Heading to this year’s Winter Olympics at the Russian coastal resort of Sochi, the expectations are running as high as they’ve ever been for the Australian contingent. Known more as the land of beaches and barbeques than snow and mountain ranges, a record size team of some sixty athletes are expected to bring back at least four medals and finish among the world’s top fifteen nations. For a country that struggles to knock out two months of serious winter conditions on modest mountain ranges, the bar has been set a height more akin to Mont Blanc than Mount Kosciuszko.
When former Australian gymnast Kirstie Marshall took a leap of faith to become an aerial skier back in 1986, it could have been another feel-good snow story lumped in with the likes of English ski jumper Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards and the Jamaican Cool Runnings bobsled team. However, Marshall changed the story and with it, arguably, the future direction of Australian snow sports. Although an Olympic medal may not have eventuated for her, the country’s first winter individual world championship victory did in 1997. And with it a belief that, given the right sports and training, Australia could become a serious player on the winter sports scene. In the subsequent sixteen years (to the end of the 2012/13 season), Australia won five Olympic gold medals, nine world championships and more than 200 World Cup medals.
Since Australia’s Olympic Winter Institute (OWI) started its national snowboard program in 2002 – one of the first in the world – Australia has become a leader in the sport, producing two world champions in halfpipe (Holly Crawford and Nathan Johnstone), two-time World Cup and world champion Alex Pullin and, while not aligned with the OWI program, 2010 Winter Olympic halfpipe champion Torah Bright. All four will compete in Sochi with up-and-comers such as Jarryd Hughes and Belle Brockhoff (snowboard cross) and Scotty James (halfpipe and slopestyle).
James and Pullin may represent the youthful faces of Australian winter, but Lydia Lassila hopes to prove there’s room for an older head in the team. Entering her fourth Winter Olympics in freestyle aerials, she has already seen and done it all, from the ‘just glad to be here’ Games of 2002, to the devastating knee injury as favourite in 2006, to her gold medal four years later. Sochi will be her last Games and, at 32, she wants to go out with a new trick – a quadruple twisting triple somersault that, as of the end of the 2012/13 season, hadn’t been performed by a woman in competition.
Watch out for those Aussies – they beat us in the Ashes and who knows what they can do in the Winter Olympics stakes!!