Into the pressure cooker

ALISON KORN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:28 AM ET

Hey, what do you have planned for this weekend -- oh, nothing special? Try qualifying for the Olympics.

The stress is on. While this might be just an ordinary winter weekend for many Canadians, perhaps involving beer, hockey or skiing, for dozens of Olympic-hopeful athletes in several sports, it's their last chance to make the 2010 Vancouver Olympic team.

The freestyle ski team competes Saturday and Sunday in Lake Placid and has 12 athletes still in contention for six spots.

"Many of them have spent their entire career preparing for Vancouver. But the bigger impediment is not being in Vancouver, but getting to Vancouver," Peter Judge, CEO of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association, said. "We have such a strong background and history in the sport, it's a big honour to get on the team. Certainly we've left medal winners at home before, and that's part of the game."

Like Ryan Blais. Four years ago, the accomplished aerialist needed to win the last pre-Olympic World Cup in order to make the 2006 Turin Olympic team. Blais managed to win it, but teammate Jeff Bean placed second and, in doing so, achieved a better overall ranking over multiple events and got the Olympic berth. This time, Blais is on the bubble yet again.

"If he comes up with a top five, he has a chance," Judge said. "There's no subjective thought process in our selection. It's all by the numbers."

That has to be a comfort, but it surely also can lead to obsessive number crunching. The team circulates an ever-changing list of current rankings for 38 freestyle athletes in aerials, moguls and skicross, noting their four best finishes.

At the top of the list is moguls champ Jennifer Heil, who has a win in every column. Midway down the list are folks such as skicross racer Aleisha Cline, who has one win but also a 16th place. If Cline does well this weekend, a better result could replace that 16th place and she would rocket up the rankings.

"The whole table could change quite radically," said Judge, noting the final rankings will be tabulated Sunday night, with the team announcement on Monday.

Freestyle selection is slightly complex, but boiled down, the 18 athletes with the best four results in World Cup competitions since Sept. 1, 2008, will go to the Games. There can be a maximum of 10 athletes per gender, and a maximum of four athletes in each of the six freestyle events: men's moguls, women's moguls, men's aerials, women's aerials, men's skicross and women's skicross.

"We're having to compare apples, oranges and bananas," said Judge, who would like to see the maximum team size upped to 24 from 18. "Effectively, your strongest countries are being penalized for having strong programs."

The stress these athletes are under this weekend sounds almost unbearable, but we have to remember they all choose to put themselves through this. In fact, selection is left this late on purpose, to build up pressure and see who can cope.

"The Olympic Games is not for the weak of heart," Judge said. "You're subjected to much scrutiny and much higher level of exposure. We've seen many, many cases where athletes have collapsed under that duress and pressure and others who have come in as underdogs and overperformed."

Along with freestyle, four other sports have their final qualifying competitions over the next few days: alpine skiing, biathlon, Nordic combined and snowboarding.

Those sports will hold news conferences announcing their teams next week and on Friday, Jan. 29, the Canadian Olympic Committee will make its official 2010 Olympic team announcement.


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