Globe story on Steve Omischl, freestyle skier

I almost forgot, I had a Globe & Mail story on Steve Omischl, the Canadian freestyle skier who is the odds-on favourite to win an Olympic aerials medal. There were some interesting points edited out; the unedited version is below.

In a day or two I’ll summarize some of my thoughts on Olympic aerials which, one has to admit, have become increasingly irrelevant to the recreational ski experience and have been eclipsed at the sponsor level by X-Games and Dew Tour slopestyle and Big Air comps.

When it comes to Olympic athletes who go “faster, higher, and stronger,” no one flies as high as the freestyle ski aerialists.

The airborne routines performed by the likes of current World Cup champion Steve Omischl are the hardest and most advanced gymnastic manoeuvres in any comparable sport like diving or trampoline. Omischl says, “Our sport is unique in that we both go up and then come down.”

To win Olympic gold next February at Cypress Mountain, site of the freestyle aerials for the 2010 Winter Games, Omischl may attempt the most difficult jump allowed in international competition―three back flips combined with five full twists. At the highest point, he’ll be seventy feet off the snow. However, fear of heights and falling is something that Omischl dealt with a long, long time ago when he first started flying off his own man-made kickers as a teenager growing up on Ski Club Road in North Bay, ON.

Indeed, the aerialist’s shot at Olympic fame and glory is fleeting―seven seconds, to be exact. The finals consist of two scored jumps and each jump takes three and a half seconds of air time.

Omischl hopes to atone for a mental lapse made in the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, an event he could very well have medalled in if he had made it out of the semi-finals. “What happened there was that I chose a jump that carried a high DD (degree of difficulty) in the semi-finals and it didn’t go well. It’s sort of like a hockey team―you can’t be in the Stanley Cup if you don’t make the playoffs.”

The penultimate Olympic year was a self-described “up and down” season for the 30 year-old veteran. He successfully defended his aerials title and placed third in the overall standings (behind fellow teammate and overall winner Alex Bilodeau), but only won two World Cup events outright.

Fortunately for Omischl and for Canadians, both of those wins came at a preview event at Cypress before the 2010 Winter Games. “I was really on a roll during the 2008 season,” he says, “and I’m happy that I came up with good performances on demand in 2009. But this season also reminded me that I can be on my game and there are still some incredible jumpers from around the world who can beat me.” Omischl felt that he jumped flawlessly at the World Championships in Inawashiro, Japan, but was nosed out by long-time rival, Ryan St. Onge of the USA for the gold medal.

For the summer leading up to what will be his third Olympics, it’s pretty much going to be “business as usual.” He says, “I’ve created great success with this routine and am not going to change anything because the Olympics are coming.”

Omischl uses the months of April, May and June to attend to “little aches and pains” that accumulate over the season. “I get lots of deep tissue massage and try to work at re-balancing and stabilizing muscle groups which get ignored in the winter. During the competition calendar, you are always putting out other fires and don’t really have time to work on your conditioning,” he says.

The ‘quint twisting triple backflip’ has been performed in competition before, with Czech star Ales Valenta striking Olympic gold  in 2002 at Park City. It is, however, an extremely difficult jump to master.
Omischl says, “I have done five twists in practice before – about a hundred times on the water ramp and ten times on snow. It is definitely pushing the limits of what we can do and we’ll have to wait until next year to see who is attempting it in competition.” Right now, Omischl speculates that American Jeret Peterson and some members of the Chinese team are working on it.

Much of the training to perfect that routine will take place from July through September at Freestyle Canada’s outdoor water ramp and training facility in Quebec City. “I’ll do anywhere between seven and nine jumps each day,” he says, “we have video monitors right beside the pool so that we get instant feeback.” Common errors include not holding a straight body position while in the air doing the twists, and coming apart or the landing, either by sitting back or catching an edge and crashing. Hitting the water in an awkward position can lead to serious injury and Omischl has seen a fellow freestyler break his neck in the past.

Oddly, Omischl compares freestyle skiing to golf when it comes down to the mental discipline and preparation necessary to be a successful aerialist. “Like golf, mastering aerials is all about the fundamentals. You need to be exceptionally skilled at mastering four twists before you attempt five twists.”

From takeoff to landing, he is always focused on the next move in his routine,  and always ending with the perfect landing. “The way our sport is scored, the landing is extremely important. You can be clean in the air doing a very difficult jump, but you must have a smooth landing,” he says.

Putting in an extra twist doesn’t necessarily require more technical skill, the added difficulty comes from the fact that you are making one more twist in the limited amount of hang-time.
Like his teammates Alex Bilodeau and Jennifer Heil, Omischl credits working with a sports psychologist since the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino as a key to his success. Omischl’s guru is University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee professor Barbara Meyer, who also advises Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller.

“Barbara and I work a lot on focusing on one task at a time. At first, it was very difficult for me since I like doing several things at once. To begin with, she even prohibited me from listening to music or the radio when I’m driving a car,” he says. “I needed to be ‘more present’ in whatever it was that I was doing, and these are skills that I can develop away from the hill as well.”

He admits that it’s taken him three years to get to the point where he’s only “kind of good at it.” “Look, I have a Blackberry, but I have learned to do things like let the phone ring instead of having it interrupt me. I’m trying to deal with the world on my own terms.”

In the near future, Omischl’s looking forward to a surf trip to Nicaragua. “The whole team is going down there, but we’re going to quite a few different spots,” he says. Though he finds the sport to be challenging, he has surfed extensively in Costa Rica, Mexico and the west coast of Vancouver Island.

For Omischl, freestyle skiing is a serious job that demands constant planning and preparation. But he’s used to it.

“I know what to expect, I’ve been around the block. I don’t have anyone to answer to but myself.”

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