SÖLDEN, AUT. — Talented all-rounder Marie-Michèle Gagnon will rely on her passion for competition and a new mental approach to racing when she leads a young Canadian team into the season-opening alpine World Cup races in Sölden, Austria, this weekend.


The 24-year-old from Lac-Etchemin, Que., is arguably Canada’s strongest podium threat as the Audi FIS alpine World Cup season gets underway Saturday with a ladies’ giant slalom, followed by the men’s giant slalom on Sunday. Also flying the flag for Canada in Saturday’s ladies’ race will be Marie-Pier Préfontaine, 25, of Saint-Sauveur, Que., and Erin Mielzynski, 23, of Guelph, Ont. On Sunday, young guns Phil Brown, 21, of Toronto, Ont., Erik Read, 22, of Calgary, Alta., Dustin Cook, 24, of Lac-Sainte-Marie, Que., and Toronto’s David Donaldson, 27 – who will be making his World Cup debut – will compete in the men’s giant slalom.


Gagnon, who competes in slalom and giant slalom, as well as super-G and super combined, is excited to race again after completing a strong off-season training program. As part of a new strategy for dealing with the pressure all athletes feel during competition and especially in an Olympic year, she says she won’t be too focused on the result when she crosses the finish line.


“All I want is to ski well and perform well,” said Gagnon, who has had some good results in Sölden, including a sixth-place in giant slalom last year. “If I focus too much on results I start getting stiff and my skiing doesn’t flow as well. Of course I’m going to look at what position I’m in but it’s more important ask myself if it was a good run – was I happy with it and what could I do better?


“I’ve had a great summer of training but I’m a racehorse – I just love racing. I put a lot of energy into training but I don’t have that elevated heart rate in training and that fierceness. Racing is so much more fun.”


Gagnon went into last season with big expectations after picking up her first career World Cup podium in March 2012. She skied very well at times but says she has been working hard on her mental approach to racing with team psychologist Frank Van Den Berg.


“I don’t really want to focus on the results anymore,” said Gagnon. “The coaches made goals for me but I didn’t want to fill out my goals this year by just giving numbers (results). I just want to ski well. If the other girls have a great run and I have a great run but their run is better than mine, I can’t be mad at that.


“I think about the Olympics, for sure. We have a plan and we are going to go according to that leading into Sochi. But I’m taking some pressure off myself. I feel positive and confident about my plan. The results will come if I ski well.”


Gagnon, Mielzynski and the rest of the Canadian ladies’ team have had another solid summer of training in Calgary and Canmore, Alta., under the tutelage of conditioning coach Matt Jordan. They have focused on agility as well as strength but Gagnon knows that’s only one part of the recipe for success.


“Last year I remember I was at the top of my fitness – I was as fit as I ever was,” Gagnon said. “This year I know I had another great summer. I feel good and powerful but I’m not going to rely on that. Our sport is about so much more than that. It’s about precision and the mental game as well.”


Mielzynski, who in 2012 became the first Canadian since 1971 to win a World Cup slalom race, is better known as a slalom specialist but she’s made some big steps forward in giant slalom and is planning to race the discipline regularly on the World Cup circuit this year.


“My goal is to have fun and to have sections where I’m skiing like me and going for it,” said Mielzynski. “My bib number will be quite late (due to World Cup rankings in that discipline) but I’m in a different place than I was in last year with giant slalom.”


On the men’s side, much is expected of Brown this season after a breakthrough 2012-13 campaign saw him compete at his first world championships and lock up a World Cup spot on the back of winning the overall Nor-Am Cup giant slalom title.


“I am extremely excited for the World Cup season to get underway. This will be my first experience racing at Sölden,” said Brown, who made his World Cup debut in Adelboden, Switzerland, in 2012. “I have had the opportunity in the past to watch this race and experience the venue. The energy from the crowd at this event is unbelievable and I can’t wait to give it my best down this track and hopefully give the crowd something to cheer about.”


Read, the son of Crazy Canucks legend Ken Read, has been skiing well in training, while Cook, another talented young racer, recorded his first three World Cup top-30 finishes last season, including a 22nd-place result in last year’s giant slalom race in Sölden. Donaldson, like Brown, earned a World Cup spot on the back of strong performances on the Nor-Am Cup circuit. Donaldson’s career is a testament to perseverance and he finished second overall in the Nor-Am Cup giant slalom standings to earn the chance to compete against the best in the world.


Following this weekend’s races in Sölden, the next World Cup event will take place Nov. 16-17 in Levi, Finland, where men’s and ladies’ World Cup slalom races are scheduled to take place. The first men’s speed races of the season will be held in Lake Louise, Alta., on Nov. 30-Dec. 1, with the ladies also racing there the following weekend – Dec. 6-8. For more details about the Lake Louise Winterstart World Cup, please visit http://www.alpinecanada.org/winterstart.



Photos courtesy of Alpine Canada