If there really is a Santa Claus, then the jolly, old bearer of new socks and toy guitars had a front row seat to an amazing performance this weekend by Canadian freestyler skier Kristi Richards.
Richards, a native of Pemberton, B.C., captured a silver medal in the women's moguls at the World Cup in Suomu, Finland yesterday -- a place known as Santa's official ski resort -- after winning gold in the same event on Friday.
"I feel everything is just coming together," said Richards, after her silver yesterday. "I've been working on the same technique for four years, and it's time to perform."
Suomu hosted two World Cup mogul competitions this weekend because an event scheduled for Meribel, France, this week was cancelled because of a lack of snow.
For Richards, the double medal performance shows that last year's inconsistent season is a thing of the past and that she is on track to challenge for the gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics in February.
At the very least, it demonstrates that Canada has a solid 1-2 punch in women's moguls heading into Vancouver. The defending Olympic champion in the event, Jennifer Heil of Spruce Grove, Alta., won the bronze yesterday with Hannah Kearney of the United States taking the gold. Kearney won yesterday's event with a score of 25.68, followed by Richards with 24.97 and Heil with 24.92.
For Richards, her stay at the Suomu resort, located on the Arctic circle, just a few miles from the world-renowned Santa's Village, really was magical.
After winning the gold on Friday, the 2007 world champion looked as if she was in for a big crash in yesterday's second World Cup. Richards was in jeopardy of missing yesterday's final after almost failing to land her opening jump. A poor qualifying round left her 15th out of 16 skiers, but she stormed back in the final to take the silver with more up-tempo skiing and cleaner jumps.
"There was nothing to lose, so I was one of the fastest again and I skied like I know how to ski," said Richards, 28.
Despite winning the world championship in 2007, Richards generally has taken a back seat to Heil, in terms of notoriety and public recognition. But she does have an ardent fan following.
Richards has been adopted by Summerland Middle School in the town of her birth, through the Canadian Olympic Committee's Adopt-an-Athlete program, and takes the school mascot, L'il Shred, a stuffed bear dressed up with skis and poles and donning the school's uniform, everywhere she goes, including World Cup events and training sites.
The connection means a lot to Richards, and the school's trophy and display cases are full of pictures of Richards and L'il Shred. She also has donated equipment and apparel to the school and receives regular e-mails from the SMS kids when she is travelling the world training and competing. Richards regularly replies back and also created the "I Can Be" program which helps fund scholarships to summer camps.
As for Heil, the 26-year-old Montreal resident wasn't pleased with her effort in the season's opening World Cup events, despite her bronze.
"I'm disappointed, but it's a starting point," said Heil, who has twice sat out World Cup seasons to recover from the tremendous physical strains of skiing moguls. "My transmission got a little bit jammed in third, but I was ready to get into fourth."
In the men's event, Alexandre Bilodeau of Rosemere, Que., finished fourth yesterday, after collecting a bronze on Friday. Bilodeau, who finish with eight podium spots in nine World Cup starts last season, said he was "perplexed" with the judging yesterday, but pleased with his skiing.
"I'm where I want to be," said Bilodeau, 22. "But I need to adjust or the judges need to adjust."
Sweden's Jesper Bjornlund won his second straight gold yesterday in 24.96, followed by Americans Byron Wilson and Nathan Roberts.