Women's skicross silver medallist Kelsey Serwa of Kelowna celebrates on the podium at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia, Friday during the Winter Olympics. Compatriot Marielle Thompson of Whistler won the gold in the women's skicross competition.
The Kelowna Olympian won sweet redemption by placing second in the women's skicross final at the Winter Games after just missing the podium four years ago. To the delight of her Okanagan fans and Canadians, Serwa finished right behind Whistler teammate Marielle Thompson, capturing gold and silver for Canada.
"There's no one else I'd rather share the podium with," Serwa said from Canada House in Sochi. "(The) support we've had over the last five, six years has really paid off. We're buzzing right now."
Hundreds stayed up late to watch as Serwa and Thompson advanced through the preliminary heats to the nail-biting final at 3 a.m. Friday PT.
In skicross, four skiers race on a course full of jumps and turns, striving to finish in the top two to advance to the next round. Serwa, 24, had the best qualifying time, which lifted her confidence. But a bad start in the semifinal left her in fourth spot.
The memory of her elimination in the semifinal at the Vancouver Games in 2010 still stings. She was boxed out early but came around the last turn to see a competitor had lost her footing and wobbled. She tucked down and passed her.
"I remember thinking to myself, 'No, no - get out of the way.' But then I found a straight line over the cut-out to the next . . . jump and I knew at that point it was a wax race."
Serwa finished second by less than the length of her arm - the same distance that kept her out of the final at the Vancouver Games.
The Sochi final was a stroll through the hills by comparison. Serwa followed Thompson in the lead the whole way. Thompson was cutting off her line, so Serwa yelled that she was on her inside track.
"We work really well together, and the whole way down the course I was just . . . trying to survive and being like, 'Ya we got this, stay up, we can do this. All you gotta do is finish,' and it was good. It was all clear from there."
The two hugged at the finish line and congratulated the bronze medallist, Anna Holmund of Sweden. Officials told them to stay put, but Serwa couldn't resist jumping over a banister and hugging her parents, Terri and Brad, in the stands.
The road to get there was a rough one. Serwa took the skicross world by storm, winning numerous World Cups and becoming world champ in 2011. She tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee at a race in 2012 and again last March.
She underwent surgery and a painful rehabilitation each time. With help from her family, teammates and medical staff, she won back her confidence as a world-class athlete.
"It's definitely been a wild ride, and my knees are still a work in progress. Two blown knees in a year-and-a-half is not easy to come back from," she said. "This isn't just my medal. This medal belongs to everyone that helped me get here."
Conditions were another challenge. It rained on the course Friday morning and fog threatened to scrub the races altogether. But the snow was "decent," Serwa said, because experts treated the surface and volunteers groomed the track.
In fact, the course was one of the best she's raced in years.
"It had huge jumps. Our teammate Brady Leman flew 170 feet off the finish jump. It's big; it's an Olympic-size course and you have to bring your A-game."
Fans in Kelowna texted shout-outs to Serwa all week. Students at South Kelowna Elementary, her old school, drew pictures of her skiing on postcards and wrote motivational messages on the back. She filled the wall of her dorm with them.
Serwa had her own shout-out for people in Kelowna and Big White:
"I'm appreciative for their support and I love them all. I totally could hear them cheering all the way from Russia. And ya, I just love you guys."