It was a dream setup for Canada's ski halfpipe athletes — a massive spine jump with regulation 22-foot walls carved by the terrain's parks pipe groomer that you could hit from either side; a 50-by-50 foot air bag to catch skiers safely as they worked on new tricks, added air time to existing tricks and generally prepared for the upcoming season; and, last but not least, a pair of snowmobiles with tow ropes provided at a discount by Whistler Blackcomb, which also built the spine free of charge. In two hours on just one day, athletes fit in anywhere from 15 to 30 jumps, a greater amount of volume than would have otherwise been possible.
"This is one of the best training venues we've ever had," raved head coach Trennon Paynter at a media day held on Thursday, Jan. 3. "We were getting volume in by hiking, but you can get burnt out after hiking this thing 20 times."
The team has already been to a few events, including the Dew Cup/World Cup opener at Breckenridge where three members of the team found their way to the podium. That's crucial in this Olympic qualifier year, as athletes that manage two podiums at recognized events will get early acceptance into the Games — providing they also get at least one top 12 result next season, a FIS requirement that the ski team is calling the "couch potato clause" because you still need to compete at a high level to be in Sochi in February 2014 when ski halfpipe makes its Olympic debut.
Paynter has been to the Olympics himself as a member of the national moguls team, but he's also competed in every freeski discipline out there — halfpipe, slopestyle, big air, ski cross, etc. — before getting into the coaching side of things. He helped to start the national halfpipe program in 2002, almost 10 years before the sport was accepted in the Games and federal funding was available for the athletes.
When the sport did get the thumbs-up, the team was already set with athletes that rank among the best in the world — something that has allowed things to continue more or less the same, but with some added funding and support from Own the Podium and Sport Canada. Athletes no longer have to pay Paynter out of their own pockets to serve as coach.
It was a unique, bottom-up approach to building the team. Rather than auditioning athletes on an annual basis and taking the best, the team took a young group of skiers with potential, some of whom were already stars, and made them great.
If results and the closeness of team members is any indication, it was the right approach — even if athletes were nervous at the beginning.
"I hope we're still having fun, and I hope that won't change because it's a huge part of it; nobody is going to succeed in it if they're not enjoying it," said Paynter. "In terms of adjusting to the team structure, it's nothing really new, and it's already something they decided they wanted years ago. They wanted it so badly that a few years ago they formed a team and paid for me to be the coach — it's not like we had to come in and sell this thing to them. This is how they wanted to approach the sport — take it seriously, have a team and follow a program."
Of all the freeski disciplines, halfpipe is easily the most technical because the margin for error is so small — after jumping three to five metres over the edge while twisting, flipping and grabbing, athletes have to land in a small area of the transition or they risk hitting the deck, landing too low on the transition, landing sideways and losing their speed or flat-out crashing. Each routine has to be practiced over and over so athletes can match the level of precision their sport requires — and as the degree of difficult of tricks goes up, that level of precision gets higher and higher.
That's why the spine and air bag camp was so valuable, providing the athlete with a safe place to perfect their harder competition tricks.
"Everyone on the team has something different they're working on," said Paynter. "In terms of coaching, with some athletes we're working on strategy, while with others we're talking about technique. For some it's just working with them on how they approach a day of training or competitions so they get the most out of it. So it's really pretty individual. Some were out here working on a brand new trick, or working on their technique, while others may just be putting mileage in on a trick they already know how to do.
"You don't want to bog them down with a tech lecture every time, sometimes you have to let them go and let the miles build up."
In the Dew Cup at Breckenridge in December, Justin Dorey and Mike Riddle were first and third in the men's halfpipe, while Rosalind Groenewoud placed third for the women. Matt Margetts was ninth in the men's event while Keltie Hansen was sixth for the women.
It was a strong start for the team, which has a handful of chances this year to secure spots in the Olympics. Next up for the team is the Sprint U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain, which gets underway on Jan. 7 — an event that is also considered a World Cup this season by the International Skiing Federation and a legitimate Olympic qualifier. Then there's X Games for many of the athletes, and the North Face Park and Pipe Series in Whistler for athletes' that don't get to go to the X Games. In February, there's an Olympic test event in Sochi, Russia, followed by more World Cup and pro events through to the spring leading up to the AFP World Championships in Whistler.
The pressure has stepped up a notch for the athletes, but they're still confident.
Roz Groenewoud has been one of Canada's top halfpipe athletes in recent years and last year came away with the Association of Freeskiing Professionals overall halfpipe title. While it's rare to see her finish off the podium, her focus coming into this year was a little broader.
"For me in Breckenridge the goal was to get that first podium, have one of those down and be able to look forward knowing I've already solidified at least one of them," she said.
"So in a little way my focus at Breck wasn't an all-or-nothing approach, it wasn't to (try to) win and potentially fall on both runs. It was very calculated, and a reasonably safe approach.
"This year every podium counts more than in the past in many ways. As opposed to 'Oh, I got third, whatever, moving on,' it kind of makes me feel more confident going into future events to have already done that, while in the past I might have shrugged it off."
At the airbag, Groenwoude was focusing more on air than adding new tricks — something she already has, but has a hard time maintaining from her first hit to her last in the halfpipe.
"I've always been good on straight airs, (mine) is usually one of the highest in the women's event, but I've had some trouble maintaining that air through my run. With Trennon and (assistant coach) Marc (McDonell), that's been a huge focus for me this season."
The atmosphere on the team is positive, she said, despite the loss of teammate and her close friend Sarah Burke as a result of a training accident in January 2012. If anything, she said the tragedy brought them closer together in some ways. "I think especially with Megan (Gunning), Keltie (Hansen) and I," she said. "I wasn't very close with them at the beginning of last year because they were new to the team and Sarah was definitely the woman I was closest with of all my teammates. After Sarah passed away, it really kind of glued us together. Megan, Keltie and I went through it all together, we found out about it at the same time and it definitely made us extremely close."
For veteran Mike Riddle, who's been training with the national team since 2002, a year has made a huge difference. He struggled a little last season until he finally pulled out a win at the AFP World Championships in Whistler, and came into this year with more confidence than he's had in a while.
"I'm really skiing the best I've ever skied, I'm confident and everything is falling into place for me, so that's good," he said. "I have some new skis that are helping me out a lot. The first event on those was the (AFP World Championships) and so I'm loving my equipment these days. It supports me when I'm a little bit off, and that's making everything seem a little bit easier."
While having one podium in the bag eases the pressure a little, Riddle knows he's still a long way from the Games — and in the past stress and nerves have been his worst enemy on the tour.
"I do tend to get a little nervous for the big events, or when there's more pressure on like at X Games, the Dew Tour, the World Championships — any of those are a lot of pressure," he said. "This year I've been doing a good job not letting it get to me, and I'm going to try and keep that going."
Riddle says he's starting to downplay events in his head to keep his nerves in check, while at the same time he also feels that he's older and wiser.
As well, having the opportunity to train in Whistler last week was a huge benefit.
"We've never had a set up this good before," he said. "It's unbelievable how good this setup is.
"Having sleds? That's massive. We're getting a huge volume of jumps."
Including a few triple corked tricks that Riddle says are just for fun, with no plans to work them into his competition runs — yet.
Whistler's Simon D'Artois is practicing with the national team this year, and feels he's due for a big result. The air bag training session showed that he's capable of a lot more than he's achieved in the past. He missed his first chance to prove that at Breckenridge after dislocating a shoulder in training, but is looking forward to Copper while hoping to qualify for X Games.
"I want to qualify for X Games, and I really want to win a comp, at least, this year as well. My goal is the next competition at Copper (the Grand Prix), I really want to place well," he said.
D'Artois, who has also competed in the past in other events like slopestyle, said he's not sure why he picked halfpipe to specialize in, but he was attracted to the extremely technical nature of the sport.
"It's pretty exciting," he said. "Recently I've had a little bit of fear to get over, the fear of landing on the deck or at the bottom of the pipe, because it's such a small gap — you have to land within two feet (of the top of the transition) or you're a little bit screwed, so it's tough.
"If I were to choose one aspect of skiing to really focus on, I guess it would have to be halfpipe because it's pretty technical and there's a lot to learn. But I definitely like to keep up all the other aspects of skiing for fun so I don't ruin skiing entirely for myself."
If D'Artois doesn't qualify for X Games at Copper, then he'll compete at the North Face Park and Pipe series in Whistler the following week where there's at least one spot up for grabs. As well, he's looking ahead to Russia, the next Grand Prix and a few World Cup events that he'd like to do well at.
"I definitely have a ways to go," he said. "The top guys really have experience and time in the pipe, and it's that that's really going to separate the best from all the good guys — time in the pipe and getting tricks down so I feel as comfortable as I can riding the halfpipe."
For Noah Bowman, who stunned the world with second place finishes at X Games and the Mammoth Grand Prix last year, all the Olympic pressure and the pressure of representing his country is a good thing.
"I kind of feed off of pressure, I like it — and it's kind of cool to be representing your country," he said. "It's a year out from Sochi and you can feel the buildup, for sure. This is our qualifying year. We have to start doing well and get those results. It does add some pressure, but you learn to deal with it."
Daily updates from the Copper Mountain Grand Prix will be posted at http://usfreeskiing.com.