For the Beaver
One Christmas, Braelyn Thompson got a present that changed her direction in life.
Now, it’s full speed downhill and through the air for the recently turned 14 year old. That gift — mailed by her uncle 10 years ago from Canada’s first Olympic winter playground, Calgary — was a snowboard. Now, several runs and boards later, Thompson has her eyes set on her own path to the world’s biggest competitions.
A natural talent, she recalls she was hooked immediately.
“It’s a lot different than a lot of other sports — It’s kind of flying when you think about it,” she said. “It’s something you can do on your own. You can go out, do your own thing and get in the zone to really focus and live in the moment. I’ve always enjoyed it and I’ve always kind of improved and got better.”
Last year, Thompson started training on the bigger hills at Calabogie Peaks. There she was introduced to boardercross, a style of racing that has four people gliding down a course at once and a high-level coach in Ottawa at The Academy Snowboard Club who teaches it. Courses contain elements like a Wu-Tang — a quarter pipe to jump off of, banked turns, jumps, and roller berms they can ride and jump. Often, as a season goes on, Thompson says the elements get harder to master.
Still, she does. Each Sunday she goes to Calabogie for seven hours to improve. Sometimes runs are a matter of perfection with every element coming into place. Others, there are hard falls and tough lessons.
“I’ve seen (bad) injuries, but I haven’t had anything personally too serious. One of my worst was bruised ribs. You also get a lot of tailbone injuries, that’s a really common one,” she said. “You learn from your crashes over the years.”
While on course, Thompson said she’s just out there having fun and trying to land her jumps. She said sometimes in the air, she has to convince herself that she’s going to land. Either way, there’s no turning back on course.
“There’s not a way to ease yourself into it. You’ve just kind of got to do it until you can do it and get good at it. You can’t practice a lot of the stuff like cutting close to people. You just get pushed and you’ve got to do it.”
This year, Thompson boarded on a Snowboard Ontario Under-14 circuit and also did some racing in Quebec. On the tour, Thompson also encountered a group of girls who pushed each other week in and week out. As tough as they competed on the hill, they’d always share fist bumps and well wishes at the gates and hugs at the bottom of the runs no matter who did what.
“You do tend to notice the same names. There are a couple girls that push me,” she said. “You get to form bonds. You know them. There’s a couple I talk to outside of snowboarding. It’s my snowboarding family.”
In that environment, Thompson thrived. She reached the podium in all of her races, except one where she placed fourth.
The Southview Public School Grade 8 student saved her best effort for the Ontario Snowboard SBX Provincial Championships at the Beaver Valley Ski Club near Collingwood, March 8-10. Ranked third going into competition, Thompson turned in a time of 67.23 to place second in the province.
“My best race was provincials. That’s when I did my best,” Thompson said. “It’s not necessarily what medal I got, it’s how I think I did on that course. It’s the most difficult course I’ve been on and I did the best I could have done.”
It also happened to produce a qualifying time for the Canadian championships in Kelowna, B.C. in March 2020.
To prepare, she’s working to feel comfortable on a racing board. After outgrowing three snowboards in the past year due to her skill level, Thompson explained the new board would be stiffer and more sensitive to movements. To do that, improved mobility is key. In addition to training at Calabogie, Thompson does regular strength training with Meighen Hodgson at Diamond Fitness.
“One of my goals that I know I need to work on is ankle mobility. I’m trying to get a lot more movement with my ankles and feet,” she said. “There’s things I have set as goals that I have progressed on — the goals I set for myself this past season of getting lower, bending my knees and pushing my knees out. Instead of big things, it’s more technical things.”
By finding that mobility, Thompson will be able to find more speed and momentum on the rolling berms.
Kelowna will be a chance to show scouts for provincial and national teams what she has to offer.
“I realize it’s my first time there, so I’m going for the experience too,” she said, realizing she is jumping into the Under-16 category and competing against racers who may have more seasoning behind them.
Still, there’s an opportunity to chart a fresh course in the snow and size up the competition.
“Eventually, some day I want to be able to participate in the Olympic Games,” she said. “I get to see more variety and get to see more people and teams from all around and their styles. It also gets me more exposure outside of Ontario and Quebec. I definitely want to go far with it.”
Thompson also realizes there may be scholarship possibilities, though the amount of schools competing in boardercross is limited by geography.
Of course, that’s also been a challenge living in Napanee where there aren’t many hills. Costs add up simply heading to Calabogie Peaks for training regularly. Equipment — boards, boots, and armour — is also a cost factor. In addition to three boards, she has gone through three sets of boots this year. All of that comes before she even considers going west to compete. Hodgson has offered an in-kind deal, allowing Thompson to train in exchange for working on her youth programming. The snowboarder has also taken part in the RBC Training Ground program, which might produce sponsorship dollars in time. Beyond that, she’s looking to the community to support her development. Thompson has a bottle drive and a tupperware party planned. To learn more about her fundraising and follow her progress in the sport, follow Thompson’s Instagram account at braelyn_sbx.