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Canada's Howden, Schmidt win World Cup ski cross gold on home snow

CALGARY — Reece Howden and Hannah Schmidt produced double gold for the host Canadian team Saturday in World Cup ski cross.

It marked the first time in eight years of racing at Nakiska Ski Resort that Canadians topped both the men's and women's podiums in a single World Cup.

"When it really counts, we like to bring it," Howden said.

Howden, of Cultus Lake, B.C., won the overall men's title two of the last three years, but Saturday's victory was his first this season.

"I had a little bit of bad luck here and there, but the foundation was there," he said. "I just had to believe in the system, believe in what I've been doing, working on in the gym and stuff like that, and just have faith that eventually things are going to start to work out."

The six-foot-three Howden, whose nickname is "Big Rig", earned his 10th career World Cup victory at the site of his first in 2020.

Ottawa's Schmidt picked up her second win this season after the first of her career Dec. 12 in Arosa, Switzerland, where she and brother Jared were both victorious.

"Having friends and family down at the finish when you cross a line, there's no other feeling I would say," Schmidt said. "Our team is one of the strongest nations out there and to be able to train with them and race with them, it's awesome.

"We're a force to be reckoned with."

Teammate Marielle Thompson, of Whistler, B.C., finished a close second in the women's final.

A second World Cup is scheduled for Sunday at the resort west of Calgary.

A host Canadian team has won both World Cup men's and women's gold on home snow twice. Brady Lehman and Thompson were victorious at Ontario's Blue Mountain in both 2017 and 2012.

Saturday's quarterfinals, semifinals and finals were held under overcast skies and a temperature just below freezing. The top two finishers in each heat advanced.

Nakiska's course is one of the longer tracks on the World Cup circuit and underwent alterations this year for sharper turns.

Thompson was one of few racers to successfully execute a pass, which she did to finish ahead of Schmidt in the semifinal. Schmidt was able to hold off the 2014 Olympic champion in the final, however.

"This new course in Nakiska that they've built definitely makes the start more important," Thompson said. "I felt like I had a lot of speed in that semifinal when I was passing Hannah and she knew that in the final.

"She kept me behind her pretty effectively."

How quick skiers were out of the gates and over the opening rollers determined order of finish Saturday.

"This course is really particular and carrying your speed and getting out in front makes a big difference," Howden said. "By the end, I felt pretty close to unbeatable and I was just really, really confident coming out of the gate."

Men's overall World Cup leader Jared Schmidt, Edmonton's Carson Cook and Toronto Kevin Drury were eliminated in the quarterfinals.

Reigning Olympic women's champion Sandra Naeslund of Sweden was limping after winning her quarterfinal and withdrew from the remainder of the competition.

Six of 14 women competing Saturday were Canadian. India Sherret of Cranbrook, B.C., Britt Phelan of Mont-Tremblant, Que., and Edmonton's Abby McEwen finished sixth, seventh and 11th respectively.

Emeline Bennett of Whistler ranked 14th in her World Cup debut.

"Coming into the weekend, I was definitely intimidated by the size of the track," the 19-year-old said. "I haven't really skied anything like that at all.

"Once I got my head around that, it was kind of normal first-World-Cup nerves. Pretty happy to just have made it down. Its crazy to see what the next level of skiing looks like. Probably not ready for that yet, but I'm super-excited for when I get there."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2024.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press