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.