Tough season for Étienne Geoffroy-Gagnon

Whitehorse’s Étienne Geoffroy-Gagnon endured a challenging FIS slopestyle World Cup season, finishing 26th overall and fifth among the seven Canadians who scored points this winter.

On paper, that’s a significant stepback from last season’s sixth place overall finish.

In reality, that doesn’t even start to tell the story of what happened (and didn’t happen) this season.

This was a season – and a year – defined by COVID-19.

“So it was definitely the toughest season I think I’ve ever had,” Geoffroy-Gagnon said in an interview last month. “My skills were definitely up to par and I definitely spent a lot of the season training and I felt pretty ready for the season. Then just the constant waiting around, and things getting cancelled … the absence of structure was really, really hard as an athlete.”

While a typical World Cup season would include six or seven slopestyle events – plus a handful of big air events of which Geoffroy-Gagnon might compete in a couple – this year’s schedule was just three slopestyle events and one big air event out of a proposed five and three respectively.

In a sport so much about rhythm and flow, it’s not hard to imagine the effect the scheduling could have.

“The last five, six years I’ve been on tour and it’s just train, train, train and once it’s winter season, it’s kind of go, go, go,” Geoffroy-Gagnon explained. “(There isn’t) too much time to sit around and think about it and think about whether you’re at the right place, you did the right training, or where else you could go. … (It) was definitely pretty confusing and pretty hard to stay motivated and on it.”

Most of the heavy lifting for the upcoming season happens in the spring, so being off the hills and in the Yukon for that period put him behind the eightball ahead of the winter.

With the trips to Europe cancelled and ski hills at home closed, it was a challenge to stay motivated last spring.

“Just from growing up in the Yukon and not really having that many high-performance athletes around, I was definitely a little bit more on my own, but I always did have that team atmosphere and have that going on,” he said about how to tried to prepare. “Not doing as much training in terms of skiing specifically, but having more time to do gym work and work on that side of things, it’s a lot of the background work that is done more on your own and there has been a lot more time for that. So at least there has been something I’ve been able to work on. But it does get pretty old and pretty boring and I’m in the sport to be out skiing with my friends and going out and about and just enjoying that.”

Usually, he explains, the season itself is relatively enjoyable. Moving from venue to venue, skiing with your friends, “living the dream” – so to speak. This year, not so much.

Events weren’t confirmed until late, a couple were cancelled, and the uncertainty made preparing for a given course more of a challenge.

“You were kind of just waiting around for one event and you’ve been training so hard. You go to that event and if it doesn’t necessarily go the way you wanted it to, then it’s kind of one out of two opportunities that you had that season,” Geoffroy-Gagnon said.

He spent significant time in Whistler, B.C., this winter, a ski hill he said can be distracting during the main season.

“It snows a lot out there and the training in the park is not the most ideal, so I try and usually stay away from Whistler in the winter just to be in more of a training-conducive area,” he said. “Being able to spend time out there was definitely a little different and there was a lot more, say, hanging out and chilling than I necessarily would have liked.”

Étienne Geoffroy-Gagnon hikes through the snow. (Sébastien Berthiaume/Courtesy Étienne Geoffroy-Gagnon)

With vaccine rollout continuing across Canada and the globe, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

“I’m definitely looking forward to the future if things go back to normal to still be able to have that bit of information of what I need to do for myself and what works for me, but also have that team atmosphere. It’s still an ongoing process and I’m still trying to figure out how to get some structure back into things just from being all over the place,” he said. “Even just this last week, I was just in Whistler and was kind of looking forward to spring skiing and more enjoying myself and I just got the news that they had to close, so I decided to fly home and do the quarantine and spend a bit of time at home.”

The winter Olympics are now less than 12 months away, and Geoffroy-Gagnon may only have a handful of chances to punch a ticket to Beijing.

“I was definitely looking pretty good at the beginning of the season and was pretty hyped up on trying to maintain that top four Canadian spot, but as of now by the end of the season here I think I’m in fifth or sixth, so obviously that sucks with only having three events,” he said. “You don’t really have that many opportunities to prove yourself, but yeah, obviously I’m going to keep trying for that.”

The good news for Geoffroy-Gagnon is he will likely have at least two events that cound towards qualification before the roster is finalized, but nothing is guaranteed and he may not be competing at the venues he prefers.

A podium finish would do the trick, as would pushing his way up the Canadian standings another couple places.

Although currently on the outside looking in, it’s far from time to throw in the towel.

This season, there were no stops in France, Italy, Calgary or California – his favourite places to compete – and both Italy and France are typically early events on the schedule.

“Every year we usually have some contests there and those are the places I have the most experience at and ski the best,” he said. “A couple events were changed to different locations and I kind of had to try to learn a new course and try and figure that out, so that was also pretty difficult.”

Whatever happens the first half of next season, it’s clear from speaking to Geoffroy-Gagnon it won’t be from a lack of effort.

“I feel like some athletes benefited from (the situation) just in terms of having a bit of time off and having to take some time, but I feel like for me it was a little bit more detrimental to my performance. I’m just pretty stoked on the structure and doing the same old is usually what I’m all about,” Geoffroy-Gagnon said. “Building on that and figuring out ways to do it better, but this year being so up in the air, it was really hard to maintain and to push myself to be better than I ever have. … That’s sports for you; you learn and you go forward.”

One other positive to come out of the season was his new-look website as, like everyone else, extra time indoors translated into completing some of those lingering projects. It features journal entries by Geoffroy-Gagnon about his season and training, in addition to photos, video edits and information about his sponsors.