In the early 80’s, I was a national-level mogul skier, and in 1984, was ranked No.2 nationally. I was also in the top 4 for aerial skiing at the nationals in the same year. Throughout the 80’s, I worked as a ski instructor in Austria during their winter season December to March/April, and spent the Australian winter season training and competing in Australia.
n 1980, we formed a little team at Mount Buller for aerial and mogul skiing, which we called ‘Tribe Gonzo’. By 1986, with a lot of help from the ski resort, we reformed into Team Buller. At that stage, I was able to start offering individual mogul and freestyle ski coaching as a state coaching initiative. I was the first coach for Team Buller, although we soon employed other coaches as our junior development program grew very quickly. We started with 9 ‘Coca-Cola Kids’ in a program, which quickly doubled, then quadrupled in size in a couple of years. I moved from coaching directly to becoming the Head Coach/Manager of the club.
This was largely the end of my direct coaching, as 1986 was also the year that Kirstie Marshall came along. Kirsty was ranked No.10 in the world, and by 1990 she had moved up to No.3. While I helped her initially, my abilities as a coach couldn’t match her talent as an athlete, so I became more of a coach manager and found her a coach who was technically better. I ended up at some World Cup events and the World Championships with Kirstie while she was ranked No.10, and we were then lucky enough to find a fantastic sponsor for Kirstie, Michael Vickers Willis, who agreed to employ a special coach for her for 5 months of the year. That was when she skyrocketed to No.3 then No.2 and finally became the first Australian Winter Sport athlete to be ranked No.1 in the World.
By this time, the local club at Buller had grown to have 60-70 kids in training and some international coaches. Kirstie had been World Cup Champion (1992) – a first for Australia – then also won a bronze medal at the 1995 World Championships and the became Australia’s first snow sports World Championship gold medallist in 1997.
The athletes and coaches both have to sacrifice a lot because of the overseas training and travel but this in turn creates a strong commitment to success and tight community culture.
In 1995, the owner of the ski lift company for Mt Buller, Rino Grollo, agreed to invest in an Australian National Team for the skiing sports. Thus the Australian Ski Institute was born that year, and I became the program manager for aerial and mogul skiing, while still working as manager for Team Buller. I went to my first Olympics as a Coach/Manager in 1994 (Lillehammer) where Kirstie won the semi-final and came 6 th in the final which was equal to Australia’s best ever result in a Winter Olympics.
While these first years of the Institute were all funded by Rino Grollo and Mt Buller together with the Australian Institute of Sport, after the 1998 Olympics (Nagano), the Australian Olympic Committee agreed to take over the responsibilities for a specialist winter sports institute. This first institute helped Zali Steggall to win Olympic Bronze in alpine skiing – our first ever skiing medal. The Australian Institute of Winter Sports, launched in July 1998 and went on to become the Olympic Winter Institute of Australia (OWIA) in 2001, as it is called today.
I had gone from program manager to interim CEO, to CEO in 1998 and brought in new coaches in that first year, and it was fantastic. In 1999, we won two World Championships – Jacqui Cooper (aerials) and Zali (alpine).
TEACHING GYMNASTS TO SKI
A lady called Rachel Johnson approached me at Mt Buller in 1997. She was both a gymnastics coach and ski instructor, and saw the possibilities for aerial skiing from watching the ‘97 World Cup at Mt Buller with Kirstie Marshall, Jacqui Cooper and first time World Cup skier Alisa Camplin. Together in following years, Rachel and I were able to strategise and pioneer the transfer of gymnastic talent to aerial skiing. I understood teaching people how to ski from my own teaching and competitive background and understood aerial skiing, and Rachel had the understanding of both skiing and gymnastics and had a special skill for being able to interpret the skills clearly to athletes, who mostly had never seen snow before! We pinned the two together to take talented gymnasts and fast-track them to skiing at 15/16, focusing on athletic and competition skills, through the Victorian Institute of Sport. We obviously had to coach the acrobatics transfer as well, as the dynamics of doing tricks 10 metres in the air, off a ski jump at 60km/hr is vastly different to a gymnastics hall! The first athlete who transferred to that program was Lydia Ierodiaconou (later Lassila), who ended up winning an Olympic Gold medal in 2010 and a bronze in 2014. Since the program began, we have now won 5 medals in aerial skiing.
The biggest failure we had was at the 1998 Olympics. Kirstie Marshall was the World Champion and Jacqui Cooper was ranked No.2 in the world. We also had a male athlete, Jono Sweet, who was ranked No.5 in the world. In 20 years, we’ve never missed making a final of aerial skiing. At the Games, we were obvious favourites to win a medal. However, Kirstie finished 13 th , Jacqui crashed, and Jono missed his first jump, so nobody made it to a final. There was a big boil-over to do with athlete conflict with their coach, and I was responsible for managing the team. I did not do enough, early enough, to effectively manage that situation – a lesson very well learnt!
The program was essentially a laboratory experiment. Having skied previously only very occasionally before in her life, we taught Lydia intensively from July 1999 and by February 2002, she was competing at the Olympics and qualified for the final. Another year later, she was ranked No.2 in the world, and then No.1 the following year. The program has gone on to produce many athletes and continues at the Victorian Institute of Sport with direct partnerships through the AIS funded “spin to win” program, with Gymnastics Australia, Diving Australia, AIS, the OWIA, Ski & Snowboard Australia, and Mt Buller (home of the aerial ski program). This program offers suitable gymnastic athletes a secondary sporting career opportunity with either diving or skiing depending on their age. Our program is largely female dominated and we employ a lot of female coaching staff as we find the dynamics very positive.
When the 2002 Olympics came around, we gave the two leading athletes in the program a coach each, and a junior athlete as a training partner. Lydia Lassila worked with Jacqui Cooper, and Liz Gardner, who also came from the gymnastics transfer program, worked with Alisa Camplin. Jacqui tragically had a really awful ACL accident prior to the qualification competition for the Games and was unable to compete despite being the favourite for the gold. Alisa went on to win the gold medal and Lydia finished 8th in her first Olympics after only 35 months of training.
We had prepared for adversity after the 1998 Olympics by giving each competitor their own coach. This meant that Alisa was able to stay in her “competition zone bubble” throughout the media attention and drama, going on to win, despite never having won an event prior. By then, we had also a short-track speed skating program and a short-track coach through which we famously won an Olympic gold medal with Steven Bradbury in an incredible, come-from- behind win.
For the 2006 Torino Olympics, both Lydia and Alisa injured themselves within 8 months of the Games. Alisa was able to come back within 14 weeks to win a bronze medal – a remarkable achievement. Jacqui Cooper won the semi-final with a world record score, and Lydia, who was leading the qualification round, unfortunately had an awful major knee injury. Again, it’s a credit to Alisa and the coaching staff that they stayed focused and were still able to come away with a bronze, despite our original higher hopes.
Lydia had to take a full year off and came back to training in 2007. By February 2009, she was ranked World No.1 again, and in 2010 went to the Vancouver Olympics, qualified for the final (through the added mental battle of it being that moment, 4 years prior, when she had the accident), and ended up having the best jump of her life to win the gold medal and become Olympic Champion. It was possible through the mental lessons she learnt from a variety of coaches, including a very senior coach from Switzerland, Mich Roth. What Lydia wanted was that extreme stability of an older senior coach who would calm her down when the big moments came. Because she had confidence in her coach, Lydia was able to put everything behind her, see herself in the moment and land the best jump of her career.
Dale Begg-Smith famously won a gold medal in mogul skiing in 2006. In 2009, when he’d been ranked No.1 in the world for 3 years straight, he also did a knee injury. Normally an ACL requires a year to recover, but with rotating physios Dale managed to come back for the 2010 Olympics and was unlucky to win the silver medal rather than the gold. He had complete confidence in himself and his coach, Steve Desovich, and in the work they had done together and was able to see through the obvious adversity and the pressure of the approaching Olympics.
ADVERSITY MAKES YOU STRONGER
Training in Australia can be difficult. The snow conditions are variable and the season is shorter than in Europe or North America. If you get used to skiing at our facilities, when you get access to world class facilities, your performance is better. For example, in Wandin, Victoria, a friend built a water jump training centre in 1989. This is where all our aerial skiers have trained. They land in dirty dam water, the ski surface is 35 years old and the jumps are old. When the athletes get to the world-class facilities in the USA, the training is automatically much easier and the performance much stronger. After winning her gold medal, Alisa Camplin told the New York Times that she started off training with leeches. It made the cover. We are now waiting for approval to build a new facility at Lennox Head, NSW.
If you want to be a coach and work both seasons, it means you have to be away from home, friends and family for much of the year. The athletes and coaches both have to sacrifice a lot because of the overseas training and travel but this in turn creates a strong commitment to success and tight community culture. Overseas competitors are home every two weeks, but ours leave Australia in November and don’t return until March or April. Adversity, in a positive sense, can also lead to success.
I still interview and employ all of our coaches and we try to employ the world’s best. We would like to be an employer of choice for these coaches. We provide the attraction of authority and autonomy to be able to deliver a program in the way they want, and we invest in them personally as well. The coaching and leadership courses from the AIS have been really effective and are world leading initiatives. These programs allow coaches from various sports to mix and share knowledge and expand both their thinking and networks. For the OWIA, it’s always about looking after our people, giving them opportunities and access to key people. We work in a 4-year cycle and develop a clear strategy for each year. Because winter sport is still a boutique sport in Australia, we have developed great partnerships with the AIS, VIS, NSWIS, NSW government, the Australian Ski Resorts, and our two US sponsors, Snow Basin Resort and Powder Mountain resort. I’m now focused on the PyeongChang (South Korea) Olympic effort as the Performance Director of the 2018 Australian Olympic Team.
ONE KEY TIP
Understand your people. Know who they are and, in times of crisis, how you are likely to affect them and how they are likely to affect each other.
Powerful Stories, Tips and Amazing Insight
Ready, Set, Go! Everything you need to know to start coaching from the legends in the field. As well as the Business and Life coaches, our launch edition features David Parkin (AFL), Lisa Alexander (Netball Australia), Adam Commens (Hockey Australia), Simon Cusack (Swimming Australia), Sean Douglas (FFA) and many more!