What makes them great? Examining the special skills that could put local Olympians on the podium
February 6, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Ask your average fan on the couch what makes an athlete truly stand out, and he or she may well turn to cliches about heart and attitude. Even ask the athletes themselves, and you're likely to get similar answers.
We asked everyone else, though, veteran athletes and coaches in their sports who can look at a ski run that lacked any obvious mistakes and see the small details that separate gold from silver and silver from bronze.
There's no shame in admitting it all looks the same to you. We dove deep with several athletes who've shown truly world-class skills to uncover what it is that makes some of Steamboat Springs' top Winter Olympics athletes great.
Jaelin Kauf and the fast feet
Jaelin Kauf's first big breakthrough on the World Cup didn't actually come in moguls as it will be contested at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
It came in dual moguls, a head-to-head event where skiers compete side by side. It's not exactly a race.
The time down the course is only one of three factors that decide a winner, and it's not the most important factor. It's scored equally as important as an athlete's tricks off of two mid-course jumps, and it's worth one third as much as an athlete's ability to ski through the field of bumps as rated by a panel of judges.
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But, it's hard for anyone to remember that time is only 20 percent of the total score when the skier in the other lane is pulling ahead.
That's where Kauf's speed is the most obvious, and it's where all of the first breakthrough results of her career came from. She's always hard to beat down the slope and has been untouchable in the most important runs.
Why? It comes down to three factors.
First, she’s cat quick on her feet, a big advantage when it comes to bouncing between bumps.
"What really brings the wow factor to her run is the ability to move those feet," said Kate Blamey, the elite moguls coach at Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.
Quick feet allow Kauf to keep her balance.
"The quicker you can move your feet, the more you can absorb the bumps," Blamey said. "It allows her the ability to transfer her weight from bump to bump faster. … I've never seen anyone do an agility ladder as fast as Jaelin can. She's so athletic, so quick, and that's why she is where she is right now."
Keeping her balance allows her to stay in control and that shows in her body from the waist up when she's skiing.
"It just looks effortless," said Scott Kauf, Jaelin's father and a five-time champion on the World Pro Moguls Tour. “The quietness of her upper body and her hands really stands out, and that's helping make sure she gets good ski-snow contact. From her head to her hips, it's quiet and in control."
Balanced and with strong body position, Jaelin Kauf is able to hit the bumps more smoothly than most of her competitors.
"Her turn and her speed go hand in hand. The way Jaelin absorbs the contour of the mogul and presses on the backside is really aggressive, and most women are a lot more defensive," Steamboat Springs moguls skier Ryan Dyer said. "They'll slide their feet sideways into the rut in a two-part motion. They'll hit the mogul, then absorb it, then slide again and hit again. Jaelin, she takes a very direct path, and all in one motion she's down the backside and absorbs the mogul. It's a very fluid and efficient way to ski moguls. She snakes through the moguls."
The quick feet, a stable body and an aggressive approach only saves a fraction of a second with each turn, but it adds up to big results at the bottom of the hill, and at the Olympics, it could give Kauf a gold-medal advantage.
Taylor Fletcher and the rocket skis
Nordic combined by nature and name is a two-part sport–one half ski jumping and one half cross-country skiing.
Athletes tailor their workouts and build their bodies to be able to handle what's a somewhat unnatural combination. Ski jumpers need to be as light as possible to float on the breeze. Cross-country skiers need strong muscles to go the distance.
That's a balance that's haunted Steamboat Springs Nordic combined skier Taylor Fletcher. His lack of results on the jumping hill have hamstrung his career and nearly cost him the chance to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics, which will make him a three-time Olympian.
While he jumps at a minor-league level, his cross-country skiing is almost unrivaled on the World Cup circuit.
If he can jump anywhere close to the pack to start the competition, he's almost always been able to use that tremendous cross-country skiing motor to power his way into contention.
He's averaged top-10 cross-country ski times in each of the last three full seasons and 20 times finished the race with a top-five time.
How does he do it?
There are several key factors.
The jumping actually may help when it comes to putting up a cross-country ski time. Fletcher started many of those races from a position around No. 40, so there was always a rabbit to catch in the way there would not have been were he starting at the front of the pack
But it's not all circumstance, and in fact, there’s plenty is good ol' hard work mixed with some advantageous genetics.
Two physical factors proved especially important for Fletcher.
His VO2 max measurement, calculating the amount of oxygen his blood can carry during full-on athletic activity, tests unusually high.
That combines with very strong results in his lactic threshold curve, which measures how quickly lactic acid builds up in his muscles. Together, they give a picture of an athlete who can ski powerfully with well-supplied muscles that are slow to see acid buildup.
"A good athlete has a curve that shows a very long and gradual buildup in lactic acid, and that's what Taylor's really good at," said Bryan Fletcher, Taylor's older brother and a two-time Winter Olympian also in Nordic combined.
"Taylor's curve is amazing," Bryan Fletcher said. "When you combine that with the ability to be able to do work on the high end, which is where the VO2 max comes in, he's able to move a ton of oxygen very efficiently through his body, so, when you get to those really high levels where most people would start dropping off, he's able to maintain his performance there a little longer."
Taylor Fletcher's tall, skinny build helps, as well. He's 6-feet tall, taller than average on the circuit. Not every great World Cup skier is tall. Italy's Allesandro Pittin is often shoulder to shoulder with Fletcher in terms of the World Cup's top skiing times, and he's seven inches shorter, 5-foot-5.
Still, that size does help Fletcher cover a little more ground with every step, and the physiology allows him to do so more efficiently than most. This helps keep him from tiring and helps him maintain ideal technique later in races that makes for fast times.
"In sports like bike racing, they talk often about a person's 10-second power wattage they can put out, their one-minute wattage, five-minute and 30-minute," Bryan Fletcher said. "With Taylor, he'll be average or slightly below average in the elite athlete for the 10-second mark or 1-minute mark, but when you start putting him in the 5-minute and 20-minute categories, he'll be well above average, and that's what makes him fast in the cross country."
Arielle Gold and the 1080
One of the final women's snowboard halfpipe competitions before the 2018 Winter Olympics offered two lessons that anyone watching the sport develop in the last four years already knew.
First, the 1080 — three full spins on one hit on the halfpipe — is a major key to winning an event in this era.
Competing at Mammoth Mountain Resort, California, in the final U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix event of the season, the top two finishers, Kelly Clark and Chloe Kim, each used 1080s to reach the top of the scoreboard.
The second lesson: even though it's likely going to be required to win the gold medal at the Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the 1080 is still a difficult, nasty trick that, even for those who've done them for years, offers no guarantees.
Of the eight 1080s attempted, only two were landed.
Those are all reasons why Steamboat Springs snowboarder Arielle Gold locked her focus on the trick early this winter.
The 1080 is what can make Gold great.
Gold learned a 900 spin in 2012 and that propelled her to a new level in the sport–to X Games podiums and the 2014 Winter Olympics.
She's tinkered with her run in the years since but never improved upon her signature 900 by adding the extra half a rotation needed to make it a full 1080. She set out this winter to finally accomplish that.
There are two ways to get the extra half a rotation. A rider can go higher, getting more amplitude and thus more time to spin.
That's what sets Kim's riding apart so much. She soars above the pipe unlike anyone else on the women's circuit, and she's the best in the world at the 1080, so good, in fact, she'll throw them back to back in big events.
The other option is to spin faster.
Gold aims to do a bit of both.
Maximizing the first bit–her time in the air–is all about the takeoff when she actually does the jumping as she's riding up the side of the halfpipe. (Yes, halfpipe riders don't just soar up out of the pipe, they physically jump as they're rocketing upwards.)
"The hardest part is never the trick. It's the takeoff, being patient enough to wait until you hit the full vertical of the halfpipe," Gold said. "The hardest is not going too early."
Going too early can lead to a number of problems besides a lack of airtime. It can throw off a rider's arc and have them coming back down on the deck or at the very top of the lip of the pipe, earlier than they want. Land a little lower in the pipe and that's more room to spin.
Landing too low is, of course, a problem all of its own. It's a fine calculation. It's difficult.
"There are all these little subtleties in pipe riding," said Taylor Gold, Arielle's older brother, an Olympic halfpipe rider himself. "If you're not careful and address each one, you put yourself at risk. She's definitely decked on that trick plenty of times, but she's learned that timing, and with that, came consistency with the 9, which really is a prerequisite for the 10."
In addition to taking better advantage of the air, Arielle Gold is hoping to make better use of it when she's in that air by spinning faster.
One of the key components of her 900 that always stood out to judges was her grab, a mute grab, where she'll reach down and grab the frontside of her board as she's spinning.
It's better for her score, but the movement slows down her rotation, so she’s been reaching for a tail grab instead, something that spins a little quicker.
Those aren't the only factors.
Another significant obstacle is that the rider has to land switch, or backwards, from how she'd typically land.
"So the confidence on the landing is not as much as when you land a regular trick," said Queralt Castellet, a Spanish rider and among the small sorority of riders to have landed a 1080 in competition.
She used it to win a U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix event earlier this season, besting riders like Kim, Clark and Gold with the 1080.
"You need quite a bit of height to do it, so you have to go full speed into it," she said. "You need a lot of commitment for it. It's just a very technical trick."
There’s one final factor, too.
The snowboard halfpipe judging community is small, and its members grow familiar with an athlete's progression and his or her quiver of tricks. Adding a new one can be richly rewarded.
"The thing Arielle has going for her is all the positive momentum right now having just learned the 1080," Taylor Gold said. "If she can continue the same trajectory, she could be right in there.
"I think she could win."