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Gairns feeds off homecooking, finishes 12th at World Cup ski cross in Nakiska

Racing wraps up Saturday, Olympic team announcement expected later this weekend
Tiana Gairns - World Ski Cross Georgia 2021
Prince George's Tiana Gairns (left) competes in Bakuraini, Georgia in a World Cup ski cross race in 2021. Gairns was 12th Friday at a World Cup race in Nakiska, Alta.

On a tight, challenging course, Tiana Gairns spent most of her race tail-gating, waiting for somebody in front of her to make a mistake.

In the sport of ski cross, where one wayward skier in the pack of four can easily wipe out another, that can be a dangerous strategy. But Gairns had no choice in the matter after a slow start left her chasing World Cup legends Fanny Smith of Switzerland and Swedish skier Alexandra Edebo in their eighth-final heat Friday at Nakiska, Alta.

“It was kind of difficult, the course is very fast and very technical and there’s not a lot of passing spots, so a lot of our heats today were decided right out of the start,” said Gairns. “I was third out of the start, Marielle (Thompson) had a little stumble so she was behind me, and I was looking for a pass, trying to make one happen and it just didn’t work out. I was fighting the whole way down but just couldn’t figure out a way to get a pass in.”

Gairns, 23-year-old from Prince George, finished third behind Smith and Edepo and was eliminated from medal contention, finishing 12th overall.

Smith went on to the Big Final and lost the battle for gold to Sweden’s Sandra Naeslund. Daniela Maier of Germany claimed bronze.

Friday was a silver-medal-occasion for 33-year-old Kevin Drury of Toronto - his first World Cup podium since December 2020 and the first of his career on Canadian soil. David Mobaerg of Sweden won gold and Tobias Mueller of Germany was the bronze medalist in the men’s race.

“Kevin was on fire,” said Gairns. “He has the ability to sneak in passes in the most impossible places. This was definitely his style of course.”

It’s the only Canadian stop this season on the World Cup tour. Gairns made her World Cup debut four years ago in Nakiska and posted her career-best sixth-place finish there.

Seven of the top-16 racing Friday, including three of the four women in the small final Friday were Canadians. Hannah Schmidt won that race, followed by Courtney Hoffos of Invermere and 2018 Olympic champion Britt Phelan of Mont. Tremblant, Que. They were fifth, sixth and seventh respectively in the 28-skier women’s event. India Sherritt of Cranbrook was ninth, Thompson, the 2014 Olympic champion, was 13th and Zoe Chore of Cranbrook was 15th.  

“There were three heats that had two or more Canadians in it and that’s intimidating for other nations,” said Gairns. “It just gives you the confidence to know that you’re representing the best team out there.

“The advantage of going against your teammates is you know how they ski, really well, so you kind of know their habits and where they might be setting up passes or what their strategy is in the course.”

COVID protocols ruled out spectators along the course but Gairns had her parents, Stuart and Sandra, there as course officials. She realized there was sound reasoning behind the fan ban.

“It’s really unfortunate but we’re so lucky this race is happening with Omicron going around,” she said. “It’s really sad our families can’t be there to cheer us on but at the same time we’re happy we’re in a safe environment and that they can be safe also and still cheer us on.”

The Canadian team spent five days training together at Whistler and had four days on the snow at Nakiska to get into race mode.

“It’s pretty crazy to have the advantage of not being jet-lagged and not having to travel far, because every other race we got to, we’re the ones coming from the furthest place away,” said Gairns.

In other Canadian results in the men’s race, Brady Leman of Calgary was 10th, Chris Del Bosco of Montreal was 12th, Reece Howden of Cultus Lake was 13th and Kristofor Mahler of Canmore was 28th.

Three other Canadian men just missed the top-32 cut in Thursday’s qualifying round, including Jared Schmidt of Ottawa (33rd) Gavin Rowell Prince George (35th) and Carson Cook of Edmonton (36th). They did not advance to the heats and also missed out on qualifying for Saturday’s heats. Course conditions were rough on Thursday, especially for skiers lower on the start list trying to qualify.

“Throughout the season it’s been super-tight, time-wise if you’re 1.3 seconds out (behind the top qualifier), you’re not racing the next two days,” said the 22-year-old Rowell. “There’s that extra layer of people putting it down for the Olympics as well, giving it their all. And the times are a lot closer for the top 32. Last year, if you were two seconds out you might be in.”

This is Rowell’s first full season on the World Cup tour after missing half of last season with a concussion.

The Olympic team will be announced after Saturday’s races and Gairns still has a shot at it, but will have to finish on or near the medal podium. Ski cross falls under the freestyle skiing umbrella with moguls, aerials and free skiing and it’s expected four male and four female spots on the team will be reserved for ski cross.

“It’s still up in the air, but if I perform tomorrow, then I could be going to the Olympics,” said Gairns.

There’s one more World Cup weekend before the Olympics next weekend Idre Fjall, Sweden, but as a precaution, Canada will not be sending its national team there, to lessen the likelihood of any athletes being infected by COVID.