By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - If it were not for the fact that she will be defending her Olympic snowboard cross title in Sochi, Canada's Maelle Ricker would probably be riding with the crowds at the Mount Baker Banked Slalom this February.
The mass participation event south of Vancouver features hundreds of boarders of all ages, styles and standards and it is where Ricker arguably feels most at home.
"The Olympics is the pinnacle, the X Games is great and there is the marquee of the World championships, but for me Mount Baker is up there," the 35-year-old told Reuters by telephone last month before heading off to a session in the gym.
It highlights the passion she still retains for the sport and why, as her fourth Olympics looms, she continues to race head to head with boarders half her age.
"I actually love the fact of competing with the younger girls," Ricker, who has not ruled out competing at the 2018 Olympics, said.
"The good thing now is that the sports science has come such a long way that us older ones are able to capitalize on our experience and there's no reason why we can't continue into our mid or late 30s.
"You could say I'm one of the dinosaurs of the group. But experience plays a lot in technical races. I have to be smart and use my experience to my advantage."
Ricker was elevated to the status of national heroine in Vancouver four years ago when she became the first Canadian woman to win an Olympic gold medal on home snow, four years after narrowly missing a medal in Turin.
With that medal tucked away safely in a draw at home, Ricker is now targeting another one and says the pressure of defending is equal to that she experienced as a home favorite last time.
"Yes, I felt the pressure in Vancouver, but I think it helped me, especially when I had a moment in my first qualifying run when I fell.
"That home support helped me through. Now it's more about the pressure from within. The word defend is coming up a lot and it's a different sort of pressure and it scares me a little more."
Ricker's season so far has not gone entirely to plan and she is yet to add to the 16 victories she has had in the World Cup.
At the first World Cup race in Austria before Christmas the 2013 FIS world champion did not even make the start gate after "getting bumped upside down and landing on my head" in training, leaving her with a concussion.
The physical nature of the sport is what fuels her hunger, however.
"Yes, there are bumps and bruises but I love the fact that it's racing head to head and there are no excuses after," she said.
"You can't blame the judges or the course conditions because it's just the first past the line.
"It may not look like it on the outside, but considering the speeds and how close we are racing there is a lot of respect and it's mainly quite civilized.
"There aren't too many moody attitudes out there."
As the clock ticks on to Sochi, where the snow conditions are said to be similar to what she experienced in Vancouver, Ricker will be preparing for the challenge of her usual rivals, namely experienced American Lindsey Jacobellis and fellow Canadian 30-something and Turin bronze-medalist Dominique Maltais.
Both beat her to the podium at the second stop on this season's World Cup tour in Lake Louise and it would be a surprise if they were not the main challengers for the medals in Sochi next month.
"I have so much respect for Dom," she said. "She's really pushed the level up the last few years. It's really made our girls team rise up.
"When we're on course, we're definitely not trying to take each other out. That's not the idea. The idea is we both get to stand on the podium."
(Editing by Toby Davis)