PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Alex Beaulieu-Marchand killed it in his first men’s ski slopestyle run at the 2015 Winter X-Games in Aspen, Colo., landing tricks that proved he belonged with the best of the best in the sport. At least that’s what he thought as he waited for his score, certain he had earned a spot in the eight-man final.
Then a 78.00 popped up, and he totally lost it.
Just 20 at the time, he walked into the adjacent woods and tried to vent by banging his ski poles — and his head — against the trees. Even that wasn’t enough of a release and, though his score was holding, he was on the bubble. So he decided to show the judges a really big second jump, a double bio 1260, a trick he’d never tried before.
“I ended up over-rotating because I was so frustrated, just gave it too much and ended up crashing hard,” Beaulieu-Marchand recalled. “I was bound to injure myself.”
The Quebec City native tore the anterior-cruciate ligament in his left knee during the fall and in the year he spent recovering and rehabilitating, he learned to become the athlete who won a bronze medal in ski slopestyle at the Pyeongchang Olympics.
There were important physical gains — Beaulieu-Marchand learned to take care of his body, training properly and warming down following competition after never previously using the gym — but a change in mentality proved just as critical.
“The day I started to tell myself I was not a medal or a result away from being happy I started getting results because it took so much pressure away,” he explained in an interview Monday. “When I went back to skiing contests, I realized I shouldn’t be skiing for the judges ever again in my life, and that if I did land something I was happy with, I should never be that frustrated again.
“I skied well (at the X-Games). Why was I so bummed? I skied super-good, it was one of the best runs I’d done at the time. I was bummed just because of a score?”
That outlook helped Beaulieu-Marchand “send it” with confidence down the hill during Sunday’s competition, giving Canada its 16th medal through the first nine days of these Olympics. Seven days remain for the Canadian team to chase its goal of beating its record haul of 26 medals from Vancouver 2010, an achievement that certainly appears attainable.
Norway, the clubhouse leader with 26 medals through Sunday’s events, may be out of reach, but Canada was third overall, two behind Germany’s 18 and, perhaps more meaningfully, the country’s medal favourites have, for the most part, been converting on their opportunities.
In certain cases when they haven’t, like Charles Hamelin and Marianne St-Gelais who both have skated into some bad luck on the short-track ice, Olympic rookies have emerged behind them like gold medalist Samuel Girard and double-bronze winner Kim Boutin.
Piper Gilles, a rookie Olympian ice dancer who competed in the short program Monday with Paul Poirier, said it was uplifting “just being able to be amongst (other Canadian athletes), even sitting in the cafeteria. Like, I had lunch before (speed-skater) Ted-Jan Bloemen won his gold medal the other day. For me, watching him win, I think I’m going to burst! (Then) I’m meeting him an hour and a half later. Incredible.
“It’s been really inspiring to make friends who are amongst the best in the world. We have such a strong team.”
Up until the final days before competition, Beaulieu-Marchand tried to watch as many of his fellow Canadian athletes as he could. He was in the crowd when Mikael Kingsbury won gold in the men’s moguls, delivering an almost must-win Olympic run that cemented his legacy as the most dominant skier in his sport.
“Mikael Kingsbury for me is a really good inspiration,” said Beaulieu-Marchand. “He is super good, but he must feel the pressure because he’s the favourite — I wasn’t necessarily the favourite coming here. He has a way to deal with that pressure and the whole package and still put it down and for that you have to be really mentally strong. For that, I think he’s a really incredible athlete.”
Kingsbury admitted to nerves leading up to the moguls final and conceded he was being careful during the preliminary runs, trying to avoid a potential mistake. Afterwards he quipped about getting grey hairs “because I’ve never been nervous like that in my life.”
“But once I clip my skis on and I get into my ski character,” he added, “then I feel good.”
Beaulieu-Marchand developed his own approach to the need to perform on the Winter Games stage.
At 19, he made his Olympic debut with a 12th-place finish in Sochi, believing at that point all he needed to do was ski a lot to become a contender. Then came the ACL injury at the X-Games and his rehab included regular sessions with sports psychologist Alain Vigneau, who early on asked Beaulieu-Marchand to find positives in his injury.
“I was like, ‘Nothing is positive — it sucks,’” recalled Beaulieu-Marchand.
Over time, though, he learned to chase performance, not results. Where once he used to watch his rivals go down the hill, step to the gate and 10 seconds later be off and running, now he spends time focusing his mind and visualizing all the things he needs to do to deliver a good run.
And he prepared himself physically in ways he never would have imagined, a work ethic that runs counter to the freestyle X-Games culture and was a concern among some skiers when slopestyle became an Olympic event in 2014.
“That’s all stuff I learned in the darkest times and that’s what made me able to rise above all this and get a bronze medal here,” said Beaulieu-Marchand. “By having that mentality — being I’m not skiing for the judges, I’m skiing for myself, and I’m going to do what I want to do, and no matter what the result is I’m going to be happy — is what made me start having good results.”
The ACL wasn’t the only adversity Beaulieu-Marchand had to overcome.
He broke his collarbone just before the 2016 X-Games in Aspen and suffered a concussion this past December. As he arrived in Pyeongchang, Beaulieu-Marchand experienced back spasms stemming from a pinched nerve in his back and spent the days leading into competition taking “lots” of muscle relaxants and anti-inflammatories, doing physio work to gently stretch himself out, getting deep-muscle massage therapy and having his back cracked by a chiropractor to align his spine.
Beyond that, he did some sports psychology work with Vigneau, using a tapping technique to accept himself competing with the ailment.
“It helps your mind have an escape route from failing at the Olympics, accepting 100 per cent that you are injured and being okay with yourself mentally through that,” said Beaulieu-Marchand. “Every time we’d repeat the exercise, I’d have less pain. It was crazy.”
So too is how far he’s come since that tantrum at the X-Games, a moment of pique that ultimately set him up for a moment of glory.