Weeks after an awkward landing in a race last January ripped apart her left knee, ski cross racer Kelsey Serwa received a short letter in the mail at her home in Kelowna.
It was in child’s writing, from eight-year-old Kaleb of Fernie.
“He said he was really sad that I blew my knee and that I couldn’t win any more medals,” Serwa, the 2011 world and X Games champion and six-time World Cup winner, said this week. “And he sent me his gold medal that he won in a race a few weeks before. I take it to the hill every day in my backpack.”
Serwa, who was fifth at the 2010 Olympics, will call on that inspiration this week at Nakiska in Alberta as she continues her comeback in the opening World Cup race of the 2012-2013 season.
For the engaging, raven-haired Serwa, the last 11 months have been a mixture of despair and determination, of inspiration and motivation.
It started with the blown knee – torn ACL, meniscus damage, slight MCL tear – sustained in the four-racer final of a World Cup in Alpe d’Huez, France, when she caught the pole of a skier in front of her and twisted in the air before landing awkwardly on her feet.
After opening the season with back-to-back wins, she looked to be on her way to a first Crystal Globe as overall World Cup points leader. In the days after, she took solace in the fact the timing could definitely have been worse. At least there was no Olympics or world championship on the line in 2012.
Then two months after Serwa was injured, there was gut-wrenching heartbreak when teammate Nik Zoricic died in a crash at the finish line of a race in Switzerland.
As her tough rehab stretched through the spring and summer, everything was on schedule. By August, she was strong enough to join teammates at an on-snow training camp at Mt. Hood, Oregon. As it turned out, Kaleb and his dad were there on a ski holiday with the Fernie Ski Club and Serwa got to meet the boy who had so sweetly wanted to cheer her up.
“I gave him a pair of my gloves. He got to pull a couple of starts out of the (ski cross) gate. He was pretty stoked.”
It was during the summer, as well, that a Kelowna man, Graham Jenkins, asked Serwa, 23, for permission to use one of her action photos. He wanted to surprise his 10-year-old daughter, Hallie, by having it blown up, printed to vinyl and pasted on her bedroom wall.
When Jenkins sent Serwa a photo of the finished product several weeks ago, Serwa decided to make a surprise visit to Hallie’s house. Serwa and Hallie posed for pictures and Serwa signed the giant mural, also adding part of a favorite quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Believe in the power of your dreams.”
In the last couple of months, Serwa has seen teammate Ashleigh McIvor, the 2010 Olympic gold medalist, retire, and respected team leader Chris del Bosco, be sidelined for two to three months with a shoulder injury.
But she is excited to get going with qualifying Friday and heat racing on Saturday.
“Just working out today, everything is quite balanced left to right,” she said Monday. “There’s even been some improvement just from last week. As hard an injury as it was, it’s pretty motivating. The rate of improvement has been so drastic week to week.
“Physically, I’m 95 per cent of where I want to be. But going through an injury like this is as much a mental battle as a physical battle. I’ve done a really good job of making my body strong. Now, it’s time to make the mind strong.”
On Saturday, at the national championships at Nakiska, she was the second fastest qualifier and, after three rounds of racing, finished seventh out of 20. The field included a dozen international racers who had come early to Nakiska to prepare for the World Cup opener.
“It’s funny, you say nationals and seventh and it doesn’t look so good, but for being such a mental battle, I’m really proud of it,” said Serwa.
“I’m probably a little hesitant when I get racing against other people just because I’m not sure what they’re going to do. It’s tough to control things when there’s so many variables thrown into this kind of racing. Having that race Saturday helped a lot, switching my brain to racing mode and realizing how aggressive I need to be.
“It’s just one of those things you have to work through and the only way you can do it is by competing and rubbing elbows with other competitors.”
Eric Archer, head coach of the Canadian ski cross team, says the coaching staff will be patient with Serwa. He expects her to show some patience herself.
“We don’t have any podium expectations for her,” said Archer.
“It’s not going to be great every day. It could take some time and the plan is to build her confidence through qualifying and getting in the battle. If she gets passed, just relax and stay in the moment. Don’t try to think too much.
“We’ll just keep reminding her the goal is not the first few World Cups, the goal is 2014 (the Sochi Olympics).”
Says Serwa: “Because I’m a competitor and always want to do well, it’s going to be difficult for me at first if I struggle to get the results I’m used to getting. But there’s no pressure from my coaches, my family and my sponsors. The big goal is worlds (in Norway in February) and the Olympics. That’s the bigger picture.”
START GATE: Canada’s women’s team also includes Marielle Thompson, 20, of Whistler, who took advantage of the absence of Serwa and McIvor last year to capture the Crystal Globe, and prospect Georgia Simmerling, 23, of West Vancouver … Ian Deans, 21, of Kelowna and Mathieu Leduc, 22, of Comox will race at Nakiska as members of the men’s prospect team.
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