Kelsey Serwa surpasses expectations in comeback season

Kelsey Serwa during women’s World Cup ski cross event in Nakiska, Alberta, January 22, 2016.

Two years ago, Kelsey Serwa stood on the podium in Sochi with an Olympic silver medal around her neck.

Two weeks ago, she was atop the ski cross world after her second career victory at the X Games.

But for one year in between, she wasn’t anywhere near a ski hill.

Heading home with some #xgames gold!! 😄 @elanskis @skibigwhite @TLaneTransport @EPCanada @lululemon @uvexsports

A photo posted by Kelsey Serwa (@kelseyserwa) on

The lead-up to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games was not an easy period for Serwa. After rupturing her left ACL in January 2012, she did what she could to speed the healing, including buying a new mattress and having sessions in a hyperbaric chamber. Returning to competition that fall, she encountered more trouble in March 2013 when she re-tore her ACL at the world championships, putting her under the knife once again.

If she hoped to compete in Sochi she was going to have to rush her recovery. So she did and got the medal to make it all worth it.

Kelsey Serwa celebrates her silver medal (Photo: CP)

Kelsey Serwa celebrates her silver medal (Photo: CP)

But that wasn’t the end of her Olympic dream. If she wanted to not only get to a third Olympic Games, but also be competitive, she would need to be at her best in 2018. And that meant taking some much-needed time away from the sport she loves to let her body fully heal.

“It was a hard decision to make and I definitely missed the sport and I think that was a good sign that I wasn’t finished with it yet and that I wanted to come back,” Serwa told shortly after winning X Games gold.

The year off gave her a chance to do things she otherwise wouldn’t. Simple things, like going to school, studying human kinetics at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus.

“This was definitely the longest stint that I’ve been in school probably since I was in grade seven,” said Serwa. “Being used to being active six hours a day, totally changed to being sedentary for 12 hours a day, sitting in a desk, reading and learning and what not. So there definitely took some adapting there but a lot of the principles I learned from sport I was able to transfer them to the classroom and ended up with great grades.”

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Serwa also had time to give back to the sport community. She was the Honourary Captain of Team BC at the 2015 Canada Winter Games in Prince George. She created the KSER Scholarship Fund to support graduating, grade 12 student-athletes in her hometown of Kelowna, a program she’d like to expand to the entire Okanagan region. Planning and organizing fundraising events has been a new and exciting challenge.

“We’ve raised $100,000 in two years, which is fantastic,” said Serwa. “So we’ve given away three awards so far and we’ll do another two this year.”

Kelsey Serwa after the women's final for the World Cup ski cross event at Nakiska Ski resort in Kananaskis, Alta., Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016.

Kelsey Serwa after the women’s final for the World Cup ski cross event at Nakiska Ski resort in Kananaskis, Alta., Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016.

Instead of heading back to school this past September, Serwa got herself back on competitive snow – a return that brought with it both excitement and nerves.

“It is a risk to take a year off sport because everyone progresses and you’re almost just trying to play catch up when you get back,” said Serwa. “But I tried to keep my expectations low going into this season and just tell myself that this was a year to get comfortable and get back on my feet, just expose myself to racing again, but I’m way too competitive for that. So I found myself getting frustrated with not being on the podium, but at the same time my teammates have been doing so great this season and seeing them excel and get up there, it’s been good motivation for me to just keep working hard and just having faith that it’ll all come together.”

In her first World Cup race in December, she finished 22nd, failing to advance from the qualification round. But race by race and run by run, she improved, and in the fifth World Cup stop she got herself back on the podium. After a seventh place finish in front of the home crowd in Nakiska at the end of January, she met with her sports psychologist in preparation for the X Games in Aspen, an event she wasn’t even sure she’d be invited to.

“A couple people had invites right away because they had podiums last season where I was just writing exams and being in a classroom,” said Serwa. “Also, this season I was struggling a bit, just trying to re-learn racing tactics, which had kind of slipped my memory spending a year in the books.”

With the reminder to own her zone and not back off if her competitors came into it, she had the confidence she needed and took a chance by selecting an inside start gate that would allow her to go off an early right side jump. She was the only skier in the six-racer final to take that line, meaning there was no one to battle as she focused on pushing herself forward into a lead that she wouldn’t relinquish.

With a victory in the only event that can rival the Olympic Games as the pinnacle for ski cross, Serwa is set to get her first glimpse of the next Olympic course at the PyeongChang test event, February 26-28.

“I definitely want to get on the podium again at PyeongChang and that’s why I’m still going here,” said Serwa. “The most important thing for me is to really have fun and enjoy what I’m doing.”