Sochi, RUSSIA – One of the key attributes to being a great ski cross racer is the ability to keep your composure – and your line – while those around you are losing theirs in the often chaotic, elbow-bumping cauldron of four-skier racing.

Kelsey Serwa, the reigning world champion from Kelowna, did just that Tuesday, surviving a pair of “kamikaze” pass attempts by Switzerland’s Fanny Smith – the current World Cup leader – to win the weather-disrupted Olympic test event in Sochi, Russia.

It was the second win in four World Cup races for Serwa, 23, in a strong comeback season after missing much of the 2011-2012 campaign following an ACL tear.

And it was a terrific day all around for the Canadian team. Marielle Thompson of Whistler, who has struggled all year after winning the World Cup title last season, earned her first podium of this season, taking second behind Serwa after Smith fell following some late contact.

Chris Del Bosco, a Vail, Colo., native with dual citizenship and now living in Montreal, was second in the men’s race, his first podium showing of the season after sitting out the first seven events while recovering from a shoulder injury. Tristan Tafel of Canmore, Alta., was fifth in a race won by Victor Oehling Norberg of Sweden.

“It gives us confidence we can perform on this hill,” said Serwa.

“It’s nice to see us all up on the podium again and Tristan being fifth was pretty good, too. Once we get the momentum going, it’s pretty easy to keep it up.”

Weather and track conditions were challenging, as they were last week for the other freestyle disciplines and a concurrent snowboard World Cup. One ski cross training day was wiped out when the snowboardcross was forced to run late; another was lost to heavy snow, rain and fog.

Monday’s qualification runs were postponed because of more fog and wet snow, forcing the competitors into a long day Tuesday, with one training run and qualification in the morning and heat racing in the afternoon.

“I’m not a big fan of qualifying and racing in the same day,” said Serwa. “It’s tough to get amped up for qualifying and then have to take a break before racing. It’s distracting, but today it worked out well.”

She said the fact she grew up skiing in all kinds of conditions at Big White outside of Kelowna — “fog, soft snow and not normal conditions” — makes it easier for her to adjust. “It was a perfect training ground when we were young, all of us West Coast kids.”

Organizers also ran the entire race on the wide snowboardcross track. The ski cross racers were to use the same start, then veer on to a separate course before rejoining the SBX track near the bottom.

“It was a way better decision in my opinion,” said Serwa. “It was the biggest course we’ve seen all year, big jumps, lots of landing, technical features. It forced you to use your brain out there, which was really good.”

Serwa qualified second-fastest, then won her round-of-32, quarter-final and semifinal heats. Only the top two advance.

In the final, she got out front early over some tricky rollers and short jumps. One-third of the way down, Smith tried to go inside of her on a corner and clipped the back of Serwa’s skis, though both stayed up. Then on the final big turn before a couple of finish-area jumps, Smith again tried to go inside, letting out a big scream as she slid down after contact to avoid a disastrous wipeout.

“She landed on my leg and somewhat on my arm,” said Serwa. “I don’t know what hit me, her equipment or herself, but I managed to stay up and get over the finish line safely.

“And it was nice to see Marielle stand beside me on the podium.”

Thompson qualified for heat racing in just two of the first seven races, finishing eighth and 11th, but insisted she had been skiing well. “In qualifying, I just kept making silly mistakes that cost me a lot of time.

“This will definitely give me the push in confidence I need for the rest of the season.”

Serwa’s win gives her 401 points on the season, 15 back of French veteran Ophelie David and 75 back of Smith with four World Cup races remaining. Serwa says her big goal, however, is to repeat at world championships in Norway in early March.

She says her comeback is still a work in progress, but that her confidence is “definitely building. There’s still a little ways to go before I can go out there and say I know I can win this, rather than I hope I can win this.”

Del Bosco, who while out of competition also spent some time in a full chest and back brace to treat a compression fracture in his back, said he felt great on his return, “a little bit lighter, really quick and strong.”

He nearly caught Oehling Norberg at the line in the final, flying huge off the final jump and then skidding to his right and catching the back of the Swede’s ski. He had gone big over the same jump in his quarter-final to earn a photo finish-confirmed transfer to the semis.

“I’m super happy with the podium,” said Del Bosco, three times a runner-up in the season standings. “You always want to win, but I’ll take a second for the first race back.”
Copyright The Vancouver Sun