WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Not only does Jennifer Heil have to navigate a steep mountain covered with moguls and launch herself off two ramps to perform acrobatic moves on skis at the Olympics, she also has to shoulder the weighty hopes of an entire nation.
Canadians are praying that Heil could be the woman to break their nation’s gold-medal drought at home by winning the freestyle skiing moguls event on February 13, the first full day of competition at the Vancouver Games.
Heil, the defending Olympic champion, will have to shrug off the pressure, ski a clean run and land some good tricks to beat a strong and deep American squad.
“The most impressive thing about Jenn is her ability to consistently ski at the top. She lays down run after run of her best skiing,” said Hannah Kearney, a U.S. medal hope in the event filled with bumps and jumps to the blare of loud music.
“But I actually don’t envy her in any way because there’s some pressure right there. I‘m looking forward to skiing against her.”
Canada has hosted two previous Olympics -- the Summer Games in Montreal in 1976 and the Winter Games in Calgary in 1988 -- but could not win a gold medal on either occasion.
On the men’s side, defending champion Australian Dale Begg-Smith is again the skier to beat on the moguls. Canada’s Alex Bilodeau, Guilbaut Colas of France and Swede Jesper Bjoernlund should all produce podium-worthy runs.
The newest event at the Olympics -- ski-cross -- is expected to pull in the fans and attract a younger X Games crowd to watch four skiers start side-by-side and fly down the mountain as they navigate sharp turns, jumps and a steep slope while jostling to cross the finish line first.
Described as roller derby on skis, or like NASCAR which attracts fans hoping to see spectacular crashes, the event includes a mix of freestyle skiers and former Alpine skiers lured by the wild style of the racing.
“It’s a great opportunity to be debuting a new sport in the Olympics with all the people watching,” said American Daron Rahlves, a three-time Olympian in Alpine skiing who has switched to ski-cross.
“It’s a really good way to get skiing more recognition -- I think it’s really good for spectators. People are really going to catch on and think it’s one of the coolest things out there, because of all the potential for crashes.”
Ski-cross is one of the events that could be affected by the lack of snow on Cypress Mountain. Because organizers are having to move stockpiled snow to build the track, some skiers are concerned that it may not be as tough technically as it would have been with colder weather and more snow.
Canada has a strong ski-cross team and will vie with Alpine veterans such as Rahlves and American Casey Puckett for a medal. Andreas Matt of Austria and Swiss Michael Schmid are also medal hopes.
On the women’s side, Canadian Ashleigh McIvor is a strong hometown favorite but she will have to beat former Alpine skier Ophelie David of France among others.
The Chinese women are expected to dominate the high-flying aerials competition, where skiers launch themselves off jumps and execute flips and twists in the air as they soar several storeys above the ground.
Australia’s Lydia Lassila, who recently set a world-record score in a World Cup event, along with defending champion Evelyne Leu of Switzerland will also be contenders.
The Canadian men, led by Steve Omischl, are leading medal hopes along with Americans including Jeret Peterson who was expelled from the Turin Games after getting into a fight.
Editing by Clare Fallon