Canada’s aerial skiing revival got an Olympic boost and hopes a funding one will come too

For Miha Fontaine, winning an Olympic medal in Beijing last month was nothing but “amazing” from start to finish.

The 18-year-old freestyle skier got to enjoy the support of many people, including the prime minister, who congratulated Fontaine and his teammates after they won a bronze medal in the new mixed team aerials event without having to suffer through any of the pressure that normally comes ahead of an Olympic medal-winning moment.

That’s because few Canadians expected Fontaine and his teammates to bring home a medal from the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Unlike moguls skier Mikaël Kingsbury or snowboarder Mark McMorris, there were no expectations to weigh Fontaine down during his dizzying array of flips and twists in the air.

But that medal — Canada’s first in aerials since the Salt Lake City 2002 Games — was no fluke, says the national sport federation.

“That medal was almost 20 years in the making,” says Peter Judge, head of Freestyle Canada.

Miha’s father Nicholas Fontaine, who was part of the Quebec Air Force back when aerials was a darling of freestyle skiing and Canada was a dominant nation, was integral to those decades of effort.

He worked with Freestyle Canada ahead of the Vancouver 2010 Games to try to fast-track gymnasts and trampoline athletes into aerials skiers. And since the Sochi 2014 Games, Nicholas Fontaine and a couple of similarly passionate coaches have focused on reviving and growing aerials skiing from the snow up at two ski hills in Quebec.

“I just copied what we did with the Quebec Air Force back when I was an athlete: a bunch of friends pushing each other with good quality coaching and good quality facilities.”

The bronze medal won by his son, Marion Thénault and Lewis Irving in Beijing shows that what they’re doing is working, he says.

But the coaching and facilities that have nurtured this strong young group of aerialists and made that medal possible has been held together with a lot more passion than funding and that can’t continue, he says. He hopes the Olympic medal will draw in the increased sport funding that’s needed to keep aerials’ development and high-performance going well into the future.

“We’ve been winning on World Cup but they say “Ah, World Cup, you need an Olympic medal,” Nicholas Fontaine says. “Now we have an Olympic medal and we have a good young group of athletes, so it’s not just a lucky medal.”

He’s not alone in having concerns about the need to increase funding to keep the momentum going. Even as everyone at the national sport federation is feeling hopeful about the depth and quality of athletes coming up in the program, they acknowledge the sport is facing a big infrastructure challenge that could threaten its future success.

Aerials development in Canada has long been centralized around Nicholas Fontaine, the Le Relais ski club and the Lac-Beauport water ramp training facility, all located roughly 20 minutes north of Quebec City.

That water ramp facility, where athletes spend their summer learning new jumps and honing particularly difficult ones before they try them on snow, used to draw national teams from around the world for training camps. Now it needs an expensive rebuild — the project is about $500,000 short — and can’t even be used by Canada’s national team for its training camps.

“The Lac-Beauport water ramp has really been the cornerstone of our aerials program over the last two decades, so not having that facility in Quebec right now is a pretty significant hit in terms of the stability of the program,” Judge says.

It means the national team will have pay to train at a facility in the U.S. for two months this summer instead of training at home. And that has a knock-on effect of removing athletes, like Miha Fontaine, who act as coaches for the next generation of freestyle skiers.

“It’s harder than jumping,” he says of coaching six- to 10-year-olds. “But it’s really rewarding when they do a good job or they’re super happy to see you.”

This weekend, it’s Miha who is hoping to do a good job. He is competing at the freestyle skiing junior world championships in Italy.

“I have the potential to win,” says Miha Fontaine, who is putting more pressure on himself for this event than he did at last month’s Olympics, where he thought he was going to gain experience, not necessarily a medal.

His podium aspirations are helped by the fact that Russia and Belarus, strong nations in aerials, have been banned because of the invasion of Ukraine. But just beating his three Canadian teammates to get to the top step of the men’s podium won’t be easy, he says.

“All the Canadians are jumping really well … and we’re all doing the same trick, with the same degree of difficulty and the same quality. So it’s going to be a tough competition but it’s going to be fun.”