ONE of these days North Vancouver's Chris Robanske will score a big snowboard cross victory without first suffering through a painful injury.
Robanske earned his first career World Cup gold medal last weekend at Ontario's Blue Mountain, becoming the first Canadian man to win a World Cup race since fellow North Vancouverite Drew Neilson won back-to-back races in Lake Placid, N.Y. in March 2007.
"The feeling of crossing the finish line and winning your first World Cup is something that I'll never forget," Robanske said after returning to the North Shore last week. "You kind of get rushed with emotion - I've put a lot into this. It's been 13 years of competitive snowboarding so there's been a lot leading up to it."
There was a lot leading up to the win in just the preceding 24 hours. Robanske put up the fastest time in the first qualifying run the day before the race but pushed it too hard in his second qualifying attempt and couldn't handle his speed.
"I just couldn't quite hold on and I kind of overshot this roller," he said. "There was a quick decision: do I try and hold on and probably go into the fence or do I just kind of slide out and put it down?"
He put it down, slamming his knee into an icy berm in the process. By the next morning he couldn't straighten his leg or bend his bruised knee past a 45degree angle but he headed to the mountain and hoped for the best during the elimination rounds.
Robanske fought all the way to the final and made a bold pass midway through the course, holding off three more experienced riders to take the win and was mobbed by his teammates at the bottom of the run. Robanske was thrilled with the result, particularly considering the state of his knee.
"I literally just packed up my bags and headed up to the hill saying, 'OK, let's try and snowboard and see what happens,'" he said with a laugh. "Sometimes your greatest success is when you don't have any expectations and you just let it happen."
It wasn't the first time Robanske chased an injury away with some joy. At the X-Games in 2011 he suffered a nasty crash that left him with compression fractures in his T7 and T11 vertebrae - a broken back, basically.
"I overshot the finish jump, which was a 90-foot jump. I think I went 110 or 120 and landed right on my tailbone and compressed my spine."
He returned to his board by the next season and scored his first World Cup podium in his first race back in December 2011. Seemingly ready to roll, Robanske was again sidelined by a crash just a month later when he broke his ankle and underwent surgery to repair it. Once again, however, he announced his return with a podium finish, winning bronze in Telluride two months ago.
Last Saturday's win was his second podium in three races this season and further validation of a move to North Vancouver he made last spring. The 23-year-old grew up in Calgary, Alta., but moved to the North Shore to dedicate himself to the Canadian snowboarding team's training program, which is run out of North Van's Level 10 Fitness. He's also benefitted from new proximity to a couple of local snowboarding stars. Olympic champ MaÃ«lle Ricker is a workout fiend and friend at Level 10 and Neilson, now retired from the sport, is still kicking around the local snowboard scene.
"He actually helped me furnish my place over the summer," said Robanske. "I had nothing. I moved here with literally nothing - just clothes, that's it. . . . I've really enjoyed my time so far here on the North Shore. It's my favourite place in the world, to be honest."
There's one more important reason Robanske made his way to the North Shore - he's dating West Vancouver's Micayla Gatto, a professional mountain bike downhill racer. Robanske may participate in a crazy, crash-filled, high-speed sport but he's got nothing on Gatto, he said.
"She took me up to Whistler one day last summer to go do some free riding and I ate it so hard behind her - I was just trying to keep up," he said with a laugh, adding that Level 10 trainer Anthony Findlay and the rest of the snowboard team's staff were not impressed. "They were legitimately mad at me. They're putting in all this time and effort and I'm here going biking with Micayla and getting injured. . . . Maybe downhill mountain biking is not the thing to do before the Olympics."
The Games are now the main concern of everyone on the Canadian team. They're headed to Sochi, Russia tomorrow for a test event that will mark the one-year countdown to the 2014 Olympics. Robanske was a forerunner at the Vancouver Games, testing out the course and warming up the crowd. "I was essentially the test dummy," he said. "I got to ride down into the crowd. It was such an experience, I'll never forget it. It was nice having that opportunity because now I'll go to Russia and I won't feel so overwhelmed. I know what to expect and I know how it all works."
With Robanske mostly healthy and riding well, he vowed there wouldn't be another six-year drought for the Canadian men.
"I think this is just the first of many wins for all of our team on the men's side," he said. "Everyone is riding so well and it's about time that we're finally producing the results."
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