Business, Engagement Edition ICE COLD GOLD
By: Steve Desovich • 4 years ago •
Like many people, I started skiing as a family activity. I grew up in the United States and spent much of my youth up in the ski area of Killington in Vermont, 4 hours north of home. We skied as a family like many do in Perisher or Mt Buller today, going up every weekend. Ultimately, I was enrolled in a school there, Killington Mountain School, which is a training academy and a high school. In that program, you have the experience of coaches, skiing moguls and working the competition circuit. Eventually I worked my way through to earn a spot on the US Ski Team.
I started to do a little bit of coaching over that time, which is how it evolved for me, while I skied on the US Team for my early years in the 80s. When I was competing, I thought I might want to coach at some point, and there were summer camp opportunities to coach the younger kids if you were a senior competitor, which is what I did. That was the time that mogul skiing had started to evolve to a point where coaches and staff were involved, so I became part of the first wave of this. Almost all coaches in skiing have come from competition backgrounds.
In 1989 I started coaching the Canadian team after they expressed interest, which gave me a start at the elite level. I worked to help competitors transition from Olympic trials to full medal status, and gearing teams up to take their program to the next level. We also had a senior coach, Peter Judge, who oversaw the whole program and became a big mentor of mine. He helped me through my early coaching years. While I coached the technical side, he looked after the planning and other aspects. I ended up staying there for 9 years.
In 1994, one of our skiers, Jean-Luc Brassard, won a gold medal in moguls, which was a landmark event. But the ‘98 Olympics was a rather below average showing, so it was time for me to move on and seek out other opportunities.
I really wanted to be involved with a program that wanted to build something special and, by coincidence, Geoff Lipshut, the CEO of the OWIA (Olympic Winter Institute of Australia) was active in seeking my coaching for the team. His encouragement meant I was able to come over in 1998 to the Australian mogul program and build a team. We had some existing talent, such as Maria Despas, and we made a considerable investment in Dale Begg-Smith, who became an Australian Olympic gold medallist in our program. He won the gold in 2006 at the Torino Olympics, and a silver in 2010 in Vancouver, accumulating 4 World Cup titles and World Championships medals. He’s now one of the most accomplished mogul skiers of all time, if not the most.
I have been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time with personnel. Moguls very much relies on the skier’s individual talent as a base, much more than any other sport. In ’94 I was fortunate enough to link up with Jean-Luc Brassard, who was just a super talent and became Olympic gold medallist in ’94, two-time World Champion in ’93 and ’97, and a three-time World Cup Champion in ’93, ‘96, ’97. Again, I was in the right place at the right time with those two guys: with Jean-Luc in that 90s era and then with Dale Begg-Smith in the 2000s. They were amongst, if not the best mogul skiers really of all time, and being involved with them gave me a lot of credibility as a coach. Those guys would probably have won gold anyway, but I happened to be in the right place at the right time with them, so I was the benefactor of their success. In mogul skiing, if there was an index of how much you are reliant on the talent on a scale of 1 to 10, mogul skiing is very highly related on the talent maybe upwards of a 9 on this scale. I was lucky enough to be there with them and to experience a lot of great achievements. I was a first-hand witness to all those achievements, so they were really substantial moments in what we were trying to achieve, from the Olympic level, which is the pinnacle and then at the World Championships. That would be the second big prize and then the World Cup each year, of course.
I had been a little familiar with Australia from the competition circuit over the years, training here in ‘97 with the Canadian team, and my major impression was that there was an interesting program and that the Australians wanted to build something substantial. The OWIA together with Ski and Snowboard Australia placed a lot of emphasis on coaching and the importance of coaching. It’s evolved into a great system today with the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) and AOC (Australian Olympic Committee) and I’m really fortunate to be here and thankful that Geoff was instrumental in making the original offer to come to Melbourne.
Winter sports are an evolving niche here – you don’t think of skiing when you think of Australia necessarily. We’re thankful for the tremendous support of Perisher Ski Area. They’ve provided our mogul program with a home-based training ground since 2002, along with a world-class mogul course, Toppa’s Dream. They’ve been instrumental in delivering our program and have helped us evolve to where we are today.
Maria Despas, who won a silver medal at the 2001 World Championships, was the athlete who really bridged the gap with our program before Dale Begg-Smith came into the picture and exploded onto the scene. We had been building and struggling, seeking recognition and really fighting for the program’s survival. She had been in the program and on the circuit for a number of years. As the first Australian mogul skier to achieve something of that nature and that stature (winning a medal at the 2001 World Championships), she breathed life into our program and helped us survive in that upper tier until Dale emerged.
Dale then transitioned from Canada at that time and was training with us in 2001. As part of that process, he had to sit out 2 years of competition and would ultimately compete for Australia in 2004.
In the program at the moment is Matt Graham, who is currently ranked No.2 in the World. We’re currently working with him out at the ramp now, getting his acrobatic skills polished and honed as we head toward the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. We also have Britteny Cox, who was a bronze medallist at the 2015 World Championships. We’ve invested in those that have come through the pathway since they’ve been 14 or 15, and we’ve now seen their emergence over the last 2 or 3 years.
Geographically it’s a big challenge for our skiers to accumulate enough ski days to have the skills at a young age. Being based in the Southern hemisphere when a large portion of our business revolves around the northern hemisphere and its competitions is one of the major challenges in setting up our calendar. The elite level of moguls skiing, with nations like Canada, the US, Japan is extremely competitive. Physical preparation is taking more prominence and injuries do occur. It’s extremely difficult to produce results at the big events – you need a substantial amount of natural talent and skill. You can’t replace it. It’s possible to compete into your late twenties but the absolute prime years for World Cup level competition is 18-26. If you hope to have any sort of long-term success and to reach a high level, you have to be skiing from a very young age.
The coaching pathway itself has evolved a long way from when I entered the sport. Now there are local and regional coaching programs, so you’re coaching at club level and in Australia you also have Interschool mogul competitions. This then leads ultimately to the NSW Institute of Sport program, who we partner and share the mogul program with, headed by Peter Topalovic. We work with the athletes through long-term development with the aim to achieve selection on the World Cup team. The sport has become so acrobatically inclined that we now have year-round acrobatic training on top of skiing and strength and conditioning. They have to learn on trampoline and then take it to a water ramp, then through to skiing. My responsibility is the actual skiing and overall program planning but we have an Acrobatics Coach, Jerry Grossi, with whom I have worked with for the last 4 years.
There are a variety of coaching certification programs that exist. I went through a formal educational process when I was in Canada. They have a Coaches Association and various sorts of credentials tickets that you accumulate. In Australia it’s done on a formal level through various institutes. The AIS, for instance, have coaching programs, and there’s all sorts of certificates and educational programs that exist. But, as important, if not more, it’s done organically in the field when we’re all on the hill together, learning from each other.
In the future, I see coaching being formatted as acrobatic mogul programs combined with strong skiing skills because those skills have to be ingrained from a very young age. In terms of the coaching, it’s an ongoing process upskilling yourself, observing, watching videos for analysis. Everything is individualised for what the athletes need.
This is all thanks to the AIS and AOC organisations. Their ongoing support and evolvement of the program represent the two pillars of our sport system and enable us to function competitively in a meaningful way internationally.
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