she says. But one thing is clear: when the start gate opens, Ricker is a completely different person. “I love finding the place where you’re on the edge of being in control but totally pushing the limit at the same time,” she says. And laughs. “Besides, I love everything there is about racing: the camaraderie, the travel, the training. It’s such an amazing lifestyle.”

She grew up in West Vancouver. “I played soccer and ran track as a kid,” says the soon-to-be 37-year old. But already she was thinking of bigger things. “To be in the Olympic Games: that seemed like such a cool thing to me. It really made me dream.”

Little did she know how big a role the Olympics would eventually play in her career: “If someone had told me back then that I would attend four different Winter Games and eventually win the gold… well, I’m not sure whether I would have believed them.”

Her introduction to gravity sports came early. Maëlle’s dad, Karl, was a keen mountaineer and he encouraged his two kids to get involved with skiing while they were still young. “I ski raced with the Blackcomb and Whistler clubs until I was twelve,” she says. “And I enjoyed it and learned a lot. But my brother Jorli had switched to snowboarding in the meantime and that looked like way too much fun not to try it myself.”

Maëlle was soon hooked on the new sport. “I remember strapping into my first snowboard wearing my father’s boots over mine just so I could fit into the bindings.” She laughs. “But what a feeling. I can still recall following in Jorli’s tracks at Whistler in bottomless powder. I’d never felt anything like it before. And I wanted more!”

The teenager took to snowboarding like a duck to water. “I entered my first snowboard cross race in 1994,” she continues. “And it was so much fun. I mean, I loved freeriding and I really enjoyed halfpipe contests, but the mix of speed and big airs and banked turns… and just going for it from start to finish surrounded by a pack of other racers… well, that was a very attractive format to me.”

There was no stopping her now. During her rookie year on the snowboard cross FIS World Cup circuit in 1996-97, she managed to reach the podium twice! Although she wasn’t yet twenty-years old, Maëlle Ricker was definitely making waves in the world of competitive snowboarding.

The winter of  ‘98 was a really big one for Maëlle. For the unthinkable was about to happen. Against all odds – and the harrumphs of some of the IOC old guard – snowboarding had elbowed itself a place at the Olympic table. And though only half-pipe and parallel slalom would be officially contested in Nagano, Japan, the young West Coaster couldn’t believe her luck.

“There I am, marching in the Opening Ceremonies as a member of the Canadian Team,” she says with a grin. “And I’m surrounded by all these great athletes… I had to pinch myself to make sure it was real.”

People often forget just how good a halfpipe rider Maëlle was in the first half of her career. But a fifth place in Nagano, while not an Olympic medal and certainly less than she’d hoped for, easily consolidated her reputation as one of the top women in the sport.

Still, it was her love for snowboard cross that was really driving the young rider now. “It’s a unique event,” she says. “And it requires a unique set of skills.” She laughs. “But I never think of the stats. I think of the funny moments, the crushing moments, the life-changing moments.” She smiles. “It’s all about the team, you know. All about the process. And because of that, I really cherish the friends and colleagues I’ve made along the way.”

Process or not, Maëlle’s work ethic is exceptional. And her drive for success continued to lift her above most of her rivals. She scored her first World Cup victory in the new discipline in 1998, the same winter she competed in Nagano.

Ricker was on a roll. She captured her first snowboard cross X Games gold medal the next year in 1999 and continued her winning ways into the 21st century. She was getting stronger, wiser… more knowledgeable about herself and her competitors.

By the winter of 2001-02, and the upcoming Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Maëlle was still considered a halfpipe medal contender. But it was not to be. A blown knee and consequent surgery wiped out the rest of the season for the champion rider. Her quest for Olympic gold would have to wait.

Discipline has always played a big role in Maëlle’s winning ways. And she needed every bit of it to come back from her knee injury. But sitting on the sidelines had honed her hunger to compete to an even finer edge. And she devoted herself to her recovery like a wolverine on the hunt.

She returned to competition with a vengeance. But she wasn’t the only dominant player on the international snowboard cross stage. Along with Canadian teammate Dominique Maltais, American superstar Lindsay Jacobellis could always be counted on to pose a serious challenge on race day. And the rivalry between the three women grew to Olympian proportions… which made for great spectating! Thrills, spills and chills: you never knew what might happen when these three women met on the race course.

It all came to a head at the Torino Olympics in 2006, where snowboard cross would finally make its inaugural appearance as an official event. Ricker was riding high. She’d just scored her second gold medal at the X Games in Aspen and felt like she was ready to take it to her rivals in Italy. But once again, she would be denied.

All three women reached the medal round that year. But in a crash-filled final run that saw first Ricker, than Maltais and finally a showboating Jacobellis go down, it was the underdog Swiss rider, Tanya Frieden who won the gold. That one really hurt. Knocked unconscious in a dangerous fall and sent to the Torino hospital with a serious concussion, the fourth-place Maëlle mused on what could have been: “It was like seeing the love of your life on the subway,” she said at the time, “but never getting to meet them.” Sigh.

Maëlle was terribly disappointed by her Olympic ‘failure’. But she was far from defeated. She came roaring back the next year and won the Crystal Globe as overall winner of the snowboard cross World Cup during the 2007-08 season. But it’s when the Games came calling in her own backyard that she showed her true mettle.

Anyone who watched the early days of the 2010 Winter Olympics will remember just how worried everyone was about the weather. And nowhere were conditions more iffy than at the snowboard cross venue at Vancouver’s Cypress Mountain. In fact, countless loads of snow had to be transported in by helicopter just to have enough white stuff to cover the course.

And the venue’s low altitude and proximity to the ocean weren’t helping. When race day dawned for the women, the athletes were greeted by a light drizzle of mixed snow and rain and low, thick clouds. Could such maudlin weather help Maëlle? After all, she’d been riding in West Coast pea soup all her life. Surely she would be less affected by the marginal conditions than the other competitors…

But Maëlle’s Olympic jinx seemed to have followed her to Canada! In her very first qualifying run she crashed halfway down the course and missed the initial cut-off. Everything depended on her second run. But given the worsening weather, would she even get the chance for another run?

“It was the loneliest chairlift ride in the world,” she recounts. “The organizers had told us that if the weather didn’t improve by 2:00 in the afternoon, they’d cancel the second run and use the first one to qualify the riders. I was devastated. And as the chair slowly carried me up the mountain, I watched in desperation, as the cloudbank continued to hover over the course. At that point, I thought my Olympic dreams were all over.”

But just as the chairlift lifted Ricker over the final rise, the clouds did start to lift. And the Canadian veteran never looked back.

“It was like I was given a second chance,” says Ricker. This time, however she wasn’t going to blow it. Her riding got stronger and stronger as the event progressed. By the time the medal round arrived, Ricker was riding like a woman possessed. And the outcome was never really in doubt… she led from start to finish.

“What a feeling that was. To be competing at the Games in my own backyard was excitement enough. But to win Olympic gold in front of my parents and friends and teammates… Wow! I didn’t come down from that high for days.”

And when she looks back now? “It’s interesting,” she says. “To be honest, my best memories mostly revolve around the lead-up to the Games. Like the epic early snow we had in Whistler that year: riding peak-to-valley with my teammates and having so much fun doing it. I also remember a time-trial in Telluride, Colorado two months before the Olympics; it was one of those runs were I was riding right on that edge between control and disaster – exactly were I needed to be – and feeling really comfortable there.” She laughs. “Those are the moments that really stand out for me now.”

There was still one last big award missing in Maëlle’s trophy case however: a World Championship title. And in 2013, at Stoneham, Quebec (once again on home soil), she put it all on the line in a Canadian duel for gold between herself and Maltais and just managed to tweak her teammate at the finish line. “We’re the dinosaurs of the group,” she said at the time of the Canuck vets’ one-two finish. “But experience plays a lot in these technical races. It’s definitely something I have to use to my advantage since I don’t have youth on my side anymore.” A wee bit tongue-in-cheek? Perhaps….

Though she now had gold in her pocket, Maëlle’s Olympic woes would continue to haunt her. She broke her wrist just before the 2014 Sochi Games and while she still competed there, she was definitely not at her best. More surgery, more rehab, more training… Maëlle was used to the routine now. But she was also getting older.

Snowboard cross is a cruel sport. And it can be brutally demanding on an athlete. Given the crazy speeds, the high-flying acrobatics and the wild collisions that racers are required to absorb week-in and week-out, it’s no surprise that few of them make it through a World Cup season unscathed.

Still, even in this Maëlle is unique. Her comebacks from injury are the stuff of legend. Four major knee surgeries, a compound fracture of the arm, broken ribs, concussions galore: she’s never let anything get in the way of her determination to race. She’s been relentless. Unflinching. Focused beyond belief.

“It’s what really sets her apart from other athletes,” says Marcel Mathieu, Canada’s head snowboard cross coach. “Her love of the sport… her commitment to her coaches’ strategies… her ability to work through pain to achieve a goal… she’s quite remarkable that way.” But there’s more he says. “Maëlle is a really good person. She has a huge heart. And she’s always given her all to the sport. She has my total respect… as an athlete and as an individual.”

It’s hard sometimes to face reality. High-achieving sports stars often dream of pushing back the years; of continuing to dominate their discipline despite the march of time. And Maëlle was no different. But there comes a moment in every competitive athlete’s career when mind and body say ‘enough’. And in the fall of 2015, the veteran rider was wise enough to heed that message.

“I’d already told myself years ago: if I couldn’t compete at 100% of my abilities, I would stop competing,” she says.  “And I found during training camp in South America this summer that I just wasn’t able to give it my all anymore. So I decided it was time to move on.” She sighs. “It’s hard to say goodbye to such a fulfilling way of life. But I don’t want to race if I can’t go all out.”

Which doesn’t mean she’s dropped out of snowboarding. “I still love to ride,” insists Ricker with a mischievous smile. “And now that I’ll have a little bit more free time, I’m hoping to get a lot more powder runs in the local mountains.”

More laughter. “It’s the same life, you know. Just a different role.”

Still, she admits the idea of ‘retirement’ was not an easy one to digest. "The decision to step away from the start gate and no longer wear a race jersey haunted me for many a sleepless night,” says Maëlle. “But I never regretted the choice… and that’s because I knew that everyone in the program had done their best to help me get into a position to progress through a long rehabilitation and finally to get back on snow."

She says she’s as passionate about the sport as she’s ever been. But for the moment, she just wants to take a bit of a breather. "I don’t have a lot of plans for the future right now,” she explains. And laughs. ”I’m just getting accustomed to my ‘new’ life. But already I’m looking at ways I can help the Canadian Snowboard Team progress to the next level. Hopefully I can stay connected and offer something of value to the next generation. Stay tuned…”