Every Olympic hopeful must be on top of his or her game to qualify for the Games, but Canadian freestyle skiers may have it tougher than most.
Since Olympic organizers added two more freestyle ski disciplines to the schedule in Sochi, a fierce battle has emerged over who will secure the 26 spots allotted to Canadian male and female athletes competing in the five disciplines: moguls, aerials and ski-cross, along with the new events, slopestyle and halfpipe.
Among the Canadian hopefuls are X Games champions, reigning world champions, and numerous leaders on the World Cup circuit. Canadian men and women are so strong in all five disciplines, it's possible that skiers who are among the best in the world won't be good enough to make the Canadian team.
"It's a bizarre conundrum," said Peter Judge, chief executive officer of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association.
Stress levels will be especially intense at the Olympic test events being held in Sochi, starting with moguls on Friday. The test events are one of a handful of key competitions that count toward early qualification. With a podium result this week, some skiers will have enough points to qualify early for Sochi, leaving their teammates to duke it out next season.
Athletes are aware of what's on the line.
"I know what I have to do," said Mikael Kingsbury of Deux-Montagnes, Que., the top-ranked moguls skier on the World Cup circuit. "I think about it, but not when I'm skiing."
Freestyle skiers faced a similar situation in the last Olympics, when ski-cross was added to the Vancouver Games. That time, the team had a total of 18 spots, which worked out to three athletes per gender, per discipline. When the number of disciplines grew by two, in events where Canada excels, the ratio shrank; now there is an average of 2.6 spots per discipline, per gender.
It's a good problem to have, but Judge says Canada is uniquely affected. Other countries, including the United States, Russia and Sweden, also have many top athletes in several events, but not to the same extent as Canada.
"We're being punished as a country because we are competing across all disciplines, and because we have an equal gender balance," Judge said. "Under normal circumstances, those are the things you'd get rewarded for."
Canada has the potential to win a medal in virtually every category, and has already won 27 medals this season: 11 in moguls, seven in slopestyle, six in halfpipe, three in aerials. Canadian ski-cross racers have six World Cup podiums in 2013 alone.
Halfpipe star Rosalind Groenewoud of Calgary won gold in the 2012 X Games, the 2012 Euro X Games, and the 2011 world championships. In ski-cross, Brady Leman of Calgary is ranked fourth in the world among men, and Kelsey Serwa of Kelowna, B.C., is third among women.
Moguls are especially deep.
Canada has the top two men in the world, with Kingsbury and reigning Olympic champion Alexandre Bilodeau of Montreal sitting first and second, respectively, in the rankings, as well as four more men in the top 13. Canada also boasts Justine Dufour-Lapointe of Montreal, the top female moguls skier in the world, as well as her sister, Chloé, ranked fifth.
Judge says Canadian officials complained to the International Olympic Committee and the International Ski Federation about the low quota, but didn't get far. So they've tried to keep the qualification process as objective as possible.
When the qualification period ends next World Cup season, Canadian freestyle ski officials will look at who has had the best results, and the top 26 will make the cut, regardless of the sport. (There are some other constraints: Canada can send a maximum of four men or four women per sport. And the team can have a maximum of 14 of one sex.)
That's why it's best to qualify early and avoid nail-biters, Judge said.
"For the ones who want to lock it in early, performing well here [Sochi test events] or at the world championships is very critical," he added.
Having already won two medals in targeted events this season, Kingsbury needs only to finish in the top two-thirds of his field at the Sochi test events to all but guarantee an early nomination from the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association.
"If I qualify," Kingsbury said, "at the beginning of 2014 I will be able to try new stuff for the Olympics, like try new tricks or go faster, and if I miss, it's okay, because I will already have my spot."
The Olympic test event for moguls is scheduled for Friday, followed by halfpipe on Saturday, aerials on Sunday and ski-cross on Monday. Slopestyle events were cancelled due to lack of snow.