Soaring for Gold
Valley freestyle skier — and her snowboarding brother— follow their dreams and shoot for Olympic gold
The Comox Valley is quite an athletic place. We are surrounded by oceans, rivers, glaciers and mountains—which adds up to hundreds of opportunities to get outside, enjoy the outdoors, and excel in our sport of choice. So it should come as no surprise when there are home grown athletes from the Comox Valley who do quite well in the international sport scene. That being said, it may be time to dig out those maple leaf adorned flags, mittens and toques, and get ready to celebrate freestyle skier Cassie Sharpe, because she is travelling in a trajectory that is about to make us all very, very proud.
Cassie, 24, a member of the Canadian National Halfpipe Ski Team, recently won her first X Games gold medal in Oslo, Norway in the women’s halfpipe ski event. In case you’ve never heard of the X Games, they are a pretty big deal. In fact, the X Games are on par with the Olympics as a headliner game of the sport—where a gold medal means you are at the very top of your game.
Originally from Alberta, Cassie grew up in the Comox Valley. Her parents, Don and Chantal, made the move from Calgary back when Cassie and her two brothers were very young. The Sharpes moved to the Valley when Don landed a job as Director of Business Operations for Mount Washington Alpine Resort. It wasn’t long before the family was spending a lot of time on the mountain. And so it began—a love affair with skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking and all things that involve snow and/or gravity.
“We definitely have an athletic family,” says Cassie. “My oldest brother Doug, he’s living in China and designing mountain bike courses and competing in downhill mountain bike races. My younger brother Darcy is also on the Canadian National Snowboard Team and competes in the big air and slopestyle events. Growing up, we spent a lot of time on the mountain because my dad worked there. My brothers and I would go up with him early in the morning to ski every weekend.”
Don Sharpe remembers those early mornings. “It’s funny how their mom and I would have such a difficult time getting them all out of bed for school, but come the weekends, well that was another story,” he recalls. “It was not a problem for them to be up early enough to be in the car and ready to go by 7 or 7:30 am. In fact, many times they were sitting in the car waiting for me by the time I got out there! And that 45-minute drive up and down the mountain—they’d maybe sleep, but if not it was a good time to talk and stay connected.”
Cassie also fondly recalls the weekends on the ski hill. “My brothers and I were put in snow school, but we would ditch halfway through when the instructor wasn’t looking to hit the terrain park under the yellow chair. The place where all the hoodlums hung out!” she says, laughing. “At the terrain park we’d get pretty competitive with each other. We’d push each other to do more and we sort of grew from there.”
Don remembers the three kids skiing and how their energy together made them better on the snow. “It was more about, ‘If you can do that, then so can I.’ More of a feeling of camaraderie as well as competitiveness. And the skiing brought them closer. Every day on the mountain, they’d sit side by side by side, riding the ski lift up again and again. What most people don’t realize is that time on the lift is time to get to know one another. As a result, they are all pretty close.”
Winning the X Games in Oslo, Norway was a dream come true for Cassie and for her family as well. “When I was growing up, the X Games was the dream and the biggest event you could go to before the Olympic Games added our sport in 2014,” she says.
Don remembers how his kids grew up watching the X Games with awe and imagining themselves competing in them someday. “The X Games has been sort of the Olympics of the sport for many years. While the X Games were happening it was all my wife and I would hear about. It was massive to the kids. They would race home from school to watch the games. So when Cassie and Darcy were able to compete in the X Games—well that, in and of itself, was a huge deal. And for Cassie to win the gold medal—it was incredible!”
Cassie’s win in Oslo last winter was only her second career X Games attempt, and with a score of 88.33, it was a clear victory and enough to top four-time X Games champion and Olympic Gold medalist Maddie Bowman, who had a final score of 85.33. “It’s rare to do as well as I did in only a second X Games showing, so I’m pretty excited,” Cassie says. “And Maddie Bowman has been number one for three years now, but I’m finally giving her a run for her money. I’m on her tails now.”
Cassie’s victory was also the first Canadian women’s gold in halfpipe since 2012. “I went into the European X Games with some determination as I’d finished in fourth place in the Aspen X Games,” she says. “Even though Aspen was my first X Games, I was still pretty bummed about that, so I really wanted to do better in Oslo.”
Her halfpipe coach, Trennon Paynter, advised Cassie to not hold back in Oslo. He encouraged her to go big for each and every run, as if each run were her only try at it. In Aspen, Sharpe had held back, and according to her coach, it had cost her a spot on the podium. She didn’t want Oslo to be a repeat performance of Aspen, so she listened to her coach and it paid off in spades.
Like her brother Darcy, Sharpe has her sights set on Olympic gold. And with this year being a selection year for the Canadian Olympic Team, hopes and expectations are high that these talented athletes from our local ski hill will be representing Canada at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“I think they both have a really good chance of getting onto the Canadian Olympic Team,” says their dad. “As a selection year, this is an important year for both of them.”
Adds Cassie: “That’s my ultimate goal—to compete in the Olympics.”
Cassie’s brother Darcy hopes to represent Canada by competing in two snowboarding events, slopestyle and big air, the latter which was just added as an Olympic sport for the 2018 Olympics. Cassie hopes to make all of us proud by owning the Olympic halfpipe, and since she has already won a gold medal in that event, it is entirely possible that she’ll do just that.
So what is the halfpipe anyway? Well, we should start by saying that most mortal humans would find riding the halfpipe absolutely terrifying. In fact, the sport is labeled as dangerous compared to other events, and helmets are required equipment during competitions. The halfpipe is called such because, well, it’s shaped exactly like a pipe cut in half. The height of the pipe is 22 feet and it’s generally carved into the dirt before the snow falls, then cut with a special snow cutting-cat called a Zaugg to form it into the halfpipe shape.
When halfpipe skiers perform they ski back and forth down the length of the pipe, using the centrifugal force created to push them into the air where they perform tricks before landing and continuing their ride. It’s a dangerous sport because the skiers reach high speeds and altitude while riding the pipe, and if they make a mistake they are not landing on soft snow.
“The ice is pretty hard to land on,” Cassie admits. “I wear hip pads because I’ve had a few hematomas from landing on the ice so many times. I suppose it toughens you up over time. I’ve broken my thumbs eight times each since I started riding the halfpipe.”
She hasn’t only broken her thumbs; she’s also broken her back. In fact, she won the gold medal in Oslo with the injury.
“Last winter when I was training I stress fractured my lower back—the area just above the hips,” Cassie says matter of factly. “I injured myself in early December and won the gold in late January. I had an MRI right after New Years and was told I fractured my back and wouldn’t be allowed to compete in Oslo, but I wouldn’t take no for an answer. I pushed against the doctors wishes and got the ‘okay’ to compete. I was in pain but I didn’t take any pain killers. That’s because I don’t believe in any drugs while I compete. Instead, I wore a corset back brace while I was practicing, which I’d take off for the competitions.”
Don doesn’t seem surprised that his daughter competed with such a serious injury, “Cassie wasn’t going to let anything keep her from competing in the X Games,” he says.
Because the sport is so hard on the body, competitors usually retire from the sport early. “Normally people only compete into their late 20s or early 30s,” Cassie says. “It’s the knees that are the biggest thing to take someone out of the sport. However, people usually do it as long as their body holds up.”
Today Cassie has recovered from her back injury and is maintaining a rigorous training schedule that lasts all year. In fact, she has just returned from Wanaka, New Zealand where she was training at their local ski hill, Cadrona. She is back in Canada for a couple weeks but soon heading off for more training. “The new season is coming up,” Cassie says. “So the team leaves for Colorado on November 26. There we will compete in the Copper World Cup, which is an Olympic qualifier.”
After Colorado, Cassie will continue her busy training schedule. “Right now Darcy has just returned from Switzerland where he was training. I’ve just gotten back from New Zealand but we’re off again soon. Really, there isn’t a time that the team is not actually training. We train during the winter and spring in Whistler. In July we go to Mt. Hood in Oregon. The rest of the summer we’re back in Whistler to train on the glacier, and then in September it’s back down to New Zealand. There’s never really a long period of time when I’m not skiing. It’s pretty great. And besides skiing there is always the gym, biking and running.”
Although the Sharpe kids are scattered around the globe it’s clear that the Sharpe family is still close and that the parents are very proud of the adventurous and successful lives all three of their kids are living.
“They are all great athletes and great people too. We are both so proud of them,” says Don. “They have so much fun doing what they do, and Chantal and I, we have so much fun watching them. They enjoy what they do and that’s the whole point.”