At 18 months of age, Dara Howell strapped on a pair of skis for the first time. Born into a passionate Muskoka ski family and hailing from a long line of ski instructors, Howell literally grew up on the slopes of Hidden Valley Highlands. Nearly two decades later, Howell’s story has captured the hearts of Canadians. At just 19, the Huntsville native brought home the gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in the inaugural Slopestyle Ski event. With a single, perfectly executed run, she went from one of slopestyle’s most promising young athletes to a household name.
Truth be told, I first tried to interview Howell a few months before the Games. I was told (by both her team and her family) that Dara wasn’t available; that she was focusing on training and training alone. I was disappointed, admittedly, as I had a gut feeling that Dara was going to shine in Russia. But I couldn’t argue, as clearly I know zilch about what it takes to be an Olympian.
As the Olympics got underway, I tuned into the slopestyle event, and soon saw Howell’s patented ear-to-ear grin blazing from the top step of the podium. Her pre-Games focus had clearly paid off, and I knew then that I wanted another chance – a chance to find out how a young Ontario skier had made the leap from winning the Horseshoe Open to the Sochi Olympics in just a few short years.
Not quite a month after that gold-medal day, I got my shot. Howell was signing autographs at the grassroots Ontario event at Horseshoe Resort she’d won back in 2011. In a quiet pressroom, away from the long lineup of fans waiting for autographs, we finally sat down to chat.
Mountain Life: First of all, congratulations on your performance in Sochi. Has it sunk in yet?
Dara Howell: It’s starting to sink in but I still have my moments for sure, where I just stop and think back and say, “Wow, that actually happened” [laughs].
ML: From the comfort of my couch, you made it look easy but I could tell from your reaction after your first run that you knew you’d put something special together. Tell us a bit about how that gold medal run went for you.
DH: Going into the Olympics, I just wanted to put in a run that I could be proud of. I had really bad training runs leading into the finals. I hadn’t landed anything and then to come down and land one of the best runs of my life, I was just really excited – even before my score came up. Then my score came up and I freaked out, as you could clearly see on TV [laughs].
ML: That run was early in the day’s competition. When did you realize you would get the gold?
DH: With our sport, things can change in an instant. Any of those girls is capable of being on top of the podium, so definitely sitting around waiting kind of sucked, but thankfully I had my coaches and my physiotherapist up at the top with me. I had to wait; I dropped last. We just went with it, what could we do? It was so cool to have my coaches up at the top with me when I realized I’d won. Usually you find out at the bottom, but since I was the last rider, I was with them. My coaches are so important to me – I’ve been with Toben Sutherland from the start – it was a really special moment for all of us.
ML: So, with the gold in the bag, how did you feel about putting in a final run?
DH: At that point, I decided I wasn’t going to do my full run again, I was just going to go out and have fun, case a couple of jumps [laughs]. I was pumped to get to the bottom. It was pretty crazy to see my family and to do the flower ceremony. My dad had brought a flag from home that a bunch of people had signed, so that was really cool. The whole day was a roller coaster – we had to do the flower ceremony, then a press conference, then drug testing… it was really crazy but really fun.
ML: When the Canadian national anthem was played and they put the gold medal around your neck, can you even begin to explain that feeling?
DH: For me, leading into the Games, I just wanted to do well and I had accepted that whatever happens, happens. But I feel like that moment – that’s what you dream of – not just standing on the podium but actually hearing your country’s national anthem play. To actually have it happen to me – it was just crazy. My coaches and my parents were in the crowd and I kept looking out and seeing them and seeing the Olympic torches in the background. I got off the podium and I was like, “I want to do it again!”
ML: Oh I suspect you will…
DH: Hopefully [laughs].
ML: You’re young and this was your first Olympics. What surprised you most about the event and the atmosphere?
DH: There was so much hype about the Olympics and how different it would be but really, for our sport, it was just another competition but with a lot more media. Once you got on the hill, everything was essentially the same.
ML: What was being part of Team Canada like overall? Are the athletes close across all the sports?
DH: It was really cool to hang out with all the Canadian athletes. Everyone competed at different times so everyone was in their own bubble a bit. We all hung out in the athletes’ lounge and watched a lot of Olympics together, though.
ML: You went to Sochi as an accomplished athlete in your sport, but you came home famous. What has life been like since you got home?
DH: It’s been busy but good. I’m just happy to be hanging out with my friends and trying to be a normal kid – sort of. I’m just enjoying the experience with my family and enjoying seeing my parents be so proud of me – it’s really neat. I still find the whole thing hard to believe myself sometimes.
ML: I’m not sure about “normal”; I just watched you sign about 300 autographs and take as many pictures with your medal. How do you feel about all that attention?
DH: It’s pretty cool. I got to hold [trampoline gymnast] Rosie MacLennan’s gold medal for the first time this summer and just having it in my hands was so cool. I want to share that feeling with other people. I’m happy to pass the medal – and the experience – around.
ML: Tell us a bit about how you got started in the sport. What are some of your earliest ski memories?
DH: My parents put me on skis at 18 months and I spent my winters growing up at Hidden Valley, just being members and racing on the weekends. It was just the regular Muskoka winter life. We are a full-on ski family – you ski every weekend, that’s just what you do. Now I get to ski every day, it’s awesome [laughs]. “
ML: You grew up competing. When did you realize that slopestyle was evolving into a career?
DH: Honestly, I think maybe I’ve just realized now that this can be my career [laughs]. I raced at first and then I figure skated a bit. I really liked the jumps in figure skating but I didn’t like the footwork. I have my Level 1 Ski Instructors and I taught for a winter. I’ve done it all. When I first got into freestyle skiing, our sport wasn’t in the Winter Olympics so X Games was the first goal. I was just having fun and progressing and my parents kept giving me the opportunity to continue. Then the Olympics got into Sochi and I decided I wanted to go. My dad said, “Well maybe in 2018” but I was determined to go this time. It was pretty shocking for my parents – they knew what I was capable of – but to see me win the gold this soon was surreal.
ML: Was there a lot of pressure heading into the Games?
DH: I feel like the only real pressure is the pressure you put on yourself. I have such a good support system behind me that I never really felt much pressure. My dad travelled with me to almost all the events this year. I think the pressure coming into the Olympics was self-imposed. The night before our event, I went up to my coaches and I just said, “Thanks a lot. We did it.” I was just proud to be at the Olympics. I also said, “It will be what it will be and we can’t change it.” I was just proud to be at the Olympics and representing Canada and I couldn’t really change the outcome either way. I took that attitude with me into the next day and, somehow, I pulled it off [laughs].
ML: You’ve been asked about Sarah Burke’s influence many times and you were quoted saying you hoped a Canadian would bring home the gold for her. What was it like to be the one to win gold for Sarah?
DH: When I said that, I definitely wasn’t expecting to be the person bringing home the gold medal. Sarah pushed so hard to have slopestyle and halfpipe skiing included and these games were definitely for her. Every one of us was definitely carrying Sarah with us. She just really wanted to see the sport progress and to make sure that we were having fun. I think we really left a mark on the world in Sochi and she was a huge influence on that.
ML: Did you ever get to compete alongside Sarah? Were you star-struck at the time?
DH: I did get to compete against her once. She was larger than life to me, for sure. She dropped in before me and I was like “Oh my gosh! It’s Sarah Burke.” I met her at a summer camp and she was so nice to me. I learned rodeos for the first time that year and she was so excited. It was amazing to see her get so excited about other people’s success and other people’s progression.
ML: Do you think younger riders in the sport will be looking up to you now?
DH: Yes, but it’s pretty crazy. I feel like I am still so young and I still look up to so many people too, so to be a role model myself feels crazy. I still just feel like a kid [laughs].
ML: What advice do you have for up-and-coming freestyle skiers?
DH: You should go out there every day – in whatever you’re doing – and have fun. Make sure you love what you do and make sure that you always, always smile. That’s what life is about … smiling.
ML: A gold medal in slopestyle’s Olympic debut is a huge achievement. Where do you go from here?
DH: Well, I’m done competing for this season but I feel like I am really just getting started in my career. There are so many things I want to do outside of the Olympics but I definitely want to be back for the 2018 Winter Games.
ML: Congrats again and thanks.
DH: Thanks and we’ll definitely see you around!
Be sure to check out the Dara Howell interview in print in the spring issue of Mountain Life Ontario here.