Canada's Reece Howden earns first World Cup ski cross victory at Nakiska

NAKISKA, Alta. — Reece Howden juggles college with part-time ski cross racing.

The 21-year-old from Cultus Lake, B.C., overcame a lack of race mileage to claim his first World Cup win Saturday at Alberta's Nakiska Ski Resort.

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"We only get one race every year in Canada so the opportunity is pretty small to perform here," Howden said. "I'm so grateful to be able to make it all happen between school and everything.

"I don't get to race them all, but I wanted to make sure I was at Nakiska. For sure, that was something I wasn't going to miss."

In just his ninth World Cup appearance, Howden led the four-man final from top to bottom in a one-two Canadian finish.

Kevin Drury crossed the line on Howden's heels for silver. The 31-year-old from Toronto retained his lead atop the men's World Cup standings.

Howden was swarmed by Canadian teammates in the finish area.

His brother Jesse and teammate Kris Mahler then ferried the six-foot-three Howden to the victory podium on their shoulders.

"He's a big kid, he gets out of the start really fast," Canadian coach Stan Hayer said.

"With the pull of gravity and the way he skis, he's like a Zamboni going down the course. You can't pass him. He had the technical skills to back it up."

In ski cross, a skier races three competitors down a course of turns and jumps. The top two advance to the next round with the goal of reaching the final.

Brittany Phelan of Mont-Tremblant, Que., was second in the women's final behind World Cup leader Sandra Naesland of Sweden.

Germany's Daniel Bohnacker and Switzerland's Fanny Smith were third in the men's and women's finals respectively.

Reigning Olympic men's champion Brady Leman of Calgary was fifth and reigning women's world champion Marielle Thompson of Whistler, B.C., was also fifth.

"The expectations going into a home event are high already and we had an unbelievable December," Hayer said. "No one actually knew what was going to happen here. Teams are always hungry to get us."

The frigid temperatures gripping Alberta eased slightly Saturday, with races held in windchill of minus-20 and under sunny skies at the ski resort west of Calgary.

Howden was fourth fastest in Friday's qualifying, which was individual timed runs to determine seedings.

He won his heat, quarterfinal and semifinal Saturday to carry momentum into the final.

"I was here two years ago racing Nakiska and I didn't even qualify," Howden said.

"I'm capable of winning. I always knew I was, but there was always something that was keeping me from obtaining the big final and getting me to the level of those top guys. Today, I was right there with them."

He'll finish his studies in geomatics — geographic data — at Calgary's Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in April.

Howden intends to be a full-time racer next season with a view to qualifying for the 2022 Winter Olympics.

He started out in alpine racing, but switched to ski cross in time to win gold at the 2016 Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway.

Drury reached the World Cup podium for the fourth time this season following three wins in December.

"I trust myself," he said. "I'm really focusing every run to just totally reset. Whether it's the first round or finals, I do some breathing exercises and focus on only the start, the first feature in front of me."

Phelan, an Olympic silver medallist in 2018, recovered from a near-crash in her quarterfinal Saturday when she skied over Naesland's pole.

"I'm still looking for that elusive win," Phelan said. "I've been second quite a few times.

"Racing at home is amazing. It also adds a bit of pressure because you just want to do well for your friends and family in Canada. Really happy I could make it happen today."

Mahler of Canmore Alta., reached the men's quarterfinals to finish 14th and retain his No. 2 ranking behind Drury.

Edmonton's Abby McEwen, Calgary's Antoinette Tansley and Zoe Chore and India Sherret of Cranbook, B.C., were ousted in the women's quarterfinals.

Montreal's Chris Del Bosco and Gavin Rowell of Prince George, B.C., were eliminated in the men's heats.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18 2020.

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