While Canada's top athletes gear up for the Winter Olympic Games, an Edmonton teen has already raced some of South Korea's Olympians on the cross-country ski course in Pyeongchang.
"It was really exciting to get to race at that level and see that level of competition. Obviously they're high-level athletes, so they gave me a good run for my money," said Will Rickard, 17, a student at Lillian Osborne High School.
"I beat some of them. But not all of them."
Rickard was one of 10 young athletes from across Alberta to travel to Pyeongchang from Dec. 9-19 through Alberta Sport Connection's international exchange.
Alberta has long partnered with Gangwon Province, where Pyeongchang is located, to run the program for various activities.
"I was just lucky enough that it was cross-country skiing this year," said Rickard, a member of the Edmonton Nordic Ski Club.
'It was sort of surreal'
Rickard began cross-country skiing when he was six years old, mostly on the trails in Gold Bar Park or at the Strathcona Wilderness Centre.
He has honed his ability and competed at the national level, but never internationally before travelling to Pyeongchang, where he and the other Alberta teens on the trip raced four times on the Olympic course at Alpensia Resort.
The first two races were against top teens from South Korea, some of whom visited Alberta two years ago as part of the same exchange.
The last two races included members of that country's Olympic team.
"I think it's going to start to set in when I'm actually watching the Olympics and I'm seeing people that I raced against on the same course. It's going to be kind of mind-blowing," Rickard said.
"It was sort of surreal in the moment and just every day after that it starts to set in a little more."
'There's a lot of excitement for the Olympics'
Rickard said the trip wasn't all work. The young skiers had some downtime during which they went to the South Korean capital, Seoul, and to the demilitarized zone at the country's border with North Korea.
"It's a really interesting place. It's a beautiful country," Rickard said.
"Just watching the people and walking around the cities, you see there's a lot of excitement for the Olympics," he said. "Everywhere, you see the mascot or the Olympic rings or something."
The young Alberta athletes also got to tour the Olympic facilities at the resort, which will also be hosting bobsled and some ski-jump events.
At the top of the ski hill, Rickard said there's a cafe and a lookout. On one side, there's the bobsled track and on the other side, he said he could see the ski jump leading down into a stadium.
Inspired by the lucky loonie from the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, they left their mark on the cross-country ski course.
"At the top of the biggest hill on the cross country ski course, there is a loonie. We're hoping that's going to be a bit of of good luck," Rickard said.
"We have Alex Harvey, who's one of the best skiers in the world right now. With a bit of luck, I think it's definitely possible to get a medal there."
The 2018 Winter Olympic Games take place in Pyeongchang from Feb. 9-25.