You may not know this about Sochi, the site of next year’s Olympic Winter Games, but it’s actually a summertime resort. It’s on the Black Sea, and it’s where a lot of Russians take their vacations. There are even three kinds of indigenous palm trees there. Pretty tropical, right? I was there in the middle of February, but it was T-shirt weather at the resort at the bottom of a valley, where the Olympic Village will be. Then you take one of four gondolas up 4,000 or 5,000 vertical feet to the top of the mountain, and it’s freezing cold.
The pipe is actually about halfway up the mountain, and the conditions were really slushy for the Sochi Olympic test event, held on Feb. 14. For snowboarders that means you dig into the snow a lot more, creating ruts and bumps, and those imperfections make it really easy to make mistakes. Lucky for me I always joke that riding variable halfpipes is my special gift. I think it comes from my experience growing up in Vermont, and the fact that I'm a classically trained snowboarder. I have a long history of being able to navigate different terrain, and it paid off in Sochi.
I also think the time I’ve spent working on the fundamentals of my riding helps me. A lot of people can do the tricks, but I made a choice about six years ago that in order to go higher, I needed to build up my base. I did the tedious work of practicing my edging, efficiency and board control -- the stuff no one wants to work on. But it’s those fundamentals that help me carry the speed necessary to do bigger and better tricks, and also to hold it together in iffy conditions like we saw in Sochi. So I like to think that winning that competition was the result of years of patience and focusing on my foundation skills.
It was my first time in Russia, and it was great to be able to check out the halfpipe that will be used at the Olympics, since each one is different in pitch, position, length -- there are a lot of variables. Actually riding it lets me see how many tricks I can do, what kind of speed I can carry and basically what kind of a run I can design for next year.
On top of getting a feel for the Olympic venue, we also wanted to check out the local culture. Gretchen Bleiler, Elena Hight and I hopped on a city bus one day for two and a half hours all the way to Sochi city center. We picked a random spot to get off and ended up making it to a boardwalk on the beach where there was almost no English language influence, which is pretty rare in our modern world. We had to go to four restaurants before we found one where we could figure out what we were ordering! (What we ended up getting was described as “chicken in a skillet,” and that’s pretty much what it was!)
It hasn’t been all wins since I last wrote after the X Games, though. At the Park City Grand Prix, where I headed right after X, I learned what my limit was -- by going past it. I was far more tired than I’d anticipated going into the event. Physically I wasn’t beat up or injured, but mentally I just couldn’t hang. I fell on my first hit in both runs, and I don’t know if I’ve ever done that. But I take the perspective that I’d just asked too much of myself and simply didn’t have enough left in the tank. It wasn’t ideal, but helped me realize that if something like this were to happen next year with the bigger events and Olympic qualifiers, I’d have to pick myself up, not freak out, and move on.
After six weeks on the go, I'm finally back in the States again. But it's no rest for the weary: I had the Burton U.S. Open in Vail, Colo., last weekend, and it was a monumental competition for me. After an epic day in Saturday's finals, I won my sixth U.S. Open -- the most titles of anyone, male or female. Some stats also came out that it was my 61st halfpipe win, more than any other snowboarder in history. To say this means a lot to me would be an understatement, but I still have big goals I'm working on: After all, I am aiming to head back to Sochi for a run at another Olympics next year!