Kelowna athletes on road to Sochi
A lot has happened in Kelsey Serwa's life since she competed in her first Olympic Games in 2010 in Vanouver.
Five World Cup wins, a world championship, an X Games title, two season-ending knee injuries and a back injury have all been part of the 23-year-old Kelowna ski-cross racer's roller-coaster journey of the last three years.
Now, if all goes as planned over the next six months, Serwa's résumé will soon include a trip to the top of the podium at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
"Just making it to the Olympics isn't my goal this time," Serwa said. "My goal is to win at the Olympics. I don't want anything less than that."
In the process of recovering from her second knee surgery in as many years, Serwa hopes her road to gold will begin on the World Cup ski-cross circuit in December, possibly at a race in San Candido, Italy where she has been victorious three times before.
From there, the former Big White Racer will look to secure a spot with Canada's contingent at the Olympics as quickly as possible.
"There is a definite criteria to make it (to Sochi), but for me basically I just have to ski fast," said Serwa, who has seven career World Cup victories. "I'm not going to focus on exact results. I just need to be fast and the rest should take care of itself.
"When I get back into racing, I want to get on the podium right away, no feeler-outers," she added. "I know I'm capable of that, I don't see a reason why that can't happen."
Serwa is on the road back from a second serious injury to her left knee in as many years.
She first blew out her ACL after crashing at a race in Alpe d'Huez, France in January 2012.
After a long and arduous recovery, Serwa made a triumphant return to the World Cup in 2012-13, winning races in Russia and Italy.
But then on March 10 of this year, a second setback saw Serwa re-injure the knee while preparing for the world championships in Norway.
Now nearly five months into her second rehab of the knee, Serwa feels confident in making a successful return to the slopes.
"It's going great, it's still the same knee but there's way less trauma," she said. "It's doing better now than it even was last October or November. I'm stronger than I was last year, I learned a lot from last time and I feel good."
"My knee isn't a factor, it didn't slow me down last year when I came back, so I feel like I can do it again."
As for her mental approach after two knee injuries, Serwa doesn't expect much to change in her racing philosophy as she heads back on to the snow.
"I'm going to do my best not to be different," she said. "What I brought to the sport when I first started is what makes me good. I have been learning along the way, when to risk and not to risk, when to be conservative and smart. I've just been a little unlucky. Hopefully with the added experience, I'll have all the pieces I need to be successful."
At the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Serwa was narrowly ousted for second place in the women's ski cross semifinal, denying her a berth in the final and ultimately a shot at medal. She went on to win the small final to place fifth overall.
Serwa said the disappointment of not getting to the podium three years ago has only fuelled her desire to climb to the pinnacle in Sochi.
"That experience (in 2010) just made me hungry. To miss the podium by a few inches was hard.
"Heading into my first Olympics, I just thought I'm happy to be there. It was a great experience. Now it's much more than that. I'm going there to win. Just racing won't be enough."
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When he first climbed on to a skeleton sled six years ago, the possibility of competing in the Olympic Games was little more than a far-off pipe dream for Eric Neilson.
In the summer of 2013, the 32-year-old Kelowna athlete is a couple of good races away from securing a spot on Canada's team for the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia.
A member of Canada's national senior squad the last two years, Neilson has had his share of success on the international circuit, including a fourth-place showing at the world championship in Switzerland and three fifth-place showings in World Cup events.
To get to Sochi, Neilson first needs to qualify at the Canadian team's selection races in October.
If that goes as planned, then the Rutland Senior Secondary grad would need just one top-six finish in the first four World Cup Races of 2013-14 to make the grade for Russia.
"I really didn't know how long it would take me to get this close, but it's been a goal of mine for a while now to get to the Olympics," said Neilson, who spent the 2010-11 season with Canada's developmental team before moving up. "My confidence has built up over time…for the first few years, I would have a good race, then I'd have some horrible races. Over the last year, I've become more consistent and feel now like I belong out there with the top guys. I feel like I'm mentally ready for this."
A popular sport in many parts of Europe, skeleton athletes use a small sled to slide face-first down an icy track at speeds of close to 140 km/h.
The learning curve was a long one for Neilson but through perseverance and hard work, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Kelowna native is on the verge of realizing a dream—even if there were times he seriously considered packing it in.
"This has been a long time in the making, but all in all I've really enjoyed it. There have been hard times, financially and mentally, being away from home. There have been times I've questioned it, there have been some nasty words said to the sled over the years," Neilson said with a laugh. "I can't think on anything else I'd rather be doing right now and I wouldn't trade it for anything, either."
And if Neilson does make it to Russia wearing the Maple Leaf, what will his expectations be for the 2014 Olympic Games.
"Obviously you want to win a medal, but if I make it there and do my absolute best, then I can't ask for anything more…whether that's sixth or seventh or whatever.
"If I get there, it would mean a lot to me," Neilson continued, "setting a goal and achieving it is what's important. The huge time, effort and sacrifices, if I get there then it will validate what I've been doing to get to this point."