Kelsey Serwa’s goal in women’s skicross today is aggressive: “My goal in Sochi is to bring home to gold medal.” The Canadian, ranked No. 4 in the world, spoke to Postmedia News about how she got here:
Q: I want to ask you first about your injuries.
A: Which one?
Q: Yes, good point. Let’s talk about your most recent injury.
A: It’s the same knee, the same injury, I did it twice in a year and a half, which blows. No pun intended. I keep using the same jokes over and over. It’s coming along great. Even though it’s the same injury, same knee, more or less the same operation, it’s totally different. There was way less trauma with this injury and it just feels like my rate of recovery is better because of that. I was on a bike five days after and I’m in the gym now and lifting weights and building up my muscles again. My mum’s actually been working out with me, which has been awesome. That was actually the first thing she said when she heard I’d injured myself, she said “Oh, I’m going to do all your rehab exercises with you, I think that’s a good start for me.” So, we’ve been bonding in there. It’s coming along really good. I’m really optimistic about it. If anything, my situation right now, as crappy as it is, is set up perfect because I have the experience, I know what it’s going to be like, because I just dealt with this last year, I know how to deal with the mental issues with it, I know when to push myself, when to give myself a break and when to, you know, go and win and put everything on the line.”
Q: So, as hard as it was, was the timing actually not bad going into an Olympic year?
A: You know, when I got injured the first thing I did was count the months, the days, the hours, how much time do I have to recover, to get strong, to get back to 100 per cent and race in Russia. And it took exactly 11 months from when I blew my knee the first time and when I won a gold medal racing on the World Cup and I have exactly 11 months from when I had surgery this year to when we’re going to be racing in Sochi, so everything’s lining up perfect.
Q: Can you talk specifically about the type of rehab work you’ve been doing? And is there any truth to the saying that injuries like this can be positive, because it gives you a chance to reset your body?
A: Absolutely. And it’s a totally humbling experience because, literally, when you’re going through an injury, being cut open and replacing stuff, you start from scratch, you start from zero, and so you have to build up your foundation and get all the tiny little muscles and stabilizer firing and working and strong again before you can go and build up the bigger muscles, whereas a lot of people — and I did this, too, when I wasn’t injured — is I just go and hammer out the big muscles and get them strong. But it’s the small ones that control the big ones.
Q: Prior to these injuries you were the world champion and X-Games champion in 2011. How realistic is it — and how optimistic are you — that you can get back to that place?
A: I don’t think it’s that far away. I went through the injury last year and I got right back on top within a matter of three races. I won the Olympic test event in Russia this year, in Sochi, on the same track that we’re going to be racing the Olympics, so, really, I can’t be much more confident than I am now. My knee is just a minor hurdle that I’m going to get through. I don’t feel it’s going to hold me back. I had all summer, I had all fall to recover.
Q: You won the test event in Sochi. Do you feel like it’s suited to you, given the conditions in Sochi are so similar to what you’re used to in B.C.?
A: I grew up skiing, racing, at Big White Ski Resort and they’re kind of known for tough conditions, tough visibility and soft snow, which brings great powder, but as an alpine racer hitting gates and skiing in the same lines over and over it gets tough, so you learn a lot, about how not to be able to see but how to be able to feel. And that’s what we dealt with when we were in Sochi this February, so it’s like, I’ve been training for this my whole life.
Q: Does this give you more confidence heading into the Games?
A: Absolutely. Poor weather, poor snow conditions, poor visibility makes other people feel uncertain, and lose that confidence, and knowing that makes me feel more confident.
Q: You finished fifth at the Olympic Games in Vancouver, where you came very close to making the finals. Talk a little bit about the experience, given they were your first Olympics.
A: We had the Olympic Excellence Series in 2009 and being a first-time Olympics, I was like “What’s it like?” and was listening to everyone very intently. Everyone said it’s bigger than any other competition, you’re going to have people cheering for you, you’re going to have cameras in your face, it’s going to be intense. Be prepare, more or less, to choke. And I think I just heard that so many times, over and over and over, that I had it blown up in my mind bigger than it actually was, which was great, because then I got there and found it was totally manageable. In Vancouver, I don’t think I’ve ever been as well-prepared as I was for a race. On that day, mentally, I was just in the zone, focused, to the point where everything was natural. It felt easy. And I don’t know how many first-time Olympians can say that. But I’m a pretty easy-going person as it is, so maybe that has something to do with it. I don’t throw up from anxiety. But it was an amazing experience. I went out there wanting to win. I’m not satisfied with fifth, so that just gives me more motivation to attack and kill it in Sochi.
Q: How important is it for you to win an Olympic medal, given you already have a world championship and an X-Games gold medal?
A: It’s huge. It’s bigger than anything else in the world. They say only one per cent of the population, if that, become Olympians. Even one per cent of one per cent become Olympic gold medallists, and just to be in such a tight, small demographic would be just unbelievable. But what’s crazy about it is I think it’s totally achievable for me and that’s almost harder to grasp.
Q: What’s the team dynamic like?
A: I’m happy when my teammates do well and they’re happy when I do well, and I think that’s the only way that you’re going to have a successful team. It’s great. We travel well, everywhere across the world we get along great. It couldn’t be better. We’re like a family, we spend so much time together. Obviously you get that, ‘argh, I want to kill you right now,’ but you have that with your brother and sister, don’t you, at times? But actually, it doesn’t ever come to that. It’s great.
Q: Freestyle Canada receives a lot of money from Own the Podium. And given your injuries, you may have enjoyed this more than most. What does that type of support system mean to athletes?
A: It is huge and for us, too, when we got started two years before the last Olympic Games no one wanted to sponsor us. We were just a bunch of kids that got thrown together, we had no track record, we were the new sport. No one knew it was going to take off. The only positive thing about it was we had the opportunity to go to the Olympics. Then Own the Podium comes along and they give us over 90 per cent of our funding to run our team. So literally, without a program like Own the Podium, we wouldn’t have a team. It wouldn’t exist. Even now, I don’t know exactly what the numbers are but it’s pretty high and we’ve had that constant funding through Vancouver, through these Games, which has just made all the difference in the world.
Q: Is there an Olympic moment that inspired you as a child?
A: This is the funniest question for me because I don’t have that. I enjoyed participating in sports more than I enjoyed watching them, so I don’t have that one idol that I always looked up to or that aha moment of I want to be an Olympian, I’m going to be an Olympian. I have an older brother and sister, so my goal was to keep up with them. They’d always try to ditch me. You know, I’m the pesky little younger sibling, and they were like, ‘ah, go away, we don’t want to hang out with you because you’re not cool.’ So, like, you know, skiing down a mountain they would try to go as fast as they can, and I would just try to keep up with them. Riding bikes, same thing, it was me pushing myself to keep up with them.
Q: You grew up in Big White, where your grandfather Cliff was one of the co-founders of the resort. Do you come from a whole family of skiers?
A: No, not at all. So, my grandfather spent a lot of time touring up around that area and got one of his friends and said, “Let’s develop this.” Everyone thought they were nuts and they were going to lose all their money, it was a lost cause. And so my family, my parents had an excavation company, so they were actually doing a lot of the development up there many, many years later, so naturally, my brother and my sister and I spent all of our weekends up there. And even in the summer we were around, hiking in the mountains. I didn’t come from a family of ski racers. My parents weren’t racers. They were athletic, they did sports, but we had never been exposed to that.
Q: What’s the best thing about being an Olympic athlete?
A: The perks. No, I’m just kidding. It’s just being that one per cent in the world. It takes a lot to get here, tons and tons of hard work, and it’s a title that you carry with you your entire life. It’s not so much even telling people that you’re an Olympian, because people will only be impressed by that for five minutes, if that, it’s more just the self-satisfaction of I worked my ass off and I got here and it wasn’t easy, I had a whole team behind me and it took a lot of people to do this, but it’s, you know, we do it for ourselves, too.
Q: What’s the toughest thing?
A: The toughest thing about being an Olympian? It’s people expecting you to be good at everything. Like at every sport imaginable. And I am probably the worst skater ever. We try to do some hockey for cross-training and it’s like I got the granny stick out and I’m just falling down left, right and centre.
Q: I think there’s a general belief that being an Olympic athlete is quite glamorous, with all the travel, and the lifestyle. How rigorous is it, between the training and the travel and the competition?
A: It’s fun, it’s super cool, we do get to travel to amazing places. At the same time, we drive eight hours to get to these places after flying for 15 hours, so you’re dealing with jet lag. We go to hotels, and then we go to the one run on the mountain. So we see our hotel and the mountain and then we go to the next venue and we see a hotel and a mountain. So, it is not as glamorous as everyone thinks. It’s work, it’s hard, but at the same time if you can pull yourself away and take some time to look around and say ‘this is cool, I’m in in the middle of the French Alps’ or ‘I’m in the Dolomites’ it is pretty amazing.
Q: If you weren’t a ski cross racer, what would you be?
A: I think I’d like to participate in team sports. I haven’t done that in a really long time because skiing’s been my life. At 15, that was the moment when I kind of had to decide if I wanted to participate in this or skiing, so I’d probably go back and play volleyball or something.
Q: Any guilty pleasures?
A: Guilty pleasure, training or not training, is ice cream. I love it any time, any time of day.
Q: Any tattoos?
A: Nope, my mom would kill me. Out of the house.