Contributor: Ben Steiner
The wave of next generation athletes hit Canadian ski racing in 2020-21, with Cassidy Gray, Justin Alkier and Justine Clement making their World Cup debut and posting some astounding results along the way.
A rush of nerves fell over Justin when he heard he would make his debut in Schladming, AUT. “There were a lot of emotions. I was really nervous,” he said. “Everything was like what you see on TV, and it was a lifelong dream come true.”
But once the 22-year-old’s skis were on the snow and race-day became the focus, he tuned the extra noise out. Although Schladming is traditionally one of the most well-attended tech races on the World Cup tour, the stands stood empty in 2021, making the situation a little less daunting. “That [no fans] wasn’t weird to me,” he said, comparing his debut to other races in his past. “There was still music and all that, but it felt pretty normal.”
For Cassidy, who made her debut in Kranjska Gora, SVN, just nine days before turning 20, it was a moment with her roommate, Justine, in the lead-up to the race she remembers best. “Neither of us had ever had a Canadian team jacket or suit before, so when we both got our stuff, we were running around our hotel room, dancing and stuff because we were so excited.”
Justine, 21, made her debut before Cassidy, but the two youngest athletes on the women’s team were near inseparable in Europe. “We were both in the same boat, and it would have been a bit harder without her, and she’s such a happy and positive person; it just rubs off on you.”
It might have been that positivity that powered Cassidy to earn points in just her second World Cup start, finishing 26th after sitting in in 14th after the first run. “I was not really expecting to finish in the top 15 in the first run, and I wasn’t sure if the timing was right,” she remembered about the giant slalom in Kranjska Gora.
Being the newcomers on the team, everything was exciting to them, but one of the things that neither Justin nor Cassidy will forget is the feeling of racing and training with some of their heroes. “It was cool to see and take notes of some of the things that they do in training and on race day, but it’s just another race in the end,” said Justin about seeing skiers he has watched his entire life.
At first, being around the Canadians astounded Cassidy, who has watched ski racing throughout her 20 years. Still, after becoming comfortable around them, her amazement came from training with American Crystal Globe champion Mikaela Shiffrin. “We trained with Mikaela [Shiffrin] for a couple of days, and Mikaela said one thing ‘it’s so fun to watch you ski, you have such a good time when you’re skiing,’ and that was really cool.”
While joining the World Cup team for a few races was extremely exciting for the young Canadians, all three balance being high-performance athletes with pursuing a university degree and racing collegiately [NCAA] in the USA.
Justin is a fourth-year student at Middlebury College, Cassidy is finishing up her freshman year at the University of Colorado, meanwhile, Justine attends the University of Vermont.
After impressing alpine fans globally on the World Cup, Cassidy, who is studying Integrated Physiology, had four hectic days of skiing and travel. “I spent like 24 hours in the airport, and then basically the next day was on the hill. It was such a blur,” she said of her rush back from Slovakia to the NCAA championships.
With little rest, Cassidy went out and won the NCAA giant slalom title, where fellow CAST NextGen athlete Stefanie Fleckenstein stood next to her with a silver medal. Both represented Colorado, the Canadians led the Buffs to second overall in the NCAA. Meanwhile, Justine Clement won an NCAA silver medal in the slalom.
“The NCAA thing was really cool because it was for more than just me, it was for our whole team,” said Cassidy. “It was very nerve-wracking; I would say that was the most nervous I’ve been all season was for that NCAA G.S.”
Making a debut on the World Cup stage is a daunting task for any skier, but for the young Canadians who did it in 2020-21, it was just the next step in their skiing journey, as they all aim to reach the top of the sport in their careers.