COVER

With the greatest of ease

JENNIFER HUNTER February 9 1998
COVER

With the greatest of ease

JENNIFER HUNTER February 9 1998

With the greatest of ease

The hill Jean-Luc Brassard is skiing down is so steep that spectators at the bottom have to snap their heads back to get a proper view. It is a 30-degree slope carved out of Blackcomb Mountain at Whistler, B.C., decked with moguls and several larger jumps, a course designed for cocky smart-alecs. Which, of course, perfectly describes 25-year-old Brassard and his teammates on the Canadian Olympic freestyle ski team, who specialize in a sport that combines the agility of gymnastics and the risks of skiing. “This is a rock ’n’ roll sport,” says Brassard later. “It’s less politically correct than downhill skiing.”

The freestyle team’s seven mogul competitors and six aerialists will be multiple medal threats at Nagano: Brassard, of Valleyfield, Que., won moguls gold in Iillehammer in 1994 and is the 1996-1997 World Cup Grand Prix champion. The moguls team also boasts medal hopefuls Stephane Rochon, 23, of St-Sauveur, Que., Dominick Gauthier, 24, of Lévis, Que., and Ryan Johnson, 23, of Calgary. The contenders in the aerials competition include Nicolas Fontaine, 27, of Magog, Que., the 1997 World Cup champion, Andy Capicik, 24, of Toronto, and David Belhumeur, 27, of Pierrefonds, Que.

On the women’s side, the highflier in aerials is Veronica Brenner, 23, of Sharon, Ont., the first Canadian woman to win the World Cup Grand Prix in the past decade. Caroline Olivier, 26, of CapRouge, Que., will also vie for a medal. And in moguls, Ann-Marie Pelchat, 23, of Lévis, Que., qualified fifth in the world championships last year.

The once-counterculture sport has remained true to its daredevil roots, even as it has leaped into the Olympic spotlight. Mogul skiers, who gained full medal status at Albertville in 1992, have mastered the art of the small jump and are scored on speed and style. Aerialists, who joined the medal hunt in 1994, are required to execute lumbar-straining flips and land lightly on their skis—they are scored on style alone. All are hell-bent for Nagano. “I don’t want to think about the Grand Prix any more,” says Rochon after twisting 360 degrees and spread-eagling to a perfect landing. “I just want to think about Nagano.”

Just a few days earlier, admits Brassard, he had awakened in the middle of the night, panicking that he had misplaced his World Cup accreditation. “There are some people who sleep on the streets in Montreal because they Fontaine (left)# don’t have a home, and there I am waking up because I thought I’d forgotten my accred^ itation,” he says. “My biggest adversary is myself, not because the other skiers aren’t as good as me— they are. But my doubts, my anxiety, my fear—if I can overcome those, I will have made a huge step forward.”

That admission of vulnerability is remarkable since the other skiers view Brassard as the cool one, the one who moons the television cameras and can boast of Japanese groupies. For all his practical joking, says coach Peter Judge, “Jean-Luc has always been an extremely mature individual. This is both a positive and a negative. It has contributed to his success but made it difficult for him, too. After his Olympic victory in 1994, he felt this huge pressure and felt he had to live up to it.”

Psychology is a large part of freestyle skiing, with its undeniable dangers. Brenner has been trying to wrap

her mind around several mishaps this season: she fell, broke her nose and began to feel spooked. “All of a sudden, I am worrying about things that wouldn’t normally bother me,” she says. This will be Brenner’s first Olympics and the competition from the Americans, the Australians and the Chinese is intense. The women aerial skiers have been working on a more difficult jump—called the full double full, which is a triple-twisting double backflip. “This is the most major change in aerial skiing that I’ve seen,” explains Brenner. This year, poor weather conditions have limited her chances to practise the intricate jump. Coach Judge says all Brenner needs to do is focus: “She is more than capable of doing that trick.”

Fontaine, too, had to overcome a psychological barrier, skiing in the shadow of Quebec’s legendary Lloyd Langlois, who retired in January. “All my work last year, winning the World Cup Grand Prix, was just to get ready for the Olympics,” Fontaine says. He plans to get up early the morning of the race in Nagano and walk along the mountain, concentrating and listening to music on his Walkman. Last year, before the final World Cup event, Brassard lent him a tape of music from Disney’s The Lion King and Fontaine won the race. For the Olympics, he hopes Brassard will have another musical recommendation. Brassard tries to overcome his own nervousness by praying to St. Jude, the “saint of desperate situations.” But it is unlikely, given Brassard’s talent, that he will need St. Jude’s help.

JENNIFER HUNTER in Whistler