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COUNTDOWN TO SOCHI: Canada's freestyle skiers poised for breakout Olympics

CALGARY – Canada’s success at the 2014 Winter Olympics a year from now will be driven by skiers adept at the Randy, the Rudy, the Birani and the Daffy.

It will be helpful for Canadians to learn freestyle skiing’s lingo in time for the next Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

Canadians performing the aforementioned tricks are poised to win a lot of medals as the freestyle team has ascended to the best in the world in the years since the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.

At the most recent world championships in 2011, Canadians won eight of 12 gold medals and 16 of 36 medals overall. They’re expected to be a force again next month the worlds in Voss, Norway.

Canadians have won eight Olympic medals in moguls and aerials since those disciplines joined the Winter Games program in 1992 and 1994 respectively.

Skicross made its Olympic debut in 2010 with Canada’s Ashleigh McIvor capturing women’s gold.

Reigning world champions Chris Del Bosco of Montreal and Kelsey Serwa of Kelowna, B.C., finished just off the podium in 2010 in fourth and fifth respectively.

The addition of slopestyle and halfpipe for 2014 boosts the entire Canadian team in its quest to finish first overall in the medal count in Sochi.

Canadians are demonstrating strong medal potential in those events already.

“The addition of the new events is a tremendous opportunity for Canada,” says Anne Merklinger, the chief executive officer of Own The Podium. “Freestyle has had a tremendous early part of the quadrennial. The world championships this year will be very important, but so far, so good.”

The late Sarah Burke lobbied tirelessly to get halfpipe into the Olympics. She was a leading contender for gold in Sochi, but died following a training accident in January 2011.

Burke’s teammate Rosalind Groenwould of Calgary is a medal favourite for Sochi as the reigning world champion and this year’s X-Games champion.

Edmonton’s Mike Riddle will be the defending men’s halfpipe champion in Voss.

Montreal’s Kaya Turski was second in slopestyle at this year’s X-Games after winning the title three straight years. She was also a world silver medallist two years ago.

Reigning Olympic moguls champion Alex Bilodeau, World Cup moguls leader Mikael Kingsbury, women’s moguls skier Justine Dufour-Lapointe, World Cup aerials champion Olivier Rochon, Serwa and Del Bosco are all medal contenders for Sochi.

Bilodeau, 25, will attempt defence of his gold medal and has said 2014 will be his last Olympics. Jenn Heil, a gold and silver medallist in women’s moguls in 2006 and 2010, has retired.

Freestyle skiing as a participation sport is gaining in popularity. Registration numbers are up 22 per cent since the 2010 Games to about 3,670, according to the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association.

The national team is in the enviable position of having enough depth that if one of the favourites falters, a teammate is capable of winning a medal.

Dufour-Lapointe’s sister Chloe, who was fifth in moguls in 2010, remains a medal threat. So is skicross racer Marielle Thompson, who won last season’s World Cup title while Serwa recovered from a knee injury.

Nowhere is the freestyle team deeper than in men’s moguls.

Five finished in the top-10 of last season’s World Cup rankings when Bilodeau took a hiatus from competing. Led by Bilodeau and 20-year-old Kingsbury, another men’s moguls medal is likely.

Freestyle skiers are poised to surpass the speedskaters as Canada’s leaders in medals won at the Winter Olympics.

“I think we’ve been able to maintain a very significant strength inside the sport,” says Peter Judge, the chief executive officer of the CFSA.

What will limit the freestylers’ medal haul is the quota imposed by the International Olympic Committee and FIS, the world governing body of skiing.

It was tough enough in 2010 when Canada had a total of 18 freestyle spots for men’s and women’s moguls, aerials and ski cross, says Judge.

In 2014, Canada can take no more than 26 athletes to compete in five disciplines, including a limit of four in men’s moguls.

“It’s a very dangerous game of musical chairs,” Judge says. “The probability we’re going to leave home medal-potential athletes based on this bizarre quota system is a real problem.

“We’re handicapped because we’re a good country and a balanced country. Within the quota system that is . . . you can’t have more than 14 of the 26 in one gender. For a big team, they mandate you have to have a gender equality. For a small team, you could send 14 of one gender and none of the other and that’s OK.

“The whole system is antiquated and really needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up.”

Increasing the size of the freestyle medal pie is good for Canada’s bottom line in Sochi.

The internal battle on the freestyle team just to get there will be exhausting and heartbreaking for some athletes.

“A couple of years ago, we used to have only moguls and aerials and that’s it,” Bilodeau says. “Now we have a big basket.

“It’s bad from a personal standpoint for every athlete, but it’s good for Canada because we’re so strong in every discipline. It should be a good Olympics for us there.”