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Learning from Olympians

By Louise Hudson

Watching the Winter Games is inspiring enough to skiers and snowboarders alike, but how about actually skiing with an Olympian to motivate your mountain mojo?

Whistler Blackcomb gets the gold in sheer quantity of Olympians who guide around the 8,171-acre resort. Emanating from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the ‘Ski/Ride with an Olympian’ program offers a lengthy line-up of limelight locals who are happy to teach the technique to tourists. Like Spanky’s Ladder, the price is somewhat steep – a full day private lesson with a gold medalist such as Ski Cross champ Ashleigh McIvor ringing up at $2500. But, voted ‘Whistler’s Favourite Winter Athlete’ for the 5th year, McIvor is also a born and bred local, with five-star insight into big mountain experiences at Whistler Blackcomb.

Justin Hartwell manages the Olympian program which, he says, sells out during high season, despite private day rates starting at $995, and has already shown a hike in interest this winter. “For a lot of the athletes that we have in the program, they competed in 2010 on this mountain,” says Hartwell. “So, it’s really quite cool because you have that insight into what it’s really like, and they can tell you their stories from the actual runs you’re skiing.”

Snowboarder, Mercedes Nicoll, has been working with the program for the past three winters. “I think a local’s experience is a game changer. I grew up in Whistler, so it’s always fun for me to be able to guide people around,” she says. “Having been at three Games, I get to share my Olympic experiences with everyone, giving them the inside scoop, what it’s really like to compete at the Olympics.” The program appeals to people celebrating a signature birthday and also to corporate groups, she says. And it is also highly effectual in ski progression: “One guest said he didn’t care to do black diamond runs and by the end of the day he went down a black diamond on his on,” says Nicoll, who is the most decorated rider on the Canadian Women’s Halfpipe Team with credits from Turin 2006, Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014.

How about skiing the Dave Murray Downhill with his daughter, Olympic freestyler Julia Murray? “Ripping down my Dad’s run and telling people about the Crazy Canuck history is always fun,” says Murray, whose fiancé is Olympian Davey Barr. On a couple of signature seasons, she was booked by the same group for 30 days: “I really got to see their improvement, that’s for sure.”

With over 30 years’ experience at Whistler, Darren Chalmers – snowboarding’s GS star from Nagano 98 and Salt Lake City 2002 – has been teaching tips for “everyday freeriding” since 2011. “Personally I like people who come ride with me to have an experience that will push their normal limits and boundaries,” he says. “I show guests how to refine their technique in a way to get the most control and comfort out of their riding. Many guests want to do some serious mileage on the mountain too, so you need to watch their fitness and how tired they get and take some mandatory breaks.” With a bias towards advanced intermediates, Chalmers favours Blackcomb Glacier, Whistler Peak, and the Harmony area when there is fresh pow or takes advantage of great grooming in the Crystal chair area.

On retirement from pro-skiing last year, Whistler Olympian Robbie Dixon decided to help showcase the home ski town he loves. “There is always a way to ski this mountain. No matter what the conditions, you can go out and have a good time,” he says. “And I love being able to show that to people.” Although initially starstruck, most people are genuinely excited when they meet him. “I get them stoked on a sweet day of ripping on the mountain,” he says. “I get a lot of questions about what my experience racing was like and how amazing it must have been to represent Canada at home in my backyard.”

Big White, co-founded by Cliff Serwa in the 1960s, has been his grand-daughter Kelsey Serwa’s home hill for 28 years. The Ski Cross Silver medallist from Sochi 2014 is also a veteran of Vancouver 2010. Hoping for more medals in South Korea, her Olympic Coaching Program will re-start at Big White after the Games when her competitive schedule permits, possibly with a ski cross camp at the end of the season. Serwa has run inspirational ski lessons there for the past two seasons.

Sun Peaks has had an Olympian hosting program featuring Nancy Greene for decades. As Director of Skiing, she guides around the mountain up to six days a week when her role as Senator allows. While still an ace skier herself, she is not picky about performance. “Everybody is welcome, if they can ski in control on a green run I’ll take a run with anyone,” she says, emphasizing that her guiding is free. While maxing the mileage with guests, giving technique tips and advising on equipment, Greene is always on the alert for feedback: “For me, it is a little way to ask them about the resort to see how we can improve and pass the information on to management.”

2006 Olympian, Christina (Lusti) Lustenberger, is an undercover backcountry guide for Girls Do Ski and Whitecap Alpine Adventures. “I really don’t associate myself as an ex-Olympic skier. I would hope that people want to come ski with me because I like to show people around my home mountains in Revelstoke,” she says, admitting that her racing background could be more of a talking point this season. She sees her role as leading by example, showing strength through tricky terrain to inspire confidence. “Coaching is a huge part of guiding, and being able to improve the clients’ experience goes a long way,” she says. Key to her rulebook is saving energy: “Showing your guests how to set an efficient ski track. How to walk uphill properly, using the least amount of energy. Maybe one or two tips per run… it’s great to see something click in someone’s skiing. Right away you see their experience go up.”

In Ontario, Olympian Rob Crossan manages Blue Mountain Resorts’ race programs. An alumnus of the Méribel 1992 and Lillehammer 1994 Games, Crossan has unique value for his students: “I can answer all the questions parents and athletes have about ski racing from the grassroots to the World Cup or Olympics,” he says. “This helps everyone have the same realistic expectations to enjoy the Jozo Racing program based on their child’s skill level.” Crossan has noticed the heightened interest in the resort’s ski cross, snowboard racing and freestyle training during Olympic years. “I think some people may be attracted to my program because of my background but I would say most want to join because they see the level of skier we create and the fun that they have being part of our big team family,” he explains. “The Olympics always create a buzz and people start asking about the sports they see and if we offer them here at Blue.”

With the South Korea Paralympics coming up March 8-18 (https://www.paralympic.org/pyeongchang-2018), CADs Ontario (http://cadsontario.ca/) expects a hike in enrolment for its Paralympic instruction. “CADS Ontario utilizes Paralympians as instructors and as mentors. We offer a Learn to Race Program in the Collingwood area,” says CADS President Gwen Binsfeld, who is also the program director and head coach for the provincial Para Alpine Team. One such mentor is Melanie Schwartz, previously with the Canadian team and now racing for the US in South Korea. “The value in skiing with athletes like Melanie is ultimately that we’re happy that they develop as skiers but more importantly that they are inspired by these skiers with disabilities,” says Binsfeld. “Our Paralympians show more self-confidence and are more driven and that comes into every aspect of their lives. Everyone can learn tremendous life skills though skiing.” CADS programs are offered at Craigleigh ski area, Searchmount Sault St Marie, Sir Sam’s Haliburton, Mansfield, Brimacomb, Snow Valley, Horseshoe Valley, and Heights of Horseshoe.

And for a chat with one of the Crazy Canucks, Canmore’s Rocky Mountain Bagel Company is the place to be. Legendary Olympic downhiller Dave Irwin hangs out there every day, noticeable in one of his wife Lynne Harrison’s colourful skiwear designs from nearby Silver Tree Studio (https://alchemyofride.org/).

Visit www.onetwoski.blogspot.com for more articles by Louise Hudson.