By Steve Hubrecht
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 Another young local skier has generated headlines on the World Cup circuit recently, as Windermere’s Courtney Hoffos nailed a podium finish with a bronze medal in an International Ski Federation (FIS) Ski Cross World Cup race in Reiteralm, Austria.

The bronze came on Friday, Feb. 19 and is the first podium of this season for Courtney. The medal followed just a week after she placed fifth in the world championships in Sweden. The back-to-back top 5 results (and a sixth place finish in the race just before that) are an encouraging sign that Courtney’s outstanding Rookie-of-the-Year effort last season could well be just an indication of what is to come from the 23-year-old. It’s also proof positive that the injury that cut her Rookie-of-the-Year campaign short has done nothing to slow her down.

“It was a fun course, definitely different. Very fast with a lot of contact in some areas,” Courtney told Alpine Canada after the race. “I had a fire in my belly and was hungry for a big final. Hopefully, I’ll be back on the podium again soon.”

Courtney’s ski cross medal comes a month after Invermere local Cassidy Gray wowed the alpine racing world with a stellar World Cup debut, giving Columbia Valley skiing fans plenty to cheer about this winter. 

The fifth place for Courtney at the world championships on Feb. 13 came during her first appearance in the world championships, and she earned that top 5 result with what Alpine Canada labelled ‘a clean run’ in the small final (which consists of four skiers, racing to determine fifth through eighth place).

“It was good, I had some really good sections and skied well. I tried to piece together a full run and I did that at the end, it was a good day,” Courtney told Alpine Canada after the world championship.

Courtney now has a total of three World Cup medals, having already earned two bronze and one silver medal before this season.

“We’re extremely proud of her. She’s always just pushed herself,” Courtney’s mom Jenny told the Pioneer, adding that Courtney has always been athletic, participating in dance, figure skating, soccer, volleyball and many other sports while growing up in the Columbia Valley. She particularly excelled at alpine racing, which she did for many years, before switching to ski cross when she was 18 years old.

“It’s really important to have a good alpine racing base for ski cross,” said Jenny. “As parents, we’re excited, we cheer, we’re anxious for each race…We get up at 3 a.m. to watch her compete (in Europe).”

Courtney has been spending large chunks of time in Europe (she was in Georgia as the Pioneer went to press) to compete in the World Cup, and with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this has meant three full-blown quarantines and plenty of COVID-19 tests, but Jenny said any difficulties arising from this have been more than compensated for by the strong bond between Courtney and her Canadian teammates.

Courtney told the Pioneer she’s thrilled with the bronze. “I was not expecting a podium, but I am always aiming for one. I have been in the small final (for places fifth through eighth) almost every race this season so my goal has been to advance to the big final (for places first through fourth) and I am very happy that I did in Reiteralm,” she said. 

In ski cross, skiers compete in heats of four races at each stage. The top two skiers in each heat progress to the next stage, and the rest are eliminated. In the semifinals, the penultimate stage, there are just two heats (and eight skiers) left. The top two skiers in each semifinal heat then ski in the big finals, while the bottom two in each semifinal heat ski in the small finals.

Courtney elaborated to the Pioneer on what made the Rieteralm course fun for her, saying, “I am a big fan of courses that have some flow, passing opportunities and where a solid alpine background is an advantage. Reiteralm also didn’t have any features that would separate the heat by very much, so it was action packed with close racing.”

“Being named Rookie-of-the-Year last season was an honour, but has brought the challenge of increased expectations for this season,” said Courtney, adding she is still learning a lot.

The past two seasons don’t really amount to the breakthrough of sorts, so much as finally being healthy for decent stretches of time, outlined Courtney, adding that of her five years in ski cross, she has once missed an entire season and several times missed half or significant parts of other seasons. This has “meant I haven’t been able to really gain momentum in the past, but I’m hoping to stay healthy,” she said. “Just having the momentum from finishing a season healthy and having a productive summer makes a huge difference.”

The injury that cut short last season for Courtney came during a World Cup qualification run in Nakiska, when she got caught in a bad position sitting back on the tails of her skis right before some big rollers, resulting in a broken wrist, AC joint separation in her shoulder, as well as plenty of strained muscles. Rehab at the Canadian Sport Institute in Calgary got her ready to return to the World Cup for this season.

Courtney said her goal for the rest of the season is to put together runs with fewer mistakes, with the hope that this results in more podiums. Looking at goals beyond this season, Courtney mentionned, “it’s always been a goal of mine to race at the Olympics. Now that it’s coming up in less than a year and feels like it is in reach for me, I want to be a real contender.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has indeed created a different atmosphere at the World Cup, but Courtney is grateful that a World Cup season is still possible. She admits she often feeds off the energy of crowds, which are absent this season, but added that the support of her teammates and Alpine Canada staff, plus knowing many people back home in the Columbia Valley, are cheering for her, gives her another source of energy to draw from.

According to Courtney, growing up in the Columbia Valley, with its wealth of ski hills and racing programs, not to mention role models such as Christina Lustenberger and Manny Osborne-Paradis, was helpful for her career, adding that “a small town doesn’t always present opportunities in all sports as easily, but having a ski racing hub in our backyard and an incredibly strong, supportive community gives us as good of a chance as anyone.”

After spending most of her winters as a kid and teenager alpine racing, Courtney switched to ski cross after attending a ski cross camp and having a blast. “I had so much fun with the direct competitiveness that racing next to people on the same track brought. The jumps and different terrain were an added challenge which I really liked,” she told the Pioneer. “It’s a unique sport as well because we have such a good team dynamic, but at the end of the day, we all compete against each other as individuals.”

In a video posted to Alpine Canada’s website recently, Courtney also outlines another reason she enjoys pursuing — and excelling at — ski cross, saying she feels sometimes girls get discouraged from participating in sports perceived as “masculine” or “aggressive”, which she thinks some people may feel of ski cross. She noted there’s little difference between men’s and women’s ski cross, with the women quite literally skiing the same course as the men. “I want…to show that it’s possible…as a woman,” she said in the video. 

When not ripping down ski cross courses in Europe or enjoying a bit of a break back home in the Columbia Valley, Courtney is busy completing her second year of studies at the University of Calgary. Juggling school and World Cup racing is certainly a challenge, concedes Courtney, adding she has taken advantage of the university’s COVID-19-related increase in its online learning options to get more school done this year.