Wong lends Olympic experience to moguls team

Chris Wong admits his job the past eight months as assistant coach of Canada's freestyle ski moguls men's team has been a dream.

But that turned into a bit of nightmare last weekend with athletes clamouring for the final Olympic spots and stress levels breaking through the roof.

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Since he was hired last June, it's been Wong's mission to teach the 11-male moguls team and prepare them for the mental highs and lows as they make tracks for the World Cup podium and ultimately try to make the cut for the Olympic team. That wasn't decided until Sunday in Val St-Come, Que, the end of a busy week of competition on the World Cup circuit.

Heading into that final race, Alex Bilodeau, the 2010 Olympic champion, and Mikael Kingsbury, the reigning world champion and 2012-13 World Cup series champion, had already locked up their positions on the team for Sochi, but Marc-Andre Gagnon of Terrebonne, Que., and Phillippe Marquis of Ste-Foy, Que., were on the bubble. Gagnon made it, finishing seventh at the last race, but it was a heartbreaker Marquis, who needed to place at least seventh and ended up eighth.

As an athlete, Wong, a 32-year-old from Prince George, knows all about the pressure that comes with last-chance qualifiers. In 2006, he was on the outside looking in heading into the final World Cup race in Madonna di Campiglio, Italy before the Olympics in Turin. Wong needed a top-five finish or better and finished fourth. He went on to finish 14th in the Olympics. Wong shared that experience with Marquis to keep him in a positive mood and put aside his own doubts. For the most part, it worked.

"Phil pretty much had an Olympic spot until we arrived in Quebec and when we got there before the training we had to let him know he needed a top-seven spot to get his spot back," said Wong. "After thousands of hours of work you put in it could be the best day of your life if you get that result but if you don't it can be the worst day of your life.

"He was very nervous leading up to that event but on the day of the event he was awesome. He did everything he needed to do, he was in the moment and didn't let the nerves get to him and qualified fourth of fifth in the semifinals and ended up eighth, but he could have been sixth. He was happy with how he handled the pressure, it's just the result was devastating."

The 20-member Canadian freestyle team also includes athletes in slopestyle, halfpipe, aerials and skicross. The Olympic qualifying criteria is determined complicated formula based on the four best results from each athlete from this and last season. Each country allotted a maximum of 26 freestyle spots.

Two weekends ago in Deer Valley, Utah, Kingsbury, Bilodeau and Gagnon finished 1-2-3 as Canada claimed five of six World Cup spots on the moguls podium The team was also dominant in midweek World Cup event in Lake Placid before winning four medals Sunday in Val St.-Come. Bilodeau claimed his third straight gold medal and Kingsbury has also been a model of medal consistency, swapping places with Bilodeau at almost every World Cup stop. Both will be medal favourites in Sochi.

"Alex and Mikael are a step ahead of everybody, they occupy first and second pretty much every weekend, and they've done everything they need to do to prepare for Sochi," said Wong. "Basically it's a battle between two Canadians right now, and that's a great place for us to be.

"We would have preferred to have four guys on the team but the three who are going all have podiums this year. We have really good athletes going to the Olympics and on the women's side it's the same -- it's a powerhouse team."

Canada will also send three Dufour-Lapointe sisters -- Chloe, Justine and Maxime -- and Audrey Robichaud to Sochi. Wong won't be accompanying the Olympic team. He'll be busy with Canada's national team on the Nor-Am tour, which has four stops before he returns on Feb. 24.

He put his business studies at Capilano College on hold to fulfill his coaching duties and has been away from his home in Vancouver for more than 200 days since he joined the team. The days are long and he's been living out of a suitcase but he says it's been well worth the effort.

"It's more work because instead of just managing yourself, you're trying to manage 11 people, and it's not like a 9-to-5 job, you have to do whatever it takes to make sure these athletes are successful," said Wong. "Your mandate is to get medals."

Canada's men's team head coach is Rob Kober, a former head coach of the Prince George-based Central Interior Freestyle Ski Club. In its history, the local club produced a steady stream of elite athletes - Wong, 2002 Olympian Scott Bellavance, and World Cup competitors Jay Nachbaur, Lance Rouleau, Jennifer and Garrett Simm, and Brad Suey. The club shut down in the late 1990s but has been resurrected with a new crop of young athletes at Tabor Mountain and is now called the Northern B.C. Freestyle Club.

"I'm really happy about that, the Prince George club was amazing and it's good that it's coming back," said Wong. "It's good that the Canada Games are in Prince George [in 2015]. It can spark some winter sports and help out with the clubs."

Wong's time as a world-class athlete ended in 2007 when he tore all the ligaments and tendons in his right knee when he crashed in a qualifying run at a World Cup race in Japan. Although he can no longer compete, he's active in soccer and hockey and can ski with the athletes during training.

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