NZ winter athletes have chance to make history

BEN STANLEY
Last updated 05:00 26/01/2014
Jossi Wells
Getty Images
HOPEFUL: Jossi Wells is one of three Wanaka brothers named in the New Zealand team for the Sochi Olympic Games.

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They live for the small moments - for the freedom only risk and pushing the limits of gravity can offer.

A mid-air twist of the skis, an articulated flick of the snowboard, a total contortion of the human body.

Moments that almost turn a skier or snowboarder weightless, for split seconds, and allow them to move out to the frontiers of modern-day sporting endeavour.

Those moments are fleeting, and come with the risk required to experience them.

Catch that board on the wrong half-pipe shoulder as you come down or land your skis too far forward or too far back - and it's all over. Knees can buckle, legs can break, wrists can shatter.

That unrelenting quest for those moments of pure freedom keep the blood pumping through the veins of the world's best freeskiers and snowboarders - and is the reason why New Zealand has its best chance in 22 years to win a Winter Olympics medal next month.

The New Zealand Olympic Committee named a 15-strong team for the Sochi Winter Olympics on Friday, with the nation's top freeskiers and snowboarders forming the beating heart of it.

Eleven of the team come from the two disciplines, and ten compete in freeski halfpipe, freeski slopestyle, and snowboard slopestyle; three events included at the Winter Olympics for the first time this year.

Wanaka's Jossi Wells will capture plenty of headlines, and rightfully so. Ever since he was a young tacker, the freeskier has oozed world-class talent on the slopes of Cardrona - and his results in Winter X Games and World Cup events over the last three years prove his rock-star credentials.

He's a good chance in both the halfpipe and slopestyle, and won in the World Cup in Switzerland in the latter discipline just last week.

Jossi's brothers, Byron and Beau-James, will get the column inches too - this is the first time three family members have ever represented New Zealand in a summer or winter Games.

The quartet of Shelly Gotlieb, Stefi Luxton, Christy Prior and Rebecca Torr form four of the 24 in the women's snowboard slopestyle event - and Prior comes into Sochi red-hot after a World Cup victory in Canada last week.

But the real story of New Zealand's Winter Olympic campaign isn't one single athlete, regardless of if they win that long-awaited medal and allow Kiwi snow sports to step out from Annelise Coberger's long shadow.

The story is one of a New Zealand revolution; of how new Olympic disciplines, and the people who have long pushed the limits on Kiwi ski slopes, are pointing the way towards a brave new era for winter sports in this country.

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It's not only the top facilities we have here. Tom Willmott, New Zealand's national freeski and snowboarding coach, believes it's the push-the-limit attitude of those out there doing it.

"We've got some Kiwis that love the freestyle disciplines," he said.

"They love getting air, they love taking risks. That's why we've got such a strong team going to Sochi in those disciplines."

It's not all good powder and cold beers in the ski lodge jacuzzi for these athletes either. Outside the likes of Jossi, their lifestyles of competing around the world can be tough.

They come and go on little money, needing hard-to-procure sponsorship to keep them going and couches to crash on where they can. Add the risk of injury, and, well, it's a tough draw.

But the incentive now exists since their pursuits have been given a Olympic life. And regardless of what has gone before, a Olympic medal can erase any memories of hardships.

Sochi will be no walk in the park. A first Olympics is an eye-opener in itself, but security is to the fore following last month's terrorist bombings in Volgograd. The Washington Post wrote last week that there will be an estimated 26 security personnel for every athlete in Sochi. That adds a strange pressure to competition, no doubt.

The fields in both freeski and snowboard events will be incredibly tough, too. Just making it to the final will be impressive.

From there though, anything can happen. Strive for those little moments, and who knows.

Land the wrong way, and it's lights out. Land the right way, and write yourself into New Zealand sporting history.

- Sunday Star Times

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