WEST Vancouver's Georgia Simmerling may only be 23 years old but the young skier has already seen a lifetime's worth of peaks and valleys.
The last time Simmerling was in the spotlight on the North Shore she was in the middle of an alpine dream sequence. On the same day that she suffered a nasty crash in a World Cup race she learned, while lying in a hospital bed, that she was going to be a last-minute addition to Canadian Olympic team for the Vancouver Games. Lacking experience in big-time events, the hometown star still managed to finish 27th in the Olympic Super G, surviving an icy Whistler course that proved the downfall of many more experienced skiers.
Next came a switch from alpine skiing to the sport's punchy young cousin, ski cross. Known as the Nascar of ski racing, ski cross features four racers at a time blasting down a single track that contains bumps, jumps and curves. If you're thinking that sounds a little dangerous, you're right. Last February Simmerling, still just starting to learn the ins and outs of the sport, took a fall during a race in Park City, Utah and broke her neck and back. No, that's not a typo - Simmerling broke three vertebrae: C7, T2 and T3.
Somehow less than a year later Simmerling turned that frightening low into an exhilarating high, coming back to win her first ever World Cup medal last month in San Candido, Italy.
This week Simmerling is back on the North Shore, prepping for the final push of the World Cup season. The North Shore News caught up with her Friday morning as she was hitting up a local coffee shop for a little caffeine fix.
"I chuckle," Simmerling said when asked how she now thinks about the incredible highs and devastating lows she has experienced in her short career. "This sport has led me to amazing places in the world and I've experienced amazing things and met some incredible people. I'm extremely lucky to be doing what I do. There's obviously going to be obstacles along the way but everyone has those obstacles and I think it's how you overcome them and persevere on to the next goal in your life and in your sport. For sure the injuries are going to be there - that's inevitable - but I think it's how you come out of them and how you move forward."
Last year's accident left her in a full body brace for seven weeks but didn't require surgery and didn't do any permanent damage. Simmerling said she caught an edge on a jump and went down, crashing onto the jump's landing area - known as the knuckle - where the whiplash of the impact broke her bones. She was immediately put into a neck brace and pulled off the hill on a sled
"I was very, very scared for sure," she said. It's a topic that Simmerling doesn't seem too interested in dwelling on. "You know, I'm healed. We're not really looking to those times now. I have moved on. . . . I was in a very positive headspace throughout that injury and I think that was a huge attribute of how quickly I healed."
Any doubts about her fitness were erased last month when she scored her first World Cup podium finish, placing second behind Canadian teammate Kelsey Serwa. In both the semifinal and final Simmerling scored strong finishes by staying out of trouble as skiers around and in front of her went down.
"There was a lot of carnage on the track, girls were falling down and I stayed on my feet," she said. "The sport is all about reacting and staying on your feet and that's exactly what I did. . . . I saw the action happening in front of me and I skied around it and made it to the finish line standing on my skis."
In the final she actually was the third racer to cross the line but the skier in front of her was disqualified, bumping Simmerling up to second - not that it mattered much to the former member of the Grouse Mountain Tyee Ski Club.
"At that point I really didn't care in the slightest what position I was going to be in," she said. "I was super happy to make the final and, first to fourth, I would have been pleased. I saw that I was getting a medal when I crossed the finish line, I was happy with whatever colour that medal was."
Sharing the podium with Serwa made the experience even sweeter.
"Being up there talking with a teammate and smiling with a teammate, it definitely makes it that much more rewarding," she said. Serwa, the sport's reigning world champion, has done much more for Simmerling than just share a podium.
"Watching her race, I learn - and I'm learning from the best so I couldn't ask for a better teammate," she said. "It does amazing things for me and my career in the sport."
Though she's already reached the podium once, Simmerling admitted she still has a long way to go in the world of ski cross.
"I'm learning more than I ever could have imagined, every single day in this sport," she said. "I've done under 10 World Cups so my learning curve is huge and I'm just trying to take it all in and get down that course as fast as I can."
Following a week on the North Shore Simmerling will head to Germany for a pair of events. After that she'll be home for another short week before heading off for the season's final push, a 45-day tour through Europe that will include the World Cup finals in Spain and the world championships in Norway. And though the memories of the 2010 Olympics may still seem fresh for Vancouverites, the 2014 Games in Sochi are now just a little more than one year away. Starting in February the World Cup races will be Olympic qualifiers with the members of the Canadian team now competing against each other for the precious few Olympic berths.
"A year goes by pretty quickly," said Simmerling. "I think with how much I'm learning in the sport now, I'm taking it all in and can only get better. . . . I think by the time Russia comes I'll be definitely prepared."
If Simmerling's career-to-date is any indicator, her path to Russia will no doubt be an interesting one.
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