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Olympic medallists Leman, Thompson, Phelan headline ski cross team for Beijing

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Brady Leman and Marielle Thompson might be Olympic champions, but they were breathing a little easier after earning spots on Canada's ski cross team for Beijing on Friday.

That's just how mighty Canada is in the sport.

Leman, who won gold four years ago in Pyeongchang, knows there's a good chance he'll line up against a teammate in the Olympic final next month.

"That's us every race," Leman said from Canmore, Alta., where the Canadian ski-cross team is sequestered before flying to China. "It's pretty cool to have your teammates be your top competitors, makes for a really competitive training environment. 

"The hardest thing honestly has been the stress around qualifying. It's always a tough team to make and Canada, we’re so strong across all of the freestyle disciplines. So, just keeping an eye on qualifying over the last year-and-a-half has been pretty stressful making sure that you're gonna shake out in the right position."

Thompson, who raced to victory in 2014 in Sochi, said the strength of the team means being constantly pushed to be better. 

"You know that we're all going to be bringing our best when it comes to race day," she said. "It is an individual sport, we're on our own out there. But it is nice to know that all your teammates have had to have really strong performances to make the Olympic team. It was a tough team to make, so we’re very lucky."

Brittany Phelan, the women's silver medallist from Pyeongchang, was also named to the Canadian team on Friday.

All three have come back from major injuries. 

Leman crashed on his bike in the summer of 2020, suffering five broken ribs, a broken collarbone, and punctured lung. Then the 35-year-old contracted COVID-19. In February of 2021, he suffered a season-ending knee injury, but bounced back to win silver in the first event this season, the Olympic test event in Beijing.

"That was huge, right off my injury,  first race back," Leman said.

Thompson tore her anterior cruciate ligament for the second time last March.

"It was uncertain when I was going to be able to compete honestly, in the early winter," she said. 

The 29-year-old returned last month in Val Thorens, France. In the first of two races, in poor conditions, she pulled off the course midway down. 

"The next day, it was perfect, beautiful blue skies," she said. "I gave it my all and landed myself on the podium. Basically, from that day, I've been feeling pretty good and only getting better . . . the best training is really being back on that race course and competing with the best. So, it's been good to be back head to head with the best girls in the world."

Phelan suffered a season-ending injury in 2020. 

"It was a long recovery to get back here," she said. "The Olympics are special, they only come around every four years and the whole year leading up has to go well."

Canada has won ski cross gold on the women's side at every Games since the event made its debut in 2010 in Vancouver. 

Canada enters the Games on the heels of an impressive performance at Nakiska, Alta., last week where it claimed a gold and two silver medals.

While the cloud of COVID-19 hangs over Canadian athletes heading to Beijing, Leman said the adversity he and his teammates have faced the past couple of years have made them more adaptable.

"We've been traveling around for the last two years, basically through COVID, so we've gotten pretty used to changing circumstances and changing environments and just rolling with the punches and adapting to all the injuries on top of that," he said. "It adds another arrow to the quiver, so to speak, in the sense that you feel like no matter what the world throws at you you'll be able to figure it out."

Leman remembered feeling bad for his friends who were heading to the Tokyo Olympics last summer, and the stress they must have felt because of the pandemic.

"I thought 'At least it'll be way better for us in China this winter,' and then: oh psych. It's worse," he said, with a laugh. "We're trying not to get too stressed out by it, because you can only do so much."

Broderick Thompson, who captured bronze in the first super-G World Cup of the season, and Marie-Michele Gagnon, Ali Nullmeyer, Jack Crawford, who've all had top-five World Cup finishes this season, lead the alpine team announced Friday. 

Canada has 11 Olympic alpine skiing medals, the most recent being a bronze in the men's super G at Sochi 2014. 

"It is always an amazing opportunity to race on the world's biggest stage and proudly represent your country," said Crawford, who finished sixth in a World Cup downhill at Kitzbuhel, Austria on Friday. "The Olympics have always been on my radar and going into Beijing will be crazy because I've proven I actually have a real shot at the podium."

The alpine events are Feb. 6-19 at the Yanqing Alpine Skiing Centre. Ski cross events will take place Feb. 17-18 at the Genting Snow Park in Zhangjiakou.

Alpine team:

Jack Crawford, Toronto; Marie-Michèle Gagnon, Lac Etchemin, Que.; Cassidy Gray, Invermere, B.C.; Valerie Grenier, St-Isidore, Ont.; Ali Nullmeyer, Toronto; Erin Mielzynski, Collingwood, Ont.; Trevor Philp, Calgary;  Erik Read, Canmore, Alta.; Roni Remme, Collingwood, Ont.; Brodie Seger, North Vancouver, B.C.; Amelia Smart, Invermere, B.C.; Laurence St-Germain, St. Ferréol-les-Neiges, Que.; Broderick Thompson, Whistler, B.C.

Ski Cross Team:

Kevin Drury, Toronto, Ont., Courtney Hoffos, Windermere, B.C., Reece Howden, Cultus Lake, B.C.; Brady Leman, Calgary, Alta., Brittany Phelan, Mont-Tremblant, Que., Hannah Schmidt, Ottawa, Ont.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 21, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press