B/R Exclusive: Team USA Olympians Preview 2012 Ski and Snowboard Season
With Halloween in the rear-view mirror and the calendar turned to November, it's time to embrace the wintry weather and snow that typifies the holiday season.
While the baseball season is over and the NFL year is already at its midway point, we're now approaching perfect ski conditions.
The 2012 ski and snowboard season for most disciplines gets underway this month, and Team USA will once again be among the front-runners on the slopes.
The U.S. Ski and Snowboarding Association held its annual gala in New York on Tuesday. In preparation for the organization's largest fundraising event of the year, many of the nation's top athletes swung by Paul Mitchell's Raika studio in Manhattan for a day of pampering and hair styling.
Bleacher Report was on hand to chat with Lindsey Jacobellis, Hannah Kearney, Jen Hudak and Co. to find out what the 2012 season has in store.
Jacobellis continued her dominance on the snowboardcross circuit in 2011 and there's no reason to think she will be anything other than the best in the world again in 2012.
The 26-year-old won her fourth consecutive X Games title last season, her seventh in nine years, and she claimed her third World Championships crown.
After missing time at the start of the year, the two-time Olympian also earned three World Cup wins in Stoneham, Valmalenco and Arosa. That gave her a total of 23 WC victories since 2007.
"I really just take everything with a grain of salt and use that to go forward to my next competitions," she said. "I use it for fuel for that next time when I can possibly go to the Olympics. I'm always doing my workouts. I was surfing a lot this summer because I was living in California. I live a super active lifestyle and it's basically always around something that's going to help with my snowboarding."
Jacobellis, the silver medalist at the '06 Olympic Games, has her sights set on a successful 2012 campaign.
"I want to try and win the World Cup tour and the X-Games for sure. Hopefully our World Cup season will be a little bit bigger than last year because we lost a lot of funding which is to be expected right after the Olympic year.
"It never really stops," Jacobellis said of preparing for Sochi in 2014. "It's a continuous thing, even though it's four years down the line. You're always thinking about it and preparing for it and you use every event that you go to as mental preparation and physical preparation for that very day."
The U.S. Grand Prix gets underway on Dec. 7, with the World Cup beginning in Bad Gastein on Jan. 11.
Olympic moguls champion Hannah Kearney could have taken 2011 slowly. On top of the world in Vancouver, the Vermont native chose the opposite approach and decided to work even harder to consolidate her position as the No. 1 freestyle skier in the world.
Kearney won four World Cup moguls events and three dual moguls medals last year, and she finished on the podium in every event except her first dual moguls meeting of the season in Canada in January.
Kearney won the overall World Cup globe for her impressive season, capped off with her fourth U.S. title in Vermont in March and two more medals at the World Championships.
"There was definitely room for improvement, but it was also the best season of my career to date. There's no such thing as the perfect season, or at least I haven't achieved that yet, but I'm able to look back and be really proud of the skiing I did," she said. "I worked hard this summer to fix the things that I thought were the weaknesses in my skiing and I'm looking forward to the new season.
"I think that because the next Olympics are always a goal, it's not that hard to be motivated. But in the short term you have to think about the competition that's coming up next. 2014 is irrelevant to what you're doing at that very moment.You work in the summer to try and get as fit as possible and work towards new tricks you want to complete in 2014. When it comes down to it you just have to compete the best you can on the day you're competing during the World Cup season."
Kearney will be sticking with many of the same tricks that saw her victorious last year, but that doesn't mean she's stood still this offseason.
"[There is] nothing particularly exciting from a spectator standpoint, just tiny little adjustments to make it better so I can go further," she added. "I worked a lot on the bungee and the trampoline learning a new trick but it's not ready for snow yet. You're not going to be seeing any new tricks yet, just better ones."
In addition to her freestyle workload, Kearney also went back to school after a seven-year hiatus. After Competing in nationals on the final Sunday of the season, she was in class on Monday morning. Rather than compromising her training by taking more classes this fall, Kearney will instead wait until the spring to pick up the school work.
"My goals are to ski consistently and push myself, no matter what the result ends up being. If you're winning it's easy to get complacent and say, 'that's enough' and if you're losing it's easy to get frustrated. If I forget about those parts and ski faster and aggressively, that becomes my new comfort zone."
McPhie has an infectious love of mogul skiing that is impossible not to like. She always has a smile on her face and even after just speaking with her for a few minutes, you can tell just what the sport means to her.
The 27-year-old from Bozeman, Montana, had her most successful year to date in 2011 when she placed sixth at the World Championships in the moguls discipline and fourth in dual moguls. She also took home a silver and bronze medal at the U.S. Championships at Vermont's Strattton Mountain in March as well as a third place finish at the penultimate World Cup stop in Are in Sweden.
"Last year I was kinda just starting to experiment with my big tricks again," she said. "The start of my season was a little bit slower than I would have liked but I ramped it up at the end and got a podium in Sweden and was really happy with how my skiing was coming along. Are is one of my favourite stops on the tour. They are so incredible to us, they treat us like royalty. I love going there. I really stepped up my speed which was a big goal of mine and I ended strong at Nationals with a second and a third. I was happy."
As for the 2012 World Cup season, McPhie will likely be competing next in Lake Placid and Calgary in January and Deer Valley in February before heading off to China, Japan and Europe for the final six weeks of the season.
"I have been working a lot on my back-full and my D-spin," McPhie said. "I've also been trying to improve my cardio strength and I actually did my first century bike ride in May which was so much fun. I've been working on my mental game, working with my sports psychologist and I went back to school and took two classes so I've been exploring lots of different parts of life this summer.
"My biggest goal [in 2012] is to complete back-full, D-spin in the same run. I really want to bring that to the table this season. That's where all my energy is right now, working on making those tricks ready to compete on any course. I was just in Switzerland and did some top to bottoms with those tricks and I had a really great training camp so I'm looking forward to it."
For years, halfpipe skier Jen Hudak had to live with the reality that her sport was not part of the Olympic Games. Now that it's finally on the menu for Sochi, the Connecticut native can begin dreaming of winning the one medal that she needs to complete her collection.
"I'm very excited about the prospects of Sochi. It's been a longtime dream of mine to get the sport into the Olympics and now that it's happened I can look forward to getting myself there. There's a lot to be done, but there's a lot of opportunity.
"I never had doubts per se but when it didn't get in for 2010 I sort of resigned myself from it and said that I need to enjoy the sport where it is right now. It was in a great place and still growing and doing wonderful things. Then it got in."
The 25-year-old had a quiet 2011 season, but she did take silver in the World Ski Championships in Park City in February and a pair of second place finishes in the halfpipe and big air competitions at the Super Continental Cup in New Zealand in August.
"2011 was a bit of a tough year for me. I ended up getting hurt at the end of the season and it was a really big learning and growing opportunity for me and I walked away from it knowing that I need to slow down sometimes and enjoy myself more," she said. "I'm looking forward to this winter, I'm still going to be competing, but I'll just be putting a little less pressure on myself and allowing things to happen as they may.
"It is very hard to slow down, but the distinction is that just because I'm moving slower it doesn't mean I'm not putting 100 percent in. It's more quality in fact when you slow down because you can put more of yourself into what you're doing rather than spreading yourself thin. I'm going to do my best, take one day at a time and give it my all."
That philosophy took hold this summer when the five-time X-Games medalist focused on her rehabilitation and improvement one step at a time. It's likely going to continue through the 2012 season.
"I didn't ski a ton this summer," she explained. "I was down in New Zealand for a month and I did two contests down there. It was more about getting my feet under me after getting hurt in March. And then I spent a ton of time at the Utah Olympic Park and water ramps and I worked on several new tricks that I'm excited to start putting into my runs. That's my November plan: get back on snow, start hitting the air bag then take the tricks to the ramp.
"I'm hoping to learn a few tricks and have a lot of fun and finish the season healthy and strong so that I can carry that momentum towards Sochi I'm taking some tricks that I do currently and just trying to get them on a more inverted or corked axis, so my 900 will be more corked. And then I've been working on some right-side tricks and inverted tricks, ally flatspin fives [ally-oop flatspin 540] and flares."
Cook's 2011 season included third place finishes in the giant slalom and super-G disciplines at the National Championships in Winter Park, Colo. and a fifth-place downhill finish at a World Cup meet in Are, Sweden.
The World Cup season runs from late October until mid-March and California native Cook, now in her seventh year on the World Cup circuit, will be looking to secure a top-three finish by the end of the year.
"I took a lot of confidence from last year, not just for me, but for the team as a whole. We fed off each other and boosted each other," said Cook, who hopes to get some final runs in her new boots at the team's last training camp of the year. "Doing well as a team is much more fun than one person doing well. We'll try to keep that rolling and keep pushing each other the whole way. We'll try and get our personal bests, but we'll also try to help each other get to theirs, too.
"We have no Olympics or World Championships this year, so they're trying to keep it really fun for us. It's not a great year, but we don't have the big stress of qualifications. We've done a lot of work on the gym and I've been out on my bike a lot. Just keeping things relaxed and calm while getting stronger for the season.
"Obviously I've had goals set for my whole career that I'm yet to reach, but I just try to focus on technical and tactical goals because placement-result goals never seem to work for me."
As well as a fierce racer, Cook is also heavily involved with projects in the youth community, such as the After School All Stars and the Sun Valley Ski Tools.
"I think it's really important to give back. We're a small community in the ski world, so it's great to be in a position where I can give back to the sport. I can remember some of the excitement when I was a junior of interacting with some of the racers that were older and better. It meant so much to me. It's cool to be in that position now where I can help some of the juniors.
The After School All Stars is really inspiring because some of the kids in that program have never seen snow. It's a whole new world for them and it's like I get to leave them with their first impression of snow and that's pretty fun."
Wyoming native Stiegler burst on to the alpine scene in 2003 when she won a bronze medal in slalom and combined at the Junior World Championships and competed on the FIS World Ski Championships as an 18 year old.
Injuries have cost her significant portions of the last three seasons, limiting the potential of a young woman who represented the U.S. at the 2006 Winter Olympics and scored points in six different World Cup races in 2008.
The 2011 season saw a return to form in slalom, and Stiegler competed in FIS races in Europe and America as well as World Cup meetings in France, Austria, Croatia, Germany and the Czech Republic before rounding off the year with podiums in the Nor-Am Cup at Whisler and at the National Championships at Winter Park.
"I didn't get injured and that's the first time I didn't in three years so that was a huge step for me," Stiegler said of her 2011 season. "For me, it was my comeback season and I just tried to play it safe and stay healthy and I feel like I got that out of my way.
"I didn't ski the GS [giant slalom] that was the event I got injured twice. I decided I was just going to do my best event which was slalom. I wanted to stick with that and make it through the season and give myself a peace of mind. I did some GS just for fun at the start of this year, but I'm not jumping back into it properly just yet.
"I trained really hard the years I was injured. I have a good training program with the ski team and with my sport medicine coaches so I spent the entire summer working out. I split my time between Jacksonville and Maui so I was pretty much on an outdoor adventure.
"I'm going to stick with slalom as my main event and slowly get back into GS. I skied in New Zealand and Chile and started doing a little more GS. I was hoping to be one it, but I'm a little behind, so I'm going to keep it slow and simple until it feels natural again."
Having just turned 18 less than three weeks ago, Caldwell is one of the youngest freestyle skiers on the team.
A gymnast-turned-arielist, Caldwell had a memorable rookie year that included a second place finish at the U.S. Championships, three top-15 finishes on the World Cup tour and a 10th place result at the Vancouver Olympics.
"Gymnastics is the reason why I'm an aerialist today," she said. "The acrobatics definitely correlates really well, so 10 years of gymnastics coming into the sport helped me a lot. It translates perfectly. It gives me air awareness and the strength to do the tricks I do. If I didn't do gymnastics I wouldn't be an aerialist so I'm glad I found the sport."
Her sophomore year built upon these successes. She won her first World Cup competition in Lake Placid in January and finished second in Belarus the following month. She also finished fourth at the World Championships and second at nationals at the end of the year.
"I definitely made a lot of progression," she said. "Coming after an Olympic year you think that it's probably not going to be as exciting, but I worked hard and had a really great season and I'm really excited about it. It was a great accomplishment to win my first World Cup. I was pretty young and I went from being the youngest US Olympian to one of the youngest to win a World Cup so I'm excited to come through that ski team process and have them support me."
The European season gets underway in Ruka, Finland, on Nov, 12, and the World Cup begins in Mont Gabriel in mid-January.
"During the summer time we jump into a pool so that's where we qualify all our tricks. I was in Lake Placid the whole time and I got two new triple flips qualified, so I'll be one of the only girls competing triples this year. Now we're just trampoling and waiting for the snow to come.
"I'm just looking to do triples.That's a pretty big deal for the women, especially being so young. If I land a couple solid jumps during competition, I'll be pretty happy."