For many New Zealanders the Winter Olympics are something of a novelty. After all, and despite having mountains and ski fields of our own, is not what we’re good at in an Olympics sense; skiing and sliding are not running or rowing or yachting or equestrian or kayaking. Our greatest moment at the Snow Games – Annelise Coberger’s silver in the slalom at Albertville in 1992 – was largely written-off as some remarkable aberration, even if it meant we beat the Aussies to claiming the first Winter Olympic medal by a southern hemisphere nation. OK, they did eventually beat us to that first gold even if it’s the jammiest one in the history of mankind.
Usually, the idea of medals from the Winter Olympics is farfetched, but not this time. This time out in Beijing there’s the expectation of medals, and perhaps even hearing God Defend New Zealand ring out across the snow for that very first time.
Those hopes largely rest on the shoulders of three young stars, all in their second Olympics and all not yet 21: snowboarder Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, freestyle skier Nico Porteous, and alpine skier Alice Robinson.
Sadowski-Synnott and Porteous became household names when they took surprise bronze medals in their respective events in Pyeongchang on the same day, and all they’ve done since is to continue to raise the bar.
Sadowski-Synnott is in blazing hot form having won both the Big Air, the event she medalled in in 2018 (a three-run, single-trick event where the best two scores count) and the Slopestyle – a two-run event down a course with features such as jumps, rails, and boxes with the best single score counting – at the recent X-Games in Colorado including becoming the first woman to land back-to-back double corks in the latter. If anything, Slopestyle has become her preferred event with wins at the biennial World Championships in both 2019 and 2021, and X-Games triumphs in 2019 and 2020 as well as this time plus silver last year.
When we sat down to watch the Men’s freestyle half-pipe final in Pyeongchang the hope was on the Wells brothers, Beau-James and Byron, to medal. Instead, and after Bryon injured himself in the warm-up, it was Porteous who came through, delivering a run that not only put himself into the lead, but also – remember the seemingly interminable wait after it? – forced the judges to redo their whole scoring system. He too goes in having won at the X-Games, defending his title from 2021 and is also the current World Champion.
Robinson is the youngest of the three, and the only alpine racer we’re sending. She finished 35th in the Giant Slalom and crashed out of the Slalom in Pyeongchang, but since then has won the Junior Worlds in the Giant, won three World Cup GS events, and was ranked fifth in the discipline in 2020 and 8th last season.
At the other end of the age spectrum and the oldest member of the team by 10 years is 32-year-old long-track speed skater Peter Michael, who almost medalled in the 5000m individual event at Pyeongchang and again in the team’s pursuit when he, Reon Kay, and Shane Dobbin dipped out against the Dutch in the bronze medal race. This time around though he’ll be on his own.
The rest of the 15-strong team (down from 21 four years ago) of 9 men and 6 women are – with one exception – all freestyle skiers or snowboarders. Miguel Porteous and Finn Bilous are the other returnees from 2018; Porteous joins his younger brother and newcomers Ben Harrington and 16-year-old Gustav Legnavsky in a four-pronged attack in the halfpipe. Bilous will compete in both big air and slopestyle, where he finished 13th last time and missed the final by less than a point, along with Ben Barclay. The women’s freeski contingent comprises half-pipers Chloe McMillan and Anja Barugh, with Margaux Hackett lining up in the big air and slopestyle where she’s achieved World Cup, X Games and World Champs Top-10s over the past two years.
The delightfully named Japanese-born Cool Wakushima lines up alongside Sadowski-Synnott in both big air and slopestyle and could be a hope in the latter having finished eighth at last years World Champs, with Tiarn Collins doing the same in the men’s after missing Pyeongchang at the 11th hour after badly dislocating his shoulder in a training crash.
The final member is the last person named for the squad. 19-year-old Campbell Wright will become just our second Olympic biathlete, a demanding discipline that combines cross-country skiing with target shooting and has been turning heads on the World Cup circuit. He’ll start the 10km sprint, and seems likely to also be in the 20km, 12.5km pursuit, and 15km mass start races as well.
One thing I was asked at Sportsfreak Towers when I said I would write this piece was “how are we suddenly good at all this?”. For me there’s a few things. One is the Winter X Games, an ESPN-led revolution in snowsports that is broadcast here, and arguably the inclusion of events like Big Air, Slopestyle, and Half-pipe in the Winter Olympics led the way for including Skateboarding, BMX, and speed climbing in the Summer edition.
The X Games, and the exploits of the trailblazing Wells brothers, has in turn inspired a whole generation of kids who want to push the limits of what’s possible in terms of bigger air and complex, technical tricks.
That’s then led to demand for facilities that’s been met by ski field operators, particularly down south, and there’s an ever-increasing number of youngsters swamping those terrain parks and giving it a go.
The other part is opportunity. Snowsports are not cheap – I can attest to that myself – and having the backing to take themselves to the northern hemisphere to further themselves is a huge part of that. For example, Robinson and Wright spent much of their teenage years in the US, Sadowski-Synnott and the Porteous’ there and in Europe, while Hackett spent her early years in France. But to be amongst the best you’ve got to be where the action is.
The Games get underway on Friday and let’s see if our Kiwis can not just fly, but soar.
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