PROFESSIONAL SKIER - ADVENTURE SEEKER - EX SLOPESTYLE OLYMPIAN - NOW BACKCOUNTRY FILMER
I think we first met way way back in the Physio clinic during the good old days at Snow Park NZ. I vaguely remember treating you for painful heel bang at the time, which was nearly impossible considering the number of laps and jumps you were determined to stomp in the park each day, despite the discomfort you were experiencing. I remember at the time thinking how stubbornly tough this pint sized smiley Aussie was, which to this day I’d still agree with. Do you feel my first impression was accurate?
Yep, I’d say you were pretty accurate on the stubborn evaluation. In terms of toughness, I guess I’m generally pretty tough, but I do have ‘delicate’ days. When I have a cold or am feeling sick, you’ll know about it!
Can you list your full injury history for everyone to see (as I think this further exemplifies my first impression!).
Ughhh…. I’ll try.
2 x blown right ACL, torn patella, torn MCLs, blown left ACL, cartilage damage in my left knee, torn meniscuses, spiral fracture of my fibula, torn tendons in my ankle, spiral fracture of my middle finger, broken thumb, 2 x broken wrists, micro fractures in my heals, compression fracture in my back, 3 major concussions… I think that’s the main ones covered.
A lot has happened in both of our worlds since we last worked together in the lead up to and during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. But before we delve into the exciting things you’ve been up to since then, lets time travel back to this time four years ago… Can you tell us what you’d been dealing with through that Olympic lead up period injury wise.
I had my best season ever in 2012 and had high hopes for the 2014 Olympics. But then in Feb 2013 I injured myself at a World Cup event in Europe- chipping a large piece of cartilage in my left knee. I wasn’t aware how painful and frustrating this injury would be. Rehab started after a minor knee scope to clean things up, but I had no idea what I was in for. My knee was constantly swollen and felt like I had broken glass shoved in between my joint. Rather than progressing in the 2 years leading up to the Olympics, I was trying to learn how to ski again. In my first comp back (late 2013), I didn’t even make finals - this had never happened to me before! My following comp, I crashed and felt that I had tweaked something in my hamstring. A few weeks later I learned that my ACL was only hanging on by a thread. At this point, it was three weeks out until the Games.
After such a mentally and physically challenging year of rehab, how did you manage to deal with the blow of significantly injuring your ‘good’ knee just a few weeks out of the Games?
I was devastated, frustrated, sad and I felt hopeless. However, I had begun working with a sports psychologist through 2013. I had learned a lot from her and I started to really put her methods into practice. I took each day at a time and did everything in my power to improve my situation - I meditated, I ate anti-inflammatory foods, I visualized, I did exactly what my physio (you) told me to do, everyday. No more, no less. Knowing that I was doing everything I could do, kept me feeling positive and increased my hopes of making it to Sochi.
Working closely with you throughout that year, I know it was definitely a challenging time. With the luxury of a few years of hindsight under your belt now, is there anything you would have done differently if you had the chance?
I would have paid more attention to my sports psyche - and spent more time training my brain than my body. Also - I would have listened more to my physio and taken more rest days, rather than taking the mindset that more gym time was better for my recovery.
Despite having only one functioning ACL (and having a terrible head cold), you successfully competed on the world stage down one of the gnarliest slopestyle courses ever created and came an impressive (I think so) fourth. Although fourth can be considered bitter sweet and is obviously not the easiest placing to deal with, how did you feel about this result at the time.
It was bittersweet. Because there is always that voice inside your brain thinking ‘what if’. But if I had taken bronze, maybe I would be wondering ‘what if’ about the gold. But all in all, I was over the moon. To be honest, I wasn’t even expecting to make it to finals. And to put down the run that I had spent so long visualising, I couldn’t have asked more of myself in the condition I was in.
Has your view on where you placed changed at all in the years gone by?
No, I’m still amazed at how I dealt with the adversity. I am really proud with how I handled the time between discovering my ACL was blown, to finishing my final run at the Winter Olympics.
After the Sochi Games, you retired from competitive skiing. Did your battle with injuries play a part here, or were other factors at play?
Injuries haven’t played as big a part in my skiing since I finished competing. I have had a few, but nothing that has kept me out of action for more than a month. Which is so nice! I’ve definitely had my fair share of mental battles though. Trying to transition to being a ‘freeskier’ and shooting for photos/ films, has been really hard. I was known as a ‘park skier’ and it has taken a long time to develop my skills in other areas of skiing to a point where people will take me seriously in those areas. I was at the top of my game when competing in slopestyle and transferring over to a back-country skiing saw me starting from square one again. It’s been humbling, but I’ve learned so much about both the mountains since I finished competing. It’s been a new step forward for me.
With a new ACL in place and yet another rehab period complete you returned to skiing the next season, and it seems you haven’t looked back. Can you fill us in on what you’ve been up to since you left the competitive stage?
Learning how to ski in the backcountry! Learning how to shoot for ski photos and ski films, learning how to ski powder properly, learning how to choose ski lines, drop cliffs, ski pillows, use ropes and so much more. Ohh… and learning how to produce a documentary film!
One of the focus points of your filming project Finding the Line is exploring the level of fear we are comfortable to put ourselves in front of. Do you feel that your extensive experience with injuries, pain, rehab/rebuilding etc has played a significant role in shaping how you deal with fear and how comfortable you are in its presence these days?
I think it was actually the process of making the film that shaped how I now deal with fear. When we first started developing our ideas for the film, I had a theory of how I dealt with fear. However, through the filming and post-production processes, I realised that this idea I had about my own character was false - or just a superficial idea. And I feel that not knowing myself and my true motivations thoroughly enough when I was younger, was what led to many of my injuries.
Do you feel your past injuries have contributed to shaping who you are now, and have they changed how you train / approach your skiing these days?
I think each injury you experience plants itself in your memory bank. It’s always there (with all your other experiences) and all your past experiences have a part to play in how you approach your future. They shape you. But you can develop tools to deal with these experiences in order to achieve the outcomes you want from yourself. So I would say yes! They have changed my approach to skiing. I am more conservative and more calculated in some aspects of my skiing. But in other aspects, I am more trusting of myself.
Do you miss being surrounded by the community of athletes you’ve grown up with on the competitive circuit? Or do you feel that having your sister Nat with you now on most of your skiing adventures fills that void?
I do really miss my friends from competition. I lived with them, travelled with them and skied with them almost every day. Even though we were competing with each other, we were all very close. It has taken me a few years but I have started to find a new community, of girls and guys who are just as passionate and have the same ideas that I do about skiing.
Has Nat’s background as a big mountain skier helped fuel the fire to spread your wings into the world of back country skiing? (What I’m politely asking is how competitive are you guys when you’re out there filming together?)
When we’re filming, we’re actually not competitive at all. Watching Nat ski definitely inspires me, but we each have different styles and I think we work well together to complement each other. We help each other choose lines and bounce ideas off each other. I greatly respect Nat’s opinion.
Do you have any magical tricks of the trade (routines, exercises or techniques) that you rely on to keep your body working at its best?
I’ve recently really gotten into Epsom Salt baths for my feet, after a long day in ski boots. Other key things are drinking lots of water rolling out after skiing and sleep!
Are there any devices that you travel with to assist you with this? What can’t you live without whilst on the road?
Roller, a spikey ball and a selection of herbal teas.
Aside from keeping your physical body in the best shape it can be, are there any techniques you practice to assist with mentally being in the best zone?
Yoga, more to chill me out rather than a work out. I meditate when I have a good routine going, but I’m on and off with this. I should do it more!
And do you feel that nutrition plays a role in keeping you at your best? What have you found works best to keep you fuelled for long days filming in the back country?
Nutrition plays a massive part in keeping my energy levels up and also- sleeping well. I’m no angel as I have a massive sweet tooth and peanut butter addiction. But I try to keep the sugar to a minimum and try not to eat it before bed. Pre snow breakfast I try to eat something warming and hot (oatmeal with Banana, cinnamon, peanut butter and other yum toppings). - I love smoothies, but try to keep these for when I’m not skiing. On snow, I’m a big fan of making wraps with loads of veggies, hummus, quinoa and avocado. After skiing, my go to’s are curries and stir fries as they have lots of good spices, packed with veggies and are quick!
I know that during your last few competitive years as an athlete, your injuries had you spending a large focus of your training in the gym environment. Do you still spend much time working on formal strength training these days? Can you outline your typical off snow training program?
I do still spend a good amount of time in the gym, because I still want to perform my best when I’m skiing and prevent injuries. I do a lot of strength work with heavier weights pre-winter (squats, deadlifts, lunges etc), during winter I do a lot of yoga and try to get a couple lighter gym sessions in a week (when I’m home). I also try to do my own pilates routine a couple times a week- lighter than lifting weights, but keeps the right muscles firing. Then in the summer, I love hiking, trail running, surfing, rock climbing and swimming. After a long winter, I just want to be outdoors and in the sun as much as possible!
With the knowledge and wisdom you have now, if you could go back and coach your younger self, what would your advice be?
Don’t worry what others think of you so much!
What was the best advice you’ve ever received, and from whom?
From one of my coaches, Elana Chase - “it’s just skiing, you’re not curing cancer out here”
If you owned a fortune cookie company, what words of wisdom would you choose to impart on the world, one cookie at a time?
Make more time for your friends and family
Finally, being one of the exceptional athletes who has excelled in both realms, if you had to choose, would it be a day of filming pow in the back-country, or a successful day in the slopestyle competition scene that would make you smile the most?
Ohhhh I can’t chose!
Author - Jess Cunningham
After years of having the privilege of partaking in long candid talks during treatment and rehab with many amazing athletes and clients around the globe, I realised I've taken for granted the interesting insights I've been lucky enough to have into what makes these inspiring people tick.