Prince George ski cross racer Tiana Gairns returned to her Austrian roots last week in Reiteralm, the place where she first learned to ski. She was there for a World Cup race within shouting distance of the place where her grandmother and grandfather live.
But because of COVID, they weren’t allowed to go to the mountain to watch their granddaughter race. As it turned out, the 22-year-old Gairns finished 24th in Wednesday’s qualifying round and did not advance to the women’s top-16 quarterfinals on Friday.
Gairns did get to go for a walk with her grandparents before she left Austria and was there to cheer on her Canadian teammate, Courtney Hoffos of Cranbrook, who won bronze on Friday, her first World Cup medal. Sandra Naeslund of Sweden won gold and Fanny Smith of Switzerland was the silver medalist.
She was also there to support Reece Howden of Cultus Lake, near Chilliwack, who continues to lead the World Cup men’s standings after he placed second to Austrian Johannes Rohrweck in Friday’s race.
Gairns started skiing when she was 2 ½ at Reiteralm and lived in Austria until she was seven, when she moved back to Prince George with her parents Sandra and Stuart.
“That’s where I did some of my first skiing and I hadn’t skied there in almost 15 years,” said Gairns. “We went back in January (for training) and skiing in the slopes you still recognize things from when I was five or six. I know the town (Pichl) so well and the people that are around with my. (It was) too bad they couldn’t be there to cheer me on but I know they’re close.”
Gairns speaks German fluently and uses it often on the ski cross tour with races regularly scheduled in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Many of the skiers on the tour are from those countries. She’s the only Canadian team member who speaks German and her skills as an interpreter come in handy at airports, hotels and grocery stores.
Reiteralm has been pushing to host a World Cup ski cross event for years and last week was the first time the top circuit raced there. It also hosted World Cup snowboard cross races last week, which brought Prince George racers Meryeta O’Dine and Colby Graham to Austria. O’Dine crashed in her qualifying run and Graham ended up 60th in the men’s race qualifying.
Now ranked 19th in the world, Gairns competed in her first world championship two weeks ago in Idre Fjall, Sweden. She qualified fifth and ended up 13th.
“It was super-fun, definitely a different experience just because it was my first time at a world champs,” said Gairns. “Everyone steps it up a notch and you feel the pressure that this is a big deal, but the track was running awesome. We had a lot of time on that track, which we don’t usually get.
“It was pretty short race day because I only had one run. It was super-windy and I tucked in the draft and did some passing and went from fourth to second and it was too bad, but I messed up some of the most important jumps for speed at the bottom section and I got passed again. Up until that point it was really good skiing and it was a good competitive heat.”
On that same course Jan. 23rd, Gairns posted a career-best fifth-place World Cup result in her comeback race after suffering a concussion in December when she fell in a training run in Val Thorens, France. In a season plagued by pandemic and weather-related cancelations, the only other World Cup result this season for Gairns was a 17th on Dec. 16 in Arosa, Switzerland. Gairns missed most of last season when she tore her ACL in a fall in November 2019 in Pitzal, Austria. It’s taken her almost a full year to recover and she had just returned after missing all of the 2018-19 season after shoulder surgery.
“This whole year, just coming back from rehab, the whole focus of it was just to have a year of experience on World Cups,” Gairns said. “It started good and I had the concussion which put me back and I had to come back from another injury but right now I feel really good so hopefully I can keep feeling this good for the rest of the season. I finally feel like I’m actually getting some experience on the tracks and I’m focused on my skiing and not any injuries.”
Next year is an Olympic year with Beijing, China hosting the 2022 Winter Games and Gairns could be in the mix to make the team. Canada has done well in ski cross since it was introduced as an Olympic sport in in 2010. That year at Whistler, Ashley McIvor won gold in 2010 at Whistler, Marielle Thompson and Kelsey Serwa were the respective gold and silver medalists in Sochi in 2014. Serwa was a repeat medalist when she won gold in Pyeongchang in 2018, while Brady Leman won the men’s event that same year.
“I’m definitely pushing for the Olympics but we do have a strong girls’ team on the Canadian side and it’s going to be a battle,” said Gairns. “Usually four girls get to go and four guys. I’m still at the point where I’m just getting experience on World Cups so the Olympics is definitely a goal, but my goal is also to get World Cup podiums. The cool thing is if you are a Canadian girl going to the Olympics you have a chance at the gold medal.”
Gairns flew Sunday with the Canadian team to Georgia, where the World Cup tour resumes Wednesday in Bakuriani with qualifying on Friday, followed by women’s and men’s individual events on Saturday and team races on Sunday. The Canadian team plans to go back to Austria for training to prepare for World Cup races in Sunny Valley, Russia, March 12-13.
A concussion has also kept 21-year-old Gavin Rowell of Prince George sidelined but the B.C. provincial team member is getting close to a full recovery and he hopes to be back on the slopes for the final stops on the World Cup tour.
Graham, a member of the B.C. provincial snowboard cross team, was coming off a 38th-place world championship finish in Sweden. O’Dine was fourth in qualifying and was second in her heat at world championships when she caught an edge and fell at the same part of the Idre Fjall course where Gairns made her mistake.
With Gairns and Rowell racing World Cup ski cross, O’Dine, Bichon and Graham competing in snowboard cross at the highest level and Sarah Beaudry in World Cup biathlon, Prince George is definitely on the international map as far as winter sports are concerned.
“It’s so cool that there are so many athletes from Prince George, I don’t know what we did in those years but we did something right,” said Gairns. “(Heather) Tandy was my seventh grade teacher and it was so cool just knowing that her daughter (Megan) was an Olympian. I got her cross-country shoes at one point and I felt like the fastest person when I had I had them on.”
O’Dine and Evan Bichon of Prince George, will get their chance to ride their boards on the Bakuriani course in two weeks starting with a qualification round on Wednesday, March 3 and the races to follow on March 5.