Canadian Para snowboarder Alex Massie targets Beijing podium in memory of late coach

After a mid-February training run at a ski hill north of Barrie, Ont., the Canadian snowboarder Alex Massie paused to acknowledge the memory of his coach and close friend, the late Mikko Wendelin.

Whatever happens at the Beijing Paralympics, where Massie is one of four likely medal contenders on a talented Team Canada, he will do it for Wendelin — a vital part of the international Para snowboard community who passed away suddenly in 2019.

“Hopefully, we can go to this Games and honour him by doing something special,” said Massie, 26, who studied under Wendelin with two other elite boarders in an international training group known as “Team Unicorn.”

“As long as I can ride every single race clean and not have any mistakes top to bottom, I’ll be happy with that. But a medal would obviously make that the best.”

Team Canada is surging ahead of the Beijing Paralympics after winning eight medals at the 2022 world championships in Lillehammer, Norway — the best showing in team history.

“I definitely believe that everyone on Team Canada is a medal contender,” said Massie, who paired with newcomer Tyler Turner of Campbell River, B.C., to win gold in the men’s team event in Lillehammer. He also won silver in banked slalom.

“If only there was a couple more people on our team, there might even be a chance for a Canadian sweep.”

WATCH | Alex Massie takes silver in Lillehammer:

Canada’s Alex Massie claims snowboard silver medal at World Para Snow Sports Championships

Alex Massie of Barrie, Ont., captured a silver medal Friday in Lillehammer, Norway in the banked slalom event at the world para snow sports championships. 0:53

A key reason for Massie’s success was his decision to train with Wendelin after a solid-but-unspectacular 10th-place showing in men’s LL2 banked slalom and 11th place in snowboard cross in his Paralympic debut in 2018 in Pyeongchang.

As part of the Unicorn training group, he appeared to find a new gear. 

Massie won the Crystal Globe in 2019 as season champion on the World Cup circuit and finished just out of the medals in snowboard cross at the world championships that year.

‘Surrounded with a really good team’

For the rest of Team Canada, the guidance of Greg Picard — who took over as head coach in 2018 — has also been crucial to the program’s growth.

A former Quebec snowboard cross team athlete, Picard quickly built a strong connection with Canadian Paralympian Sandrine Hamel of Saint-Sauveur, Que., who had two fifth-place finishes at the 2018 Paralympics.

“We definitely have a great coaching staff,” said Hamel, 24. “I think especially now, we’re surrounded with a really good team. And that definitely helped me improve a lot in a short amount of time.” 

The fact Picard is bilingual was also crucial to Hamel’s development.

“French is my first language, and our other coaches only speak English — and it’s fine,” Hamel said. “But I think it really helped in terms of me being able to communicate more and go with more details if I had questions.”

Hamel paired with newcomer Lisa DeJong of Biggar, Sask., to win gold in the women’s team event at the 2022 world championships and added individual bronze in the banked slalom.

As of mid-February, she was the world’s No. 2-ranked athlete in women’s banked slalom (SB-LL2 division).

DeJong, 32, had near-instant success after debuting on the World Cup circuit in 2021. She won silver in both snowboard cross and banked slalom at worlds in January and is ranked in the top three in both events heading into Beijing.

Turner, 33, has taken the Para snowboarding world by storm of late, winning an unexpected gold in snowboard cross and adding bronze in banked slalom at the 2022 world championships.

WATCH | Tyler Turner wins gold at World Para Snow Sport Championships:

Tyler Turner wins Canada’s 1st gold medal at the World Para Snow Sports Championships

Calgary’s Tyler Tuner won the men’s snowboard cross at the World Para Snow Sports Championships in Lillehammer, Norway on Friday. 0:48

“It’s amazing, the level he got to in three years,” Picard said of Turner. 

“And Lisa as well. She’s just committed. She’s there every day we’re training, and she just tried to push. She’s pushed the limits, and she’s super competitive.”

A second family

A key strategy for Team Canada has been to build camaraderie both on and off the snow. Wind tunnel training and go kart racing have helped build strong bonds within the team.

“It’s like a second family,” Picard said. “So, you’ve got to build that strong relationship between the athletes, the coaches, the support staff — with everyone.

“And it goes beyond just training and competing. It’s about doing other activities.”

Team Canada is careful not to place too much pressure on its athletes heading into the Paralympics. Picard is emphasizing fun over performance and trusting good results will follow from four years of consistent hard work. 

This is a lesson Alex Massie clings to as well — the idea that a racing should be an exercise in work-as-play

“Always be present,” he said, recalling one of Mikko Wendelin’s key teachings. “Enjoy the moment and remember why I still snowboard, which is because I love it. 

“And just remember to have fun. It doesn’t matter what place I get, as long as I race my best race. And when I race my best race as well, I usually get a result I’m happy with.”

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