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Reigning Olympic ski slopestyle champ Dara Howell plans to "go big" once again

Canadian freestyle skier Dara Howell poses for a photograph in downtown Toronto on Wednesday, October 25, 2017. Olympic champion Howell went back to basics in her quest to get back to the top of the podium. The Canadian freestyle skier took a break from the sport for about two seasons after winning slopestyle gold at the 2014 Sochi Games. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Canadian freestyle skier Dara Howell poses for a photograph in downtown Toronto on Wednesday, October 25, 2017. Olympic champion Howell went back to basics in her quest to get back to the top of the podium. The Canadian freestyle skier took a break from the sport for about two seasons after winning slopestyle gold at the 2014 Sochi Games. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Olympic champion Dara Howell went back to basics in her quest to return to the top of the podium.

The Canadian freestyle skier took a break from the sport for about two seasons after winning slopestyle gold at the 2014 Sochi Games. Howell struggled to rediscover her previous form when she returned.

After hitting "rock bottom" with her skiing last spring, she turned to a pair of up-and-coming young coaches — Agenda Freeski's Sian Llewellyn and Geoff Lovelace — to get back on track.

"We tried to foster a love for the sport again," Llewellyn said.

The coaches started by asking Howell what kind of run she thought she'd be capable of in the leadup to the Pyeongchang Games.

"So building up to that, we got out a piece of paper and wrote down a list of tricks we needed (her) to learn before getting to where she wanted to be," Lovelace said. "Then sort of every weekend just chipping away at each trick that she was going at, and then slowly building up to where she has gotten to now."

Howell would travel from her hometown of Huntsville, Ont., to Barrie, Ont., and join her coaches to carpool to the Axis Freestyle Academy, an indoor training facility in Vaughan, Ont. The trips also gave them a chance to learn more about each other and become friends.

"They started to believe in me and I was like, 'OK yeah, maybe I can do this,'" Howell said in a recent interview.

Howell was just 19 when she reached the top of the podium in the sport's Olympic debut. She was overwhelmed at the whirlwind that followed and struggled with being in the spotlight.

"I never really felt like I deserved the medal," she said. "I thought maybe it was just out of luck that I got it."

There was no single incident that caused her to lose focus, but Howell thought a break would be best as she had lost her motivation. She started meeting with a sports psychologist in 2016 and managed some decent results at times last season.

Her new coaches began with small steps for the Olympic campaign.

"Let's strip everything down and go back to the most basic of rail tricks is where we started," Llewellyn said. "Back to really basic trampoline skills as well."

Slopestyle is a judged sport where athletes descend a course that includes rails, jumps and other obstacles.

Howell really focused on rails — a skill she has always found challenging — and dialed back on the tricks.

"We would just literally spend hours there, I would walk up and down and do all these rails," Howell said. "I had lost my confidence. My confidence was completely gone and it's where I started to kind of build the momentum back up, and (say) 'OK, I am good. I can do this.'

"I put the work in, you're going to see results, and I did."

A natural jumper, Howell built on her core tricks and her confidence started to come back.

"Some of the 900's, we were just going back to 540's, then to a 720 and then back up to a 900," Lovelace said. "It didn't take her very long to get the muscle memory back."

Feeling fresh and rejuvenated, Howell finished sixth at the Dew Tour in December and was 13th at a World Cup in mid-January. She's a little under the radar ahead of Pyeongchang but has the weapons to get back to the podium.

She may try a switch bio 1080 — a backwards jump, three spins, and a backward landing — and could finish with a rodeo 900 (2 1/2 rotations) with bow-and-arrow grab on the bottom jump.

"It's just finding that one trick or one rail trick that can separate me from the rest of the field is how I want to solidify my spot," Howell said. "Go big and just be that bad-ass skier."

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