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Jeff Ihaksi: Course builder to the ’cross stars

click to enlarge Jeff Ihaksi
  • Jeff Ihaksi

It’s rare that athletes will agree on anything — virtually impossible if they compete head-to-head. But at a recent World Cup event in New York’s Whiteface Mountain, I found full consensus among the best boardercross racers on the planet. And to me, that was shocking!

Didn’t matter whether they were American, Canadian, French — or even Australian. Didn’t matter whether they were male or female, hard-booters or soft. Everyone I asked agreed. If a snowboardcross course had the Ihaksi signature on it, then the race would be a good one.

“I have full faith in Jeff’s designs,” said Canada’s golden ’cross girl, Maëlle Ricker. “He really knows what he’s doing. And while he never makes things too easy for us, his courses are always fun to race on. They bring out the best in everyone.”

French coach and snowboard legend, Nicolas Conte, was just as enthusiastic about Ihaksi’s designs. “He’s one of the best in the business,” he said. “He really knows how to use a hill to his advantage. Jeff understands the subtleties of ’cross racing — and that makes a better event for both racers and spectators.”

With those kind of accolades flitting around his head, one might think that the longtime Whistler-Blackcomb lift mechanic would be resting on his laurels some. I mean, why push it? He has the athletes in his pockets, the coaches singing his praise. Why not just sit back and let the peons do the grunt work?

Because that’s just not the Ihaksi way. When I finally caught up with the Pemberton resident (and imminent father) on the first day of training at Whiteface, Jeff was madly shaving away some excess snow from the take-off on one of the big gap jumps he’d just finished building. What’s up? I wondered.

“Well,” he said, in that near-serene, quiet way of his. “There are always last-minute tweaks to be made.” He laughed, almost self-consciously. Kept working. “And it really never ends. Chances are, I’ll be out here on race day still fine-tuning features…”

His measure of success is simple, he says. “If racers come off the course saying ‘I can’t wait to go back to the top and ride it again’, then I’ve done my job. Know what I mean? There has to be a certain level of comfort between the racer and the course. That’s when you see the most athletic moves, the most exciting riding. After all, you don’t want racers braking before a jump. You want them pushing their limits to go faster…”

Jeff Ihaksi is the rarest of creatures. You tell him you want to do a story on his ’cross course design work — his experience at the Torino Games, his excitement at being the designated builder for the 2010 events at Cypress — and the first thing that comes out of his mouth is: “Make sure you get the point across that this is total teamwork. I may get the credit, but without the hand-shapers and the dyers and the safety people, there’s no way I could do my job properly. Everyone involved contributes to the success of a course…”

The second thing that comes out of his mouth is: “Do you think you could also mention how helpful Whistler-Blackcomb has been to my career? Whether racing or building courses, I’ve always gotten 100 per cent support from my bosses there. Could you also mention the guys I work with at lift-maintenance? They’ve been great too.”

Mention made. So who is this hard-working man married to former Olympian rider (and TV commentator), Tara Teigen? Who is this humble, friendly guy who just happens to be in huge demand around the world — both in ski and snowboard circles — for the artful way he designs and builds ’cross courses? I mean, shouldn’t we know more about him?

“I grew up in Vancouver,” he tells me. “Actually in Anmore, just up the hill above Port Moody…”

His parents were avid skiers. “Every second weekend,” recounts the 34 year old, “we’d either go up north to Whistler or down south to Baker.” But still, that wasn’t enough for Jeff. “On off-weekends,” he says, “I’d get my parents to drive me to Burnaby, and from there I’d suffer the four bus transfers it took to get to Grouse.”

It was obvious the kid was hooked on mountain play. But when he discovered snowboarding — “around ’87 or ’88,” he says, “just around the time when Blackcomb was allowing it but Whistler wasn’t” — Ihaksi cranked it up another notch.

“Those were really exciting times,” he says. “There was this new culture developing in the local mountains and we were right in the middle of it.” By the season of 1991, Ihaksi had made up his mind. Now that high school was behind him, he was moving up to Whistler to indulge his passion full-tilt.

“I think I was one of the first snowboarders to be employed at Blackcomb,” he says. And laughs quietly, almost to himself. “You know, lifties did a lot of riding in those days. I managed to log in some serious ride-time between my work hours.”

And it was obvious the teenager had talent. Gravitating towards a hard-charging group of like-minded riders — “There were four or five of us in our gang,” he says. “And we rode together pretty much full-time.” — Ihaksi continued to hone his mountain skills.

“I look back to those first few seasons with a lot of fondness,” he says. “I mean, in those early years, you would remember the details from every winter — how much snow had fallen, how may days you’d ridden, what the conditions were like.” Almost like a cult? “Kind of,” he answers…

Like all new, developing sports, snowboarding was branching out and establishing new beachheads. “For a while there,” remembers Ihaksi, “you could do it all: halfpipe, boardercross, backcountry. But I soon realized I wasn’t going to become ‘the halfpipe guy’, so I decided to specialize.”

And so, along with a handful of Whistler buddies — Andrew Murphy, Omar Lundie, Mark ‘Toaster’ Torlay and Shaun V — Ihaksi decided to immerse himself in the fast-paced world of boardercross.

“There was no national team or anything like that back then. It was all on our own dime. We were the Whistler crew. And we’d come up against other crews from other mountains. But it was great fun.” Another burst of happy laughter. “There was definitely more camaraderie than organization in those days…”

Meanwhile, Ihaksi was still a W/B employee. “The four-days-on, three-days-off schedule worked out really well for me,” he says. Still, every minute of holiday time was set aside for boardercross races. He smiles. “And nothing much has changed since then. Even this year, all my holiday time has gone to course building.”

So when did he change from racer to builder? “One winter — 1998 or ’99 I can’t remember — I ended up travelling with the operations manager for our race circuit.” A guy by the name of Paul ‘Ranch’ Rossi, he was also responsible for building the ’cross courses at each venue. “At first, Ranch would build them and I’d test them out for him.” But doing both was a hugely daunting task and Ihaksi slowly started taking over the course work from the busy manager.

“It was a natural progression,” he says. “But then, in my turn, I realized I couldn’t build and race — and do both well. I’d had good race results considering, but I kind of knew already where I wanted to go. When the ISF (International Snowboard Federation) went down in 2002, and it became a question of chasing races just to survive, I decided to stick with my W/B work and focus more on course building.”

This period also marked the rise in popularity of skiercross events. And Ihaksi didn’t hesitate to get involved with designing courses for the two-plank ’cross set. “Snowboard contests were kind of in decline there for a while,” he says. “The skiercross thing really helped spark things up again.”

So what about the Olympics and building the snowboardcross course there: how did that ever come about? “I’ve got to give credit to YP — Peter Young — for that one,” answers Ihaksi. “When Whistler hosted the World Championships in 2005, YP insisted they hire me to build the snowboardcross course at Blackcomb.” He smiles. “I guess the FIS guys must have been satisfied with our work, because the next year they asked me if I’d be interested in building the Olympic course in Italy.”

Which is a whole other story — as is the one about his putative role as course designer for the 2010 events. But the time is getting late and Ihaksi still has a lot of tasks to complete before his workday is over. “Please don’t forget to mention the teamwork involved,” he reminds me, just before we part. “That’s the most important thing…”

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