Reflections on Sochi
July 29, 2014
Think of it as USSA’s answer to Sundance.
In January in Park City you can expect to see A-list movie stars sharing the limelight with festival founder Robert Redford. And in July, well, imagine seeing five Olympic gold medalists from Sochi sharing the podium with Park City’s own golden boy, Ted Ligety, a two-time gold medalist in his own right.
The event was the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s Partner Summit, an annual gathering of athletes, trustees, corporate sponsors, event partners, licensees and media partners. And it took place last week at the USSA’s Center of Excellence at Quinn’s Junction.
According to Tom Kelly, USSA vice president of communications, the three-day event was a "nice little package" of business and social activities.
"First of all, everybody loves to come to Park City, so it’s really not difficult to get them here," Kelly said. "But then when they get here, [we] bring them together and get them motivated and fired up and give them ideas they can take back to their companies."
Besides a board of trustees meeting, the activities included an opening reception at Vinto restaurant on Main Street, a guided mountain bike tour and a concert at Deer Valley.
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"The value of that is that everybody gets to talk to each other. Last night (Wednesday) we had 39 athletes at Vinto for our reception, which was great — a nice outdoor activity. But you’ve got the athletes, you’ve got the agents, you’ve got the sponsors, they’re all interacting, they’re sharing ideas. For the athletes it’s an opportunity to meet potential new sponsors."
The summit was also a chance for participants to meet Tiger Shaw, USSA’s new president and CEO. But for many, the marquee event was the panel discussion involving six Sochi gold medalists: Ligety (men’s alpine giant slalom), Sage Kotsenburg (men’s snowboard slopestyle), Joss Christensen (men’s ski slopestyle), David Wise (men’s snowboard halfpipe), Kaitlyn Farrington (women’s snowboard halfpipe) and Maddie Bowman (women’s ski halfpipe.) The discussions were moderated by NBC sports analyst Chris Davenport.
Kotsenburg got a lot of media attention in Sochi for his decision to try a new trick in his final run, the Backside 1620 Japan, and the subject came up again at Thursday’s panel discussion.
"It just felt right, it just felt so right to do a new trick, for some crazy reason," Kotsenburg said. "I thought of it [but] I didn’t practice it at all."
But first, he said, he bounced the idea off his brother, who was waiting with about 15 or 20 of his friends in Park City, and his coach at Sochi, Bill Enos.
"I’m like, ‘Bill, I think I’m going to do the 1620.’ And he just looked me in the eyes and says, ‘Yeah, you are.’ He was like, ‘Just visualize it for a couple of minutes and I don’t want you to think about it after that. Don’t even think about it.’"
He said the confidence expressed by his family and his coach took the pressure off that final run.
"He (Enos) has so much trust in me to do a trick that I’d never tried before. He had, without a doubt, in his mind that I was going to land it. And that’s how you know you have a good relationship with your coach."
Davenport asked Kotsenburg what he expected to see when the freestyle World Championships came to Park City in 2019.
"I don’t know," he said. "I think that’s the beauty of snowboarding — you never really know where it’s going to go. It’s like that [Olympic run], you know. It was spur of the moment: came up with a trick, did it and ended up winning the Olympics. That’s kind of how snowboarding is, and skiing too."
Kotsenburg wasn’t the only one who threw away the script in his final run at Sochi. Christensen also decided he had to come up with a new trick if he wanted a shot at the gold medal.
"It was definitely the gnarliest run I’ve ever done, ’cause I’d just learned that trick, like, three days prior to the contest. I knew I’d need to have a triple if I wanted to be in contention for the podium and maybe even make finals," Christensen said.
"In the first run of finals, I actually missed my takeoff, so it looked rather different than the other one did. I was just so nervous when I took off. I thought there was no way I could bring my feet around. I thought I was going to catch both my tips."
Christensen also addressed his struggles to make the U.S. team in the first place, which were compounded when he fell during a practice run and slammed into a rail, splitting his knee open, an injury that required stitches.
"I knew I really would have to battle for a spot because the U.S. has such a stacked field of slopestyle skiers," he said.
Like Kotsenburg and Christensen, Wise also had to improvise on his medal-winning run, but for a different reason: the weather.
"The most difficult part about that whole night was not necessarily that the weather was bad but that it was super inconsistent. You know we go to bad-weather contests all the time. You just say, ‘Hey, you know what, it is what it is’ and deal with it. But what was happening was that the temperature was just, like, teeter-tottering between freezing and not," Wise said.
"As soon as it started to rain, we were getting excited because, as the snow gets wetter, it’s faster, and, you know, you start to feel that you’ve got enough speed to do some tricks you’ve been planning four years to do."
But then, he said, the rain turned to snow, "these giant, clumpy, super-big snowflakes, the biggest snowflakes I’ve ever seen in my life, like, softball-size snowflakes coming down, and just making it the stickiest, messy, gnarly snow you can imagine. So you’re going back and forth from one training run to the next and you’re like, What to I do in this situation? Is it going to be fast enough? Is it going to rain before the contest actually starts or is it not?"
As it turned out, Wise settled on a run that was more conservative, and less familiar, than the one he had planned.
"I had to be able to take my contest skis and give them to Luke, our wax tech, and say, ‘I don’t care what you do to these things but make them as fast as you possibly can.’ And then I had to be able to go off and talk to the coaches and say, ‘Guys, don’t freak out but I think I’m going to have to change my run completely,’" he said.
"Not only was [it] a different run from what I had prepared, but it was something I hadn’t practiced at all, all season long. It was kind of a simple trick, but I hadn’t done a right-side 720 all year."
While Kotsenburg, Christensen and Wise weren’t exactly consensus picks to win gold at Sochi, Ligety was a different story. The dominant figure in the world in men’s giant slalom for the past several seasons, Ligety was the odds-on favorite at Sochi. But he handled the pressure well, racing to a 1.5-second lead after the first run and protecting that lead in the second run.
Davenport asked Ligety why it has been so hard for his competitors to replicate his skiing technique. What is he doing, Davenport wondered, that his competitors aren’t?
"There’s a couple of different factors that have gone into it, especially over the last two years," Ligety said. "You know, the new rule changes have made the skis straighter and longer. And the way I’d been skiing in previous years, I was always arcing more of a turn than other guys in the world. That wasn’t that big of an advantage on the old skis that I had. Once the new skis came out that went straighter in the turn, having already developed that [arcing] technique for several years, it was definitely an advantage, and so far it’s still been somewhat of an advantage."
When Davenport asked him what it was like to share the World Cup podium with Bode Miller last season (after the U.S. pair finished 1-2 in a race in Beaver Creek, Colo.), Ligety was gracious — to a point. He said it was great to see Miller ski so well, under tough conditions, in one of his first races back after being injured.
"It was cool to see him to get back on the podium," he said. "I was glad I beat him, though."
For Kaitlyn Farrington, the biggest challenge last season was running a three-month gauntlet of qualifying events for Sochi.
"I mean, the hardest thing that I’ve ever done was make this U.S. Olympic Team. It was so stressful."
But those events prepared her well for Sochi. When she got there, she said, she knew exactly what she was going to do.
"Just while I was there, I enjoyed every second of it," she said.
With the Olympics behind her, Farrington said she plans go into the coming season with "a totally different [attitude].
"I feel like I went to the Olympics, I did it, and now I’m just going to enjoy snowboarding again because it has been so stressful for the past couple of years."
For Bowman, who was competing in one of the last events at Sochi, watching her teammates win gold medals made her put more pressure on herself.
"And that’s all you start thinking about is a gold medal," Bowman said. "And, for me, I started skiing horribly. So I had to step back and be like, ‘I’m here to have fun.’ So that’s what I concentrated on. And after that I started skiing a lot better."
Bowman also revealed publicly for the first time that she was competing at Sochi with a knee injury suffered in training in December.
"I actually damaged the cartilage in my knee," she said. "It didn’t feel very good. I couldn’t really go skiing for fun, but I [continued] to ski pipe. I just had to stay strong, and so I just kept going and I just ignored it. That was my thought. I didn’t get it checked out by the doctor. I just kept going."
She said she didn’t tell her doctor until after her medal-winning run.
"He said, ‘OK, well, we’ll look at this when we get home.’" She has since had surgery to repair the damage.
Probably the most rewarding part of the Olympics, she said, was the reception she got at home afterwards.
"I come from Sierra Tahoe, which is a small mountain in Tahoe (and is also the home of Olympic champions Hannah Teter and Jamie Anderson).
"We had a huge parade. We live in kind of a scattered community and everyone came out for the parade. We had a party at the mountain and I got to ride on a fire truck."
Bowman was asked how it feels to return to normal life after winning a gold medal.
"I have a little brother who really likes to remind me that I’m not that cool, so I’m thankful for that," she said.