At PyeongChang 2018, French ski cross star Ophélie David is set to join the exclusive club of 40-something Olympians, a full 24 years after making her Olympic debut as an Alpine skier.
Before switching to ski cross, David took her Olympic bow in Lillehammer in 1994, competing for Hungary. A decade later, she took part in the first-ever women’s ski cross World Cup event in 2003, going on to claim seven overall titles and representing France in ski cross at two further editions of the Winter Games, in 2010 and 2014. Now she is hoping to end her career with the Olympic medal that has so far eluded her.
The International Ski Federation (FIS) has described David as “the greatest ladies’ ski cross racer of all time”. It’s hard to argue with that verdict. She boasts 64 World Cup ski cross podiums, including 26 victories, as well as four consecutive X Games titles from 2007 to 2010, and five world championships medals, the last of those coming in 2017 at the age of 40.
Born in Cucq in northern France, David’s passion for skiing was kindled after her family moved to the Alps when she was 10 years old. She competed at her first Olympic Winter Games just seven years later, racing for Hungary in the Alpine skiing thanks to her father, Hungarian Olympic basket-ball player János Rácz.
“I went to Lillehammer with no expectations; I was just excited to be there,” recalls David of her Olympic debut. “I was wide-eyed and overawed by the experience. I raced in the combined, where I skied out in the slalom.”
Disappointment in Vancouver and Sochi
David took a break from competitive skiing for three years, during which time she discovered a love for ski cross. In 2002 she made her return to international competition, joining the French ski cross team.
In the seven years that followed, David dominated the sport, winning seven consecutive small crystal globes as well as taking the overall freestyle skiing World Cup title in 2006, 2008 and 2009. When ski cross was added to the Olympic programme for the 2010 Winter Games, its biggest star had a new target to aim for.
David headed to Vancouver 2010 as the odds-on favourite, but disaster struck in the quarter-finals at Cypress Mountain, when she crashed while attempting to avoid her team-mate Marion Josserand. Victory went instead to Ashleigh McIvor (CAN), with the French skier ending in ninth place.
For me, the Games are full of big emotions. The memory that stands out for me in Sochi is waiting in the starting hut before the final. I said to myself, ‘Wow, you’re in an Olympic final!Ophélie David France
Four years on in Sochi, David made it through to the final but lost control on a corner and crashed out, ending up fourth. “For me, the Games are full of big emotions. The memory that stands out for me in Sochi is waiting in the starting hut before the final. I said to myself, ‘Wow, you’re in an Olympic final!’” remembers the French star. “The Games have been hard on me, but it’s no big deal. I love them.”
As the FIS has noted: “Were it not for an unfortunate crash at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games that forced her to settle for 9th place, she would have won everything there was to win in ski cross before some of the tour's current top competitors had even entered a World Cup race.
“Anything is possible”
Now in her 40s, it is her love of the sport that fuels her desire to carry on competing. And she continues to add to her medal collection, most recently claiming bronze at the 2017 World Championships, which she describes as “one of my top three career memories,” along with France’s clean sweep of the podium at the 2007 X Games and her world title the same year in Madonna di Campiglio.
Her focus now is entirely on PyeongChang 2018, which she expects be the final act of her competitive career. “I love what I do, it gives me huge pleasure and it keeps me going […] but I also know it’s the final stage and I’ll finish in March 2018. It is the Games that keep me going,” she says.
“I think I can still hold my own in ‘one-shot’ races held over a single day,” she adds. “I saw that last winter when I made it to the podium at the World Championships. I know anything is possible.”
It will be David’s first time on the PyeongChang ski cross course at Bokwang Phoenix Park, as she didn’t take part in the pre-Olympic test event. “It will be new to me, but that doesn’t worry me,” said David of the course. “Finishing on the podium would be an amazing ending, a dream come true. I want to finish with an Olympic medal around my neck.”