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Underdog No More

THE WORLD HAS TAKEN NOTICE: CASSIE SHARPE HAS HALFPIPE ALL FIGURED OUT

No longer a rookie and no longer an underdog, Cassie Sharpe, likely Canada’s best halfpipe skier since the late Sarah Burke, has used creativity – and an ability to push the envelope – for a rapid ascent up the freestyle ranks.

The 23-year-old, whose outstanding rookie season in 2015 included a World Cup victory and a silver at the world championships in Kreischberg, Austria, has caught the attention of many in the freestyle world.

Sharpe’s family moved from Calgary, Alta., to Comox, B.C., when she was young, and she quickly found a path to the park that sparked a promising career in snowsports. While her dad, Don, was busy in his new position as director of business operations for Mount Washington Alpine Resort, Cassie and her brother explored the mountain.
“Dad would drop us off for lessons, but we had an arrangement with our instructor at Mt. Washington where we’d hit the park but come back for the end of the lessons,” she says with a laugh. “But my Dad eventually figured it out.”

Most of Sharpe’s training in the pipe has taken place back on the other side of the Rockies, in Calgary, but she credits her love of skiing to the slopes of Mt. Washington. “When I was more focused on slopestyle, I’d hit the rails, but mostly I just love cruising the hills, having fun.”

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Her move into the pipe happened organically and serendipitously, like other moments that have propelled her through the sport. Competing in an event at Northstar at Tahoe, Nev., in 2012 with the B.C. Team, Sharpe’s performance was well below expectations in the slopestyle competition. Her coach at the time, Mike Shaw, suggested she pop over and try the pipe. She signed up for the next day’s event – and won.

Shaw coached Sharpe on the Winsport team over the next two years, building her skills in the pipe until a major injury put him on the sideline. While coaching the B.C. team at an event in 2013, Shaw miscalculated a jump while freeskiing, causing him to land in soft snow, his feet rising up over his head. He dislocated his neck, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.

“It was horrible,” Sharpe said, recalling the traumatic experience. She said the team proudly wore, tweeted and promoted the #makemikeproud hashtag during his recovery. That recovery has been nearly miraculous, with Shaw walking a 5-kilometre charity event for spinal cord awareness in Vancouver in July 2015 and finishing in just under 90 minutes.

Even with her coach permanently on the sidelines, Sharpe skyrocketed onto the national team – “a game changer” for her. Under national team head coach Trennon Paynter and assistant Marc MacDonnell, she quickly learned the ropes at the next level. “They’re incredible coaches. They taught me all the technical details, the finer points of tricks and positioning,” Sharpe said. Paynter’s creative coaching, which has developed some of the best halfpipe skiers of this generation, made an immediate impact on Sharpe’s performance. His outside-the-box teaching includes techniques such as teaming up with Cirque du Soleil for a few freestyle team members to learn on the Russian swing, a structure that allows athletes to propel themselves high into the air before launching into the water.

For her part, Sharpe has relied on her signature trick, the left cork nine. She is to date the only woman in halfpipe to incorporate this maneuver in competition. “I was told by a few people that I probably went the highest upside down that any woman has in the sport,” she said. “It’s super cool to be able to push the sport and push everyone around me.”

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Sharpe suffered her own setback in April 2015, breaking an ankle, but she was back on snow – with renewed focus – at a September pre-season camp in New Zealand. “I had to put my foot back into the boot for the first time and get back on the snow,” she said. “Definitely a big mind block. But with positivity and a little bit of love, you can do anything.” Since then it has been a steady march of progress, including a second place finish at the Dew Tour opener in Breckenridge in December.

“The year before I made the team, there were two groups: the top dogs and the underdogs. I was part of the underdogs. Then, last year, it was a coming out for me, where I started to hang with the top dogs,” Sharpe laughed. “That was a big step for me … it’s like being part of the industry as opposed to looking into the industry.”

Now with big competition experience, Sharpe is motivated to improve her abilities and strength – as well as clean up her “switch riding” – to push her limits in the pipe. “And I have a few other tricks up my sleeve,” she said.