Canada's most dominant winter sports athlete largely flies under the radar outside of Quebec – unless you follow moguls skiing. Consider that, at 24, Mikaël Kingsbury is already the most decorated athlete in the history of the sport, having won a record 42 World Cup races.
This season, Kingsbury has been particularly strong. He clinched the overall World Cup title even before the final event of the season (in Thaiwoo, China), treated the race like a training run – and won anyway.
In fact, he is on such a roll, you have to ask: Is there anything he hasn't won this year?
"My hockey pool," he replied in a long-distance interview from Spain. "I thought I had a good team, but it's not going so well. I made too many decisions from my heart. I usually go with the players I like, and this year I didn't end up with the players I want. I'm not in last place – that's how I'm going to look at it. At least I'm not last."
Freestyle skiing wraps up its season with the semi-annual world championships, which begin Wednesday in Sierra Nevada, Spain. They are separate from the World Cup and represent the high point of the season.
Kingsbury will try to extend his seven-race winning streak with two more victories in the final events of the year – singles and dual moguls.
He grew up idolizing Jean-Luc Brassard and Alexandre Bilodeau. Bilodeau is the two-time reigning Olympic champion, having edged Kingsbury, his protégé, in the 2014 men's final in Sochi.
With Bilodeau now retired, Kingsbury will go into the 2018 Olympics as the heavy favourite, trying to give Canada three consecutive gold medals in men's moguls. The world championships will act as a kind of dress rehearsal for Pyeongchang, site of the next Winter Games, where Kingsbury will carry the weight of heavy expectations.
But pressure is something Kingsbury thrives on, according to Marc-André Moreau, the high-performance director of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association.
"You see Mik at the top of the course, with the pressure on, where he's almost always the last guy to go – and he stays so focused," said Moreau, who coached Kingsbury as a 14-year-old. "Compare that to other competitors, who will just crank up the stress and you wonder if they're going to freeze or choke. With Mik, it's the opposite. I don't know if it's a nature thing – he's just born like this – or if he learned it along the way. But he always performs super well under pressure. It just seems a natural thing for him."
Others who've known Kingsbury since his early teens say he possessed the burning competitiveness shared by all elite athletes. Kingsbury says that part of his personality was inherited from his father, who was "super-competitive, no matter what we were doing – and I was a bit like that, too. But I learned how to lose when I was young because I had an older brother, and when we were playing he would win a lot. I had to work hard to beat him because he was bigger and taller back then.
"Right now, the way it's been going the last two years, the biggest point of why I've done so well is I've been skiing with so much confidence. I know what to do. I know how my body is going to react. And I'm having fun."
Rob Kober, head coach of the Canadian men's freestyle skiing team, says the latter point – having fun – should not be underestimated as a factor in Kingsbury's success.
"He is level-headed and grounded, and even a bit innocent, but mostly he loves to compete and he loves to ski," Kober said. "This is his eighth year on the team, and every day he's smiling. It's play for him – while at the same time, he's outworking everybody on the team. I look at his training stats and the volume he puts in. By the numbers, he's the hardest-working guy on our team."
Kober competed for years on the circuit and says Kingsbury has the right body type to succeed in moguls skiing.
"Our sport is more about absorbing than creating energy, about feathering the breaks than creating power," Kober said. "It's just a lot easier to stop a Toyota Tercel than a Mack Truck. So we don't like a ton of muscle mass on our guys, but you have to be fantastically agile. Strength and power is a huge part, but you also have to be talented on the acrobatic side.
"And it is a fear-based sport. Courage is a big thing for our guys on a daily basis. Being able to face down that fear and still perform in the face of some pretty severe consequences is a big part of what they deal with on a daily basis."
After Canada clinched the Nations Cup this season, the team got together for a party in which they mimicked NHL players celebrating a Stanley Cup championship – but with beer, not champagne.
"These guys are big hockey fans," Kober said. "They're always talking about hockey. We get on the ice quite a bit in the winter, so after we won the Nations Cup we had a pretty fun celebration. Just over a beer making the comparison between the Nations Cup and the Stanley Cup, having beers out of the Cup, and Mik, out of nowhere saying, 'Next year, we should have a captain that wears a C on the team jacket, but that would go to Phil [teammate Philippe Marquis of Quebec City], not to me.' That's what Mik is like. He's not afraid of anyone in the gate, but he doesn't put himself above anyone either."
As for the future and where Kingsbury will ultimately stand in the pantheon of the sport, Kober and Moreau both believe he can still get to a higher level.
"It's dangerous ground to draw comparisons to other sports because we're a small, relatively obscure sport, and I get that," Kober said. "But he's dominated our sport the last few years like nobody has ever done before. Prior to Mik, our sport was notoriously difficult to be consistent at. The second-place guy, if you look at consistency, is way off the back of Mik now."
"He's breaking all these records and he's still so young that he's created a massive gap between himself and the rest of the world," Moreau added. "To be honest, I don't know if we're ever going to see another athlete reach that level again."