In Review: Retracing the road to Sochi for slopestyle gold medalist Dara Howell

Comments by Henrik Lampert/

 

On February 11, 2014, Canadian Dara Howell made history; not only did she compete in the first-ever Olympic freeskiing event—women’s slopestyle, as it were—but she took home the first-ever Olympic gold medal awarded for a freeskiing discipline. For a good chunk of freeskiing athletes, competing in the Winter Games had been a goal for years, and their performances in Sochi were in many ways the culmination of a career’s worth of hard work. Take Andreas Håtveit, for example, who retired from competitive freeskiing following his Olympic experience. Or on the women’s side, Kaya Turski, a long-standing powerhouse on the slopestyle circuit who made a remarkable recovery following knee surgery, in an attempt to assert her dominance on the world stage. Alas, Turski didn’t perform well on that particular Tuesday, and in a way, opened the door for her fellow countryman, Howell, to step into the spotlight. On that note: what makes this gold medal so special, for Howell, is that her Olympic debut, unlike some others, didn’t have as much of a massive build-up associated with it. For Howell, at just 19 years young, this win, as she told us, is just the platform off of which she will dive into what’s sure to be a long, successful skiing career.

Of course, the Huntsville, Ontario native has been a professional skier for a few years now. She wasn’t necessarily pinned as a favorite heading into the Games, though. Names like Turski, Voisin and Logan were atop that list for most. Howell, though, was quietly making a push to that top tier—and this is especially evident when we examine her performance throughout the Olympic qualifying season. Howell’s quick rate of progression over the past few months is remarkable, and her timing on stepping up to the proverbial plate couldn’t have been any better.

The Road to Sochi:

Dating back to the 2012 Winter Dew Tour at Breckenridge, Howell has finished in 6th place or better in the 11 AFP events she’s competed in; she hit the podium in eight of those 11. As for the Olympic qualifying campaign—as we mentioned—Howell shined, taking home 1st at the U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain, and 2nd and 3rd at the two U.S. Grand Prix events in Park City, UT.

Howell’s impressive qualifying season began, though, at the 2013 Winter Dew Tour at Breckenridge, in December. Howell may have placed 6th at that event, but among the Canadians in the slopestyle field, she finished 2nd, behind only Kim Lamarre, who would eventually join Howell on the podium in Sochi, earning a bronze medal. Thus, while Howell was sitting pretty among her fellow Canucks, there was certainly room for improvement.

Looking to build upon her performance at Dew, Howell went next to the U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain. In the finals, Howell’s run consisted of a switch-on to the flat-down box up top; a backside 270 out of the rainbow box; front 270 out of the cannon; and a switch cork 5 safety, cork 7 safety and a flat 5 bow and arrow on the jumps. A solid run, indeed. The judges rewarded Howell with a score of 87.60; the tally earned her a first place finish and provided her with a hefty confidence boost heading into the remaining qualifiers.

Soon after, we saw Howell compete in two separate U.S. Grand Prix events, both held at Park City Mountain Resort. On the first day of competition, a Friday, Howell skied her way to a 3rd place finish. Yet again, she finished 2nd among the Canadians, behind Kaya Turski, but the result further solidified her chances of nabbing a coveted spot on Canada’s Olympic slopestyle squad.

One day later, a new contest. Howell once again put on a great display of skiing, en route to a second place finish. And that sealed the deal: on Monday, January 20, just days after the final Olympic qualifiers wrapped up in Park City, the Canadian Olympic Committee announced the twelve freeskiing athletes that would be representing Canada in Sochi. Among them, obviously, was Howell.

With an Olympic berth in the bag, Howell headed next to 2014 X Games Aspen; one of the most prestigious annual events, the high pressure scenario provided skiers an opportunity to wrangle with the ol’ contest-day jitters, prior to competing at the Olympics. The general idea: “If I can handle X Games, I can probably handle Sochi.”

Howell finished 4th. Many felt that Howell should have landed on the podium there, and we saw folks take to Twitter that day to voice their concerns. Many of the sport’s biggest names commended Howell for her performance. Simon Dumont, among them.

Later, Howell would say, “To have these legends saying that you’re skiing well, it’s pretty incredible, I wasn’t expecting it. I do look up to the boys a lot in our sport, they’re always out there pushing it, and I kinda just wanna keep pushing myself and having fun.”

One of the highlights of Howell’s run: the switch bio 900—a trick we saw her bring to competition for the first time in Park City. Howell was the only female competitor performing said trick among the Olympic qualifiers, at X Games, and again in Sochi. Despite bringing this beaut’ of a stunt to the table, she just barely missed the podium at X. Disappointed, Howell re-focused and set her sights on Sochi—at that time, the Games were just two weeks away. And how’s Olympic gold for a bit of sweet, sweet redemption?

Watch: Dara Howell competes at X Games Aspen, January 2014.

Recent AFP Contest Results:

2014, X Games Aspen, SS, 4th
2014, U.S. Grand Prix Park City #2, SS, 3rd
2014, U.S. Grand Prix Park City, SS, 2nd

2013, U.S. Grand Prix Copper, SS, 1st
2013, The Dew Tour, SS, 6th
2013, New Zealand Winter Games, SS, 2nd
2013, Winter X Games Europe, SS, 3rd
2013, FIS World Championships, SS, 2nd
2013, X Games Aspen, SS, 3rd
2013, U.S. Grand Prix Copper, SS, 2nd

2012, Winter Dew Tour Breckenridge, SS, 5th
2012, End of the World Challenge, SS, 3rd
2012, The North Face New Zealand Freeski Open, SS, 2nd
2012, The North Face New Zealand Freeski Open, HP, 9th
2012, New Zealand Winter Games, HP, 14th
2012, World Skiing Invitational & AFP World Championships, HP, 7th
2012, World Skiing Invitational & AFP World Championships, SS, 6th
2012, Canadian Shield, SS, 2nd
2012, Winter X Games Europe, SS, 3rd
2012, U.S. Grand Prix, SS, 8th
2012, Winter Dew Tour Snowbasin, SS, 7th
2012, X Games Aspen, HP, 7th
2012, X Games Aspen, SS, 6th
2012, Winter Dew Tour Killington, HP, 9th
2012, Winter Dew Tour Killington, SS, 6th
2012, The North Face Park and Pipe Open Series, HP, 5th

Earning Olympic Gold:

On the 11th of February, under mostly overcast skies and amid warm temps, 22 women took to the slopestyle course at Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort outside of Sochi, Russia; the contest, of course, marked freeskiing’s long awaited Olympic debut. After a two-run qualifier, the top 12 advanced to the final round. Topping that field during qualifiers? Howell. She was thus among the favorites to score well in the finals, which would be held later on the same day. And that she did.

“The morning of the competition, I tried to just treat it like any other: be nervous, don’t really have breakfast, [laughs] go through all the emotions, but I feel like once I put my skis on, I get back to doing what I like to do, having fun,” she said.

Howell’s gold medal run consisted of a disaster on, blind 270 out of the down rail up top; a clean slide of the second rail; switch out of the cannon rail; switch cork 7 high safety; switch bio 9 mute; and a flat 5 bow and arrow to top it off.

The switch bio 900, which—as aforementioned—we saw from Howell for the first time in Park City, was better-looking at X Games, and better still in Sochi. It’s one of the most technically difficult tricks being thrown among the women, and Howell makes it look damn good. That trick puts a giant exclamation point on her runs, and is certainly well received by the various judging panels. To have watched her include it in her contest run for the first time, to then improve upon it, and later to ultimately perfect it—that demonstrates the rapid level of progression that we alluded to previously.

When asked about her performance in Sochi, Howell said, “I think that’s the best run I’ve ever done in my entire life. I didn’t have the best training [today], I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. So, to land that run, I could not be more happy with myself. I did my best. It’s amazing to come into the finish area and be proud of myself.”

Howell recalls the moment when her score of 94.20 flashed across the big screen, and the stadium full of rowdy spectators erupted in applause.

“When I saw the score come up, just to hear the crowd go wild, that was truly a moment that I will never forget,” she said.

That day, on-site in Sochi, I wrote, “Moments after she received her score, she exited the finish corral, and stormed down a long, narrow corridor towards her support team. Howell threw her skis to the ground, tossed her helmet, and went full steam ahead to her father’s open arms. Standing just feet away, the image of that embrace is one I’ll hold dear for a long time to come. With tears of joy in her eyes, she said simply, ‘I can’t believe I just landed that. That was so fun.'”

Listen: Dara Howell speaks with Freeskier re: her gold medal victory.

Following her big win, Howell paid tribute to a hero—a hero both to her personally, and the greater skiing community, too: Ms. Sarah Burke.

“I said [before the Olympics], I really hope a Canadian brings home a gold medal. Being that person, I can’t believe it. Sarah was such an inspiration to me, and everyone in freeskiing, I think she would be so proud and happy. This medal is for Sarah. She pushed the sport so much and she always wanted to see the progression and always had a smile on her face and loved what she did.”

Howell said, “[Winning is] such an honor. I can’t believe that hard work pays off. I can’t wait to share this medal with my family and friends and everyone back home in Canada.”

And in regards to the long, hard-fought road to the Games? It’s been a learning process for Howell. Again, this win launches her into the next phase of her career, and she admits, she’s already got her sights set on the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

“It’s been a process,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot, just kinda going out and having fun and just doing the best that I can. X Games was definitely a disappointment but it all paid off here.”

Giving Thanks:

While the infamous Rule 40 prevented Howell—and all other Olympic athletes—from publicly dishing thanks to sponsors throughout the duration of the Games, we’ll take a moment to give due credit to those who have supported Howell on her road to the top of the Olympic podium.

Howell is sponsored by Salomon for hardgoods: skis, boots, bindings and poles. Howell came to Salomon’s attention via the popular Jib Academy, and after working her way up the ranks, she was ultimately inked to Salomon’s international team in 2012. Howell is also sponsored by Roxy, and quite recently, she has acquired Red Bull as a sponsor, as well.

To follow along with Howell, follow her on Instagram: @darahowell.

Related: In Review: Exploring gold medalist Joss Christensen’s road to, and from Sochi