NAKISKA, ALTA.- In the first ski cross World Cup of the season, Canada’s Kelsey Serwa was right in the mix in the quarter-final.

The reigning world champion did not advance to the final, but just racing strongly in this rough-and-tumble sport, often called a roller derby on snow, was a big victory for her.

The native of Kelowna, B.C., is just back to racing after missing most of last season because of an injury. In January, in a World Cup race in Alpe d’Huez, France, Serwa got tangled up in another skier’s pole and ruptured the ACL in her left knee.

For Serwa, coming back has been both a physical and mental battle. She did everything she could, from buying a new mattress to sessions in a hyperbaric chamber, to heal as fast as possible after surgery.

“I’m 100 per cent physically,” she said. “I just need to get the race head back.”

A podium finish would have been nice, she said, but Saturday’s World Cup at Nakiska mountain resort, west of Calgary, was about winning the mental game.

“In the hardest, most technical part of the course, and on my bad leg, the side I had surgery on, I was right there. I literally skied across a girl’s skis so I feel like I’m back and ready to win,” she said.

A victory of sorts for her but not for the team. Uncharacteristically, there wasn’t one on the men’s side either. Brady Leman, the top Canadian on the day, finished sixth. This is the first time since the 2010-11 season that a Canadian has not been on the podium at a World Cup.

“Unfortunately, not a podium and that’s where we set the bar every time we come on the snow,” said ski cross athletic director Dave Ellis. “I think we’ll get it back in the next race.”

Canada’s ski cross team has been the top in the world for the last four years and Canadians hold both the men’s and women’s world titles. But in many ways the team is different this year. Tragedy, injury and retirements have changed the national team considerably.

Toronto’s Nik Zoricic died in March after a crash in Switzerland in the final race of the 2011-12 season. Reigning world champion Chris Del Bosco of Montreal is out recovering from a separated shoulder. Olympic gold medallist Ashleigh McIvor retired, as did four other team veterans Davey Barr, Brian Bennett, Stan Rey and Julia Murray.

“We’ve had a pretty challenging season in the last nine months,” Ellis said, referring to the loss of 29-year-old Zoricic. “Everyone got down in one piece and probably got a big bear off their back.”

The Nakiska course, built on a relatively narrow slope and with a huge focus on safety, lacked the big jumps that are commonly found in ski cross. But the numerous turns and technical nature of the course produced plenty of surprises in qualifiers. Many of the sport’s favourites, including last season’s female and male overall World Cup winners, Canada’s Marielle Thompson and Slovenia’s Filip Flisar, did not make it through the qualifying round into Saturday’s race.

“The field is getting tougher, the sport is advancing and people are getting more competitive. But I don’t think we’re off track at all,” said Ellis.

And for Serwa, he said, Saturday’s race was “a big step in getting back on the podium.”

-Kerry Gillespie Sports Reporter Toronto Star