By Martin Cleary
Happy New Year everyone.
There was definitely a Happy New Year celebratory feeling on the first weekend of 2023 for alpine skier Valérie Grenier of St. Isidore, Ont., cross-country skiers Antoine Cyr of Gatineau and Katherine Stewart-Jones of Cantley, Que., as well as skeleton slider Mirela Rahneva of Ottawa.
Each of those Olympic athletes put check marks in their Achieving Greatness box, posting results from a first World Cup alpine win to scoring fourth- and 10th-place showings on the gruelling nordic Tour de Ski to earning another medal on the World Cup skeleton circuit.
Let’s start at the top of the mountain, where Grenier stood Saturday in the start hut in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, for the first of two back-to-back women’s World Cup giant slalom races. Would she mark her 90th career World Cup start with her first-ever victory or medal on the circuit?
Most World Cup observers and fans were more interested in seeing if American Mikaela Shiffrin would win her 82nd World Cup race and tie countrywoman Lindsay Vonn for the most wins by a woman on the White Circus circuit.
But when all the racers had navigated the two courses, Grenier was the unexpected and clear-cut winner. Shiffrin, however, tied for sixth, but only had to wait until Sunday to be level with Vonn at 82 victories.
Grenier was the leader from start to finish on Saturday, capturing the first run by 0.04 seconds over Switzerland’s Lara Gut-Behrami and the second run as well for a gold-medal time of 1:55.01 and a winning margin of 0.37. Marta Bassino of Italy was second in 1:55.38 and Petra Vlhova of Slovakia took third in 1:55.41.
“I have no words. I still can’t believe it,” Grenier, 26, said in the finish area, after becoming the first Canadian to win a World Cup women’s giant slalom race in 49 years. Kathy Kreiner was Canada’s last women’s World Cup giant slalom winner in Pfronten, Germany, on Jan. 6, 1974.
“It’s a dream come true. I’ve been wanting it for so long and I’m just going to cry because I’m so happy.”
After winning the first run, Grenier was allotted the final starting position for the second run. And she handled it well.
“I was a bit nervous that I would think about it too much. But I felt so good before the second run. I felt so relaxed and just excited to go.”
Grenier’s win also was her first call to the World Cup medal podium as she has come close in the past with two fourth-place finishes, including one on the same course and in the same race in 2022, and two fifth-place results.
Her two impeccable runs were partially inspired by her late December race in Semmering, Austria, when she was disqualified for leaving the start hut too early.
“I think it almost put some fire inside of me to get my revenge, but it’s a revenge on myself because I messed up that day,” said Grenier, who won gold, silver and bronze medals in the downhill, super-G and giant slalom respectively in her appearances at the 2015 and 2016 world junior alpine ski championships.
Grenier’s victory was even more special to her because of a crash about four years ago, when she shattered her right leg and ankle. After multiple surgeries, she returned in October, 2020, focusing on the giant slalom and passing on the speed events (downhill and super-G).
In Sunday’s World Cup giant slalom, Grenier placed third in the first run, but slipped to 20th in the second run and was sixth overall, finishing 1.74 seconds behind Shiffrin, who placed first.
Meanwhile, Antoine Cyr and Katherine Stewart-Jones continue to take giant strides on the international cross-country ski scene. Their latest notable results came during the 17th Tour de Ski, which is modelled after cycling’s Tour de France and tested the nordic skiers with seven races over nine days in Switzerland, Germany and Italy.
Cyr missed his first-ever major international podium by one-tenth of a second during the Tour’s sixth stage in Val di Fiemme, Italy, the men’s 15-kilometre classic race. He finished the six-loop race in 40:00.5 and was one-tenth of a second out of third place.
It was the second straight day Cyr, who was competing in his first Tour de Ski, created some fireworks on the course. In Friday’s fifth stage, the classic sprint, he qualified for his first-ever final and placed sixth out of six skiers. He reached the final by winning his quarterfinal and placing second in his semifinal.
Cyr concluded the Tour de Ski in Val di Fiemme by skiing to 38th place in the difficult 10-kilometre free technique race on a steep alpine course. In the end, he finished 16th overall and was one of only 53 tour finishers from the original start list of 101.
“It would have been a dream come true to be on the podium, but in the end, it was close but no cigar as they say,” Cyr commented about his fourth-place result. “I skied a pretty perfect race and did everything I could. This is a big confidence boost for the rest of the season, which is still young.”
His two best individual international results put him in eighth place overall in the Tour de Ski standings heading into Sunday’s seventh and final leg.
“It is awesome to get such a good result (fourth),” the Club Skinouk racer added. “All of the guys around me have had podiums on the World Cup. To be so close is such a huge accomplishment and I am just so happy to give a good result like this to the team, the staff and everyone back home supporting us.”
As Cyr was celebrating a near-podium experience, Stewart-Jones earned her first major top-10 result, when the Nakkertok Nordic endurance racer recorded a personal-best 10th in the women’s 15-kilometre classic mass start on Saturday.
After placing 18th in Sunday’s 10-kilometre free mass start on a challenging course, Stewart-Jones finished 18th overall on the Tour de Ski standings. Seventy-one women started the tour, but only 37 finished the ultimate test.
“I told myself going into the race that I may as well go for it,” the 2022 Olympian said about her 10th-place finish. “I wanted to ski well for the first couple of laps. It was a fast course. I played it tactically well. I definitely went for better grip (wax) today over the climbs. This feels pretty awesome.”
Earlier this season, Stewart-Jones showed her potential to become a top-10 racer and has achieved several personal-best placements on the World Cup.
“I know that my fitness is the best it has ever been and I’m at a level that I know on a good day I can be up there with the best, so my confidence is high,” she explained.
“It is really cool when we all do well. The staff work so hard to give us fast skis, so everyone gets so excited (over good results).
“I was so close to top-10s in Period 1 (on the World Cup) that I felt I had it in me. I am more of an endurance athlete, and I felt I had an opportunity later in the Tour because I do well under fatigue. I knew I just had to be patient.”
While the National Capital Region’s best skiers were moving up the leaderboard, Mirela Rahneva was continuing to build her impressive resume as a skeleton slider in Winterberg, Germany.
Rahneva, a two-time Olympian, registered her 13th career World Cup podium result, when her combined two-run time of 1:57.24 gave her the silver medal.
The 1,330-metre Winterberg course is one of her favourites. She has won four World Cup medals on that layout and was the bronze medallist in 2022.
“Anytime you can get on the podium then I’m definitely smiling. I’m happy to be top-three any day,” Rahneva said, after the awards ceremony.
“Winterberg is a really gentle gliders’ track … and that is my preferred kind of driving. It is really intuitive. I just really, really enjoy sliding here. When I enjoy the track, it is a lot easier to relax and let it fly a little more.”
Rahneva won the opening run in 58.60. In the second and final run, she made a small mistake toward the bottom of the track, which kept her from the top step of the medal podium with the fifth-best clocking of 58.64. The Netherlands’ Kimberley Bos had the fastest time of the day in the second run, 58.50, for the top aggregate clocking of 1:57.18.
After missing the 2020-21 season because of a neck injury, Rahneva finished fifth at the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022.
“It has been a two-year transition to getting back into top form,” she explained. “Success for me right now is achieving the goals I set out for myself. I know I’m not strong on all of the tracks around the world, so being realistic with my expectations is important.
“Any day I can get it all out and leave everything on the track is success. I’m out to have fun in this first year after the Olympics so I just want to enjoy every step.”
BRANDT CLARKE BECOMES WORLD JUNIOR HOCKEY CHAMP
A few days earlier, Nepean’s Brandt Clarke celebrated a gold medal with the home side in dramatic fashion at the World Junior Hockey Championships on Jan. 5 in Halifax.
Clarke started the play that led to the tournament-winning goal in 3-on-3 overtime with a bank pass to Dylan Guenther, who then went on to score the golden goal in Team Canada’s 3-2 victory over Czechia.
Canada lost its first game 5-2 to Czechia, then won every from game until the end. The Canadians beat Germany 11-2, Austria 11-0 and Sweden 5-1 in the group stage, then downed Slovakia 4-3 in an overtime quarter-final, USA 6-2 in the semi-final and then Czechia in their rematch.
Jack Matier of the Ottawa 67’s and Gatineau’s Tyson Hinds also patrolled the blue line for Team Canada at the Dec. 26-Jan. 5 tournament.
ARIANE BONHOMME WINS 4 NATIONAL TRACK CYCLING TITLES
Gatineau’s Ariane Bonhomme, who rides for the Continental road cycling team Roxo Racing, gave a dominant performance at the Canadian track cycling championships in Milton, Ont.
Bonhomme, who was part of Canada’s fourth-place squad in women’s team pursuit at the Tokyo Olympics, won four women’s elite races – scratch, omnium, individual pursuit and Madison with Lily Plante.
Guelph’s Kiara Lylyk of the Ottawa-based Cyclery racing team was third in the scratch and omnium races.
GEE-GEES WOMEN’S BASKETBALL TEAM IMPROVES TO 11-0
The Carleton University Ravens and University of Ottawa Gee-Gees women’s and men’s basketball teams won seven of eight OUA games to start the 2023 portion of their 2022-23 season.
The Ravens men’s squad excelled in the second half of both of their road games to defeat the Waterloo Warriors 80-71 and the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Knights 92-80.
Grant Shephard was the key offensive player for the Ravens as he combined for 44 points and 23 rebounds. Wazir Latiff led the Ravens’ scorers against Laurier with 22 points.
Kali Pocrnic finished with 28 points and sparked the Ravens women’s team to a pair of wins – 72-60 over Waterloo and 68-50 against Laurier – and improved its record to 9-2. Jacqueline Urban also stood out with a two-game total of 19 points and 22 rebounds.
The Gee-Gees women’s basketball team remained undefeated at 11-0 and tied in the East Division with Queen’s University Gaels, after turning back Laurier 73-46 and Waterloo 80-52.
Brigitte Lefebvre-Okankwu was among the scoring leaders in both games with a combined 30 points and 15 rebounds. Alana Renon paced the Gee-Gees against Laurier with 17 points and eight rebounds, while Natsuki Szczokin was Ottawa’s top player against Waterloo with 21 points and three rebounds.
After losing in overtime 87-83 to Laurier, the Gee-Gees men’s team rallied to defeat Waterloo 66-54 and keep pace with Carleton in the East at 9-2. Queen’s has a 9-1 record.
The Gee-Gees’ leading scorers were Brock Newton with 19 points and seven rebounds against Laurier and Guillaume Pepin with 19 points and six rebounds against Waterloo.
Ottawa entered the second half of its OUA schedule by winning all three games at the Wesmen Classic tournament in Winnipeg.
The Gee-Gees defeated the Manitoba Bisons 79-64, the Regina Cougars 69-54, and Winnipeg Wesmen 70-61.
Pepin was the Gee-Gees’ most consistent scorer with 52 points in the three games and was named the tournament MVP. Kevin Otoo, who had a Gee-Gees’ best 18 points in the final against Winnipeg, was selected to the all-star team.
MATHIEU DESGAGNES SCORES HAT TRICK IN GEE-GEES’ HOCKEY WIN
University of Ottawa received three goals from Mathieu Desgagnes to help the Gee-Gees skate past cross-town rival Carleton University Ravens in OUA men’s hockey.
The Gee-Gees, fifth place at 10-8-1, lost their other weekend game 7-3 to Concordia Stingers, and Carleton, sixth place at 8-6-2-1, was edged 2-1 by the Ontario Tech Ridgebacks.
In RSEQ women’s hockey, Carleton goalkeeper Marie-Eve Cote stopped 33 of 35 shots, but the Ravens fell 2-0 to the McGill Martlets. Abygail Moloughney had the only goal for the Gee-Gees as Ottawa lost 5-1 to first-place Concordia.
The Gee-Gees are in third place in the six-team RSEQ at 9-4-1, while the Ravens are fifth at 4-8-2.
HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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