When Matt Gillard made his debut at the recent national snowboard cross racing championships on the slopes at Nakiska, Alta., he set his sights on qualifying for the quarter-finals.
The 14-year-old Richmond Hill resident and Grade 9 Bill Crothers Secondary School student did just that.
But after posting the third-fastest qualifying time, Gillard felt he could take things a bit further.
When the competition concluded on the same slopes used during the 1988 Winter Olympics, Gillard earned a trip to the medal podium after finishing second in his under-14 age group division, which was a new category this year.
“It sure felt awesome,” Gillard said of his recent feat. “It was way beyond my original expecations, considering how challenging the course was.
“The course was the biggest and fastest that I have ever ridden. Every feature was so much bigger than at home. The last jump was huge and you needed to go off the jump at high speed to make it to the landing. One of the older racers clocked his speed at 87 kilometres an hour over the jump and I think I was going just as fast.”
Gillard’s presence at the nationals stemmed from his performance at the provincials, in which he finished second on the slopes at Mount St. Louis Moonstone.
At that competition, part of which took place under blinding snow conditions, making it difficult for racers to see the rollers and jumps, Gillard recorded the fastest qualifying time and hoped he could parlay that effort in to a gold medal.
Despite coming up short, he remained satisfied with his result as it earned him an invitation to compete at the nationals.
“I was still happy and proud of myself because I put a lot of effort into this season,” the Markham student said. A snowboarder since he was eight, Gillard’s interest in cross racing took hold after he watched it during the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy.
The following season, he entered his first Association of Ontario recreational race as an independent competitor at Sir Sams in Haliburton.
That got him hooked, he recalled.
“What I like about snowboard cross racing is the combination of speed, with jumps and features that requires skill and balance,” he said. “With four racers on the course at the same time, strategy also comes into play. You need to decide what line to take, judge when to pass, how to take jumps and how to avoid collisions.”
Gillard then joined the SBX team at the Caledon Ski Club in 2009 and competed in provincial series races.
The following year he took things a step further by joining the Ontario Snowboard Club, of which he’s still a member.
Crediting much of his success to the Ontario Snowboard Club coaches he works with in Ryan Tryhane and Dave Balne, Gillard said it’s also imperative he spend as much time as he can on the snow and on whatever boardercross tracks he can find.
He also pays close attention to the nuances of his craft by waxing and sharpening his board before every race.
Along with that, Gillard receives assistance with his physical conditioning while attending Bill Crothers Secondary, where he does workouts specific to snowboard cross racing.
While Gillard enjoys his sport, it doesn’t come without a price.
Racing competitively demands often expensive equipment.
“The board that I need for next season costs $1,500 new and without bindings,” he said. “Boots and bindings cost about $300 each and unfortunately for my parents, I’m still growing.”
Along with that, he said safety equipment comprising of body armour, impact shorts, helmet, mouth guard, wrist guards and goggles, gloves, jackets, pants are required.
Those items, he estimated, can add another $1,000 to his outlay.
However, the biggest costs of the season are incurred through coaching and travel.
With costs adding up, Gillard is searching for sponsorships or whatever donations he can find to help defray some of those expenses.
Especially since he intends to take a step up next season by competing in the Federation Internationale du Ski (FIS) races in the 15 to 19 age group category.
“My goal will be to have solid, consistent races which will get me to the nationals,” he said. “The more times I podium, the more FIS points I can get, which would earn me a spot on the national development team, hopefully by 2014.”
Down the road, Gillard would like to compete in World Cup races and earn an invitation to the national team.
Ultimately though, he would like nothing more than to represent Canada at the 2018 Winter Olympics.