Rachael Karker’s freestyle skiing season might have been a short one this year, but it sure was a successful one.
The 23-year-old, who was born in Guelph and grew up in Erin, competed in three meets this year and finished on the podium each time out.
“We didn't have a lot of time to ski or compete this year and I feel really lucky to get three events in, especially with Olympic qualifying this year,” Karker said in a video chat from her place in Calgary. “The more events the better, obviously, to qualify and get your spot. It was really good to get those three events in and I'm happy with how I did at all of them.”
She started with a bronze finish in the X Games in January and followed it up with a silver finish in the world championships and a victory in a World Cup, the final two coming a week apart last month.
“All three were at the same place,” Karker said. “We were in Aspen for X-Games in January. The world championships got moved around a lot. They were looking for somewhere to host it and then Aspen eventually said that they would host it and they would also hold another World Cup so that they could double up on events.”
With the events all being at the same place, the halfpipe was pretty much the same for each competition.
“The same pipe cutter was in there the whole time,” she said. “It'll change sometimes based on athlete feedback, on what they prefer, but pretty much it was the same throughout the three events except for weather conditions. It was snowing one qualifier so it was really slow. Then it was really warm which means that the walls get really soft and slushy and you get caught up in them sometimes when it gets like that. Conditions were different, but the halfpipe was generally the same the whole time.”
Karker’s runs featured the same tricks each time, something that’s pretty standard during the competitive season. Much like competitors in figure skating, freestyle skiers work to put new tricks in their arsenal during the off-season and then break them out when the next season starts.
“Usually spring, summer and fall are for learning new tricks and getting them consistent enough to put them in a run and trying to make your run cleaner and fix your execution unlike throughout the winter season,” Karker said. “It's rare that people will learn new tricks during the winter because the risk/reward there isn't super. It's not a good idea.
"Sometimes you can risk injury mid-season. It's better to learn stuff when you have the time in the spring and summer.”
Karker’s been skiing since she was two years old. Learning at such an early age has made skiing come second-nature to her.
“It's sort of like walking,” she said. “I don't remember really learning how to ski, I've always sort of known how to do it. It looks hard to learn, watching other people do it.”
While her first taste of competition was as a ski racer, she also competed in gymnastics.
“I was an artistic gymnast for four or five years and then when I started skiing again,” she said “I also competed nationally in trampoline. I did the two of them at the same time for a few years and then I transitioned fully to skiing.”
While she competed in a couple of national championships in trampoline, Karker got hooked on freestyle skiing after watching her brother Austin compete. And she found that her time in gymnastics and trampoline came in handy on the hill.
“He stayed with skiing when I had moved on to other sports,” she said. “He ski raced and then he started skiing slopestyle. I was sort of wanting to get out of gymnastics and he was doing that and it just looked like a really fun sport to try, something that I could probably be good at because it sort of combines the two. I ski raced as a kid so I knew how to ski and I knew how to do flips and stuff.”
While Karker would certainly have preferred to have more competitions this year, the fact they were all in Aspen was a good thing for her as it’s a place where she’s thrived. She was second in a World Cup halfpipe there in 2020 and third in 2019.
Now it’s all about getting ready for the Winter Olympics that are scheduled to be held in Beijing next February.
“Pretty much it's just training now,” Karker said. “We're going to have a few events before the Games, but other than that it's just trying to ski and trying to ski the best I can and be fit enough to handle it so just a lot of gym time and a lot of on-snow time.”
Due to COVID-19, the training will be different this spring and summer.
“We might go to Switzerland in the spring,” Karker said. “We're probably going to go down to Mount Hood in Oregon for July because they build a halfpipe on the volcano there. We'll go to Europe in the fall because that's the only option now. We used to go to New Zealand, but New Zealand's not letting people in. We used to spend a couple months a year there in their winter, but now we can't go. We went to Switzerland last year for training and Austria, too.”
Wherever the Canadian team goes for training, Karker will be trying to keep the pressure down by not giving much thought to the upcoming Olympics.
“I'm excited. In my head I feel like I'm compartmentalizing a little bit,” she said. “In my head when I think about it, it's just another contest. I feel like if I started fixating on it, it would be a little bit more of a detriment to my mental state trying to train. I am really excited and I'm happy to be going, but I'm just trying not to freak myself out a little.”