Landgraff, Netherlands – Ski cross star Kelsey Serwa, one of Canada’s best medal hopes for the 2014 Sochi Olympic Winter Games, made a successful return to snow last week in the unusual surroundings of an indoor ski facility in the Netherlands.
The 24-year-old former world and X Games champion from Kelowna, British Columbia, is on the comeback trail following knee surgery. Thanks to an innovative “return to snow” program, she traveled to Europe to strap on her skis at SnowWorld, the world’s largest indoor ski area.
“We wanted somewhere that had consistent snow conditions and where we weren’t dealing with weather causing forced days off, because it’s really important we get our days in,” said Serwa from Landgraaf. “It was (coach) Willy Raine’s idea to use an indoor facility. There are about 10 or 11 in Europe but this one had the most square footage of snow. It’s an amazing facility and it has a top-notch gym in the same building.
“My knee felt normal,” Serwa confirmed. “I was probably a little rusty, just in terms of balance, but it only takes a few runs to get it back. The hill is not a very steep grade, which is also good for me returning to snow. I think it’s great – it’s perfect for what I need at this time.”
Serwa, the 2011 world champion, has been one of the most dominant female athletes on the ski cross World Cup circuit in recent years, racking up 15 podiums since 2009. She battled back after rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee in January 2012 and won gold at the Olympic test event in Sochi, Russia, in February 2013 before she re-tore her ACL and had season-ending surgery. She knows the drill when it comes to returning from injury and is taking things one step at a time.
“No knee injury is the same but this one feels good and I feel way more fit than I did before, which I think translates into being able to spend more time on the hill,” Serwa said. “I try to just focus on what’s in front of me right now. It can get really overwhelming if you start thinking about the entire season, the Olympics and the pressure to perform. Right now my focus is getting back on snow, getting comfortable on skis and progressing that way.”
Serwa, whose grandfather helped to found the Big White ski resort in B.C., grew up skiing in the mountains and this week was her first experience of skiing indoors.
“The funny thing is that (physio) Therese Leigh and I got in there and it was colder than we expected indoors,” said Serwa, who is starting with a one day on snow, one day off program. “One of the workers said, ‘Well what did you think it would be like?’ and we said, ‘Well, that’s a good point.’ The dome itself is only -5º C but because there’s no sunlight coming in it feels a lot colder. There are two magic carpets and the ski lift is like a state of the art six-pack. The run itself is only 500 metres but halfway up they built a hut so people can still après ski!
“We are doing a lot of drills; a lot of slow skiing – making sure the proper muscles are firing in the proper order so it becomes habitual. It’s a little bit different because I’m not working with a coach – I’m working with a physio. Therese is pointing out more mechanical things – her perspective on skiing, how it should look, engaging your core, engaging your glutes. I like it – it’s refreshing. (Head coach) Eric Archer is coming out next week.”
The Canadian team explored the possibility of Serwa joining her teammates in New Zealand, where they are currently training on a ski cross course, but the snow dome idea proved to be a better fit for her first days back on snow and was more cost effective.
“We wanted a controlled environment where we wouldn’t have to deal with Mother Nature. It’s a really interesting and unique opportunity,” explained Dave Ellis, athletic director for Canada Ski Cross. “Given the time of year and the desire to get her back skiing early in her return to snow program, a controlled environment allows us to ensure the knee is responding and reacting properly. Everything has been great. It wouldn’t have been possible to pursue an innovative approach such as this without the continued support of our funding partners and team sponsors.”
Serwa returned from last year’s injury at the season-opening World Cup race in Nakiska, Alberta, but doesn’t have an exact return to competition date this time around. This year’s World Cup circuit once again kicks off in Nakiska, on Dec. 6-7, and the race is on to qualify for nomination to Canada’s team for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games – with the qualification period drawing to a close in January 2014.
“I will go into the season with the same expectations – maybe using one race to warm up and then by the second race gunning for the podium,” said Serwa, who finished last season ranked fourth in the world despite missing several races due to injury. “Ideally we would have the perfect return to racing program so I wouldn’t even need that first race. Hopefully at that point I’m ready to go, ready to race and 100 percent committed.
“Nakiska might be pushing it a little bit,” she admitted. “My goal is to race in San Candido (Italy) right before Christmas. It’s somewhere I’ve had success in the past and it’s good to be happy when you head into a race. That might be my focus but if I’m good to go earlier than that then for sure I will be there.”
Serwa will stay in the Netherlands through this week week before returning to Canada. If all goes well, she will join her teammates at their next ski camp in Europe in October. Serwa, who was fifth at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games – where the sport of ski cross made its debut – said she didn’t expect to start the latest leg of her road to Sochi skiing indoors, “but that’s the cool thing about life – you never know what’s going to get thrown at you.
“It’s a really, really cool experience. I couldn’t ask for more,” Serwa said. “The food’s great, the facility is amazing and the people here are so nice, it almost feels like we’re back in Canada.”