How Winter Olympians prep in summertime: wheels, wet suits, and virtual reality

In some ways, the lack of natural snow or ice actually makes for safer, more efficient training as American athletes prepare for the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff/File
The ski-jumping facility in Lake Placid, N.Y., can be used year-round. Olympic athletes increasingly are getting creative with the way they simulate race conditions in the off-season.

There’s not a snowflake in the sky, but Winter Olympic hopefuls are already flying off ski jumps in Utah, firing up their luge sleds in Lake Placid, N.Y., and cross-country skiing past Vermont cow pastures.

With everything from wet suits to wheels to virtual-reality tools, they’re simulating the challenges they’ll face at the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next February. The perseverance and perfection highlighted on TV for those short few weeks are being honed now, thanks in part to the innovative methods devised by coaches, trainers, and equipment designers.

U.S. Ski & Snowboard
Keaton McCargo uses the Ski Simulator at the Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah. The simulator can be used in tandem with virtual reality technology that simulates the sensory environment of an alpine ski run.

In some ways the lack of natural snow or ice actually makes for safer, more efficient training. Whereas alpine skiers would spend much of their on-snow training sessions riding the chairlift, for example, a skiing simulator allows them to cut straight to the actual training run. Essentially a lateral treadmill, it mimics the forces skiers contend with while hurtling down mountains – and can be used in tandem with virtual-reality technology that replicates the sensory environment of a ski race. A huge bonus: there’s no danger of crashing.

“What we’re trying to do is use virtual reality to expand the time that the athletes can spend in their field of play,” says Luke Bodensteiner, executive vice president, athletics at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) in Park City, Utah.

But he doesn’t want to talk too much about that. It’s one of the team’s secret weapons heading into Pyeongchang.

The art of jumping

Bodensteiner works out of the USSA Center of Excellence, which supports 195 national team athletes with state-of-the-art facilities (including napping areas) and a staff that includes conditioning coaches, dietitians, and physical therapists.

Chris Lillis is one of those athletes, and a rising star on the United States freestyle ski team. Last year he became the youngest male to win a World Cup in aerials skiing – at age 17.

Tyler Tate/T Squared Action Sports
Freestyle skier Chris Lillis stands atop a jump at the Utah Olympic Park at the Tri-Nation Aerials Showdown on Sept. 11, 2016. Lillis trains at the facility during the summer and fall, and says that the softer landing afforded by the pool (below) enables him to fit in twice as many training jumps as on snow.

Five days a week, he averages 25 to 30 jumps off the ramps at the Olympic Park, twisting in the air before landing … in a pool. He wears ski boots and skis, and a wet suit in the summer – switching to a dry suit in the fall as the temperatures drop, sometimes with sweatpants underneath.

The easier landing means he can do twice as many jumps as he would on snow. But there’s a catch.

“When we jump on snow the landing we jump on is between 28 and 32 degrees of pitch downwards, so if you land completely flat on water, you would land [wrong] on the snow,” he explains, so they have to adjust their technique. “You want to land forward to simulate snow.”

Abby Ringquist also flies off jumps in Utah – sans wet suit. A ski jumper, she cruises down porcelain tracks, springs into position, and floats through the air to land on moistened plastic. When she takes off, her hips must make an arcing motion – “similar to shooting a basketball … your fist is kind of like your hips in ski jumping,” explains Ringquist.

To perfect that motion, she also does “imitations.” Crouching down, she rides a small platform down a rollerboard, and then springs onto a pile of mats. That’s easier than when you’re going 60 m.p.h. off a jump, explains Ringquist, who just placed second at US Nationals.

In between training, Lillis and Ringquist chip away at college and work multiple jobs. He works for a public-speaking company and a golf course; she coaches, works at a Habitat for Humanity ReStore, and waits tables at a breakfast restaurant.

“None of my travel or equipment or lodging are covered unless it’s a World Cup weekend…. So for me to travel this summer and next winter, it’s about $20,000,” says Ringquist, who lives on a mini-ranch with her husband and their three dogs, two goats, and nine chickens. “My plate’s overflowing, but I do the best I can.”

17,000 bullets

Perhaps one of the hardest elements to replicate in summertime is the distractions of competition day. Take biathlon, for example, which combines cross-country skiing with shooting. As biathletes come into the shooting range, they stream into narrow lanes, pull their guns off their backs, load their ammo, and take aim at their five targets – often with competitors right at their elbows.

“You’ll hear what they’re doing, you’ll see them out of the corner of your eye,” says Susan Dunklee, whose silver at this year’s World Championships made her the first American woman to win an individual medal at Worlds. “You always have to have a plan for when you do get distracted – what are you going to do to refocus?”

It can be something as simple as focusing on your trigger squeeze, which can’t be too quick or too hard, or it will throw the bullet off course. So she practices that in the summertime – just her finger and her rifle, getting to know that exact place where the trigger will engage, like the clutch of a car.

And that’s just part of it. She also runs, hikes, bikes, and rollerskis through Vermont's rolling hills. Altogether, it’s up to four hours of training in the morning, and 1.5 hours in the afternoon – six days a week. She goes through 17,000 rounds of ammunition a year.

Courtesy USA Luge
As part of his summer training ahead of the 2018 Winter Olympics, Tucker West (l.) practices his luge starts at a refrigerated facility in Lake Placid, N.Y.

A luge track in the backyard 

Dunklee got her start in biathlon at the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center, where elite athletes can live and eat for free.

Tucker West was recruited there after USA Luge heard about the luge track his dad had built in their backyard in Connecticut, which West would ride down on a plastic sled.

Those who deride luge as “not a sport” clearly haven’t heard about West’s workout regimen.

After 30 to 60 minutes of jogging and stretching, he shows up by 9 a.m. at a refrigerated facility with a short luge starting ramp equipped with starting gates and precision timing. He “pulls” six to 12 starts, then it’s off to the gym for an hour-long plyometric workout.

He eats lunch in 10 minutes – no dessert – and then one to three hours of lifting. Power cleans, power snatch, power jerks. And hanging by his fingers. All for those first few seconds when he’ll pull himself off the start and then use his hands to paddle down the icy track.

Sometimes they put wheels on their sleds and go down the streets of Lake Placid or even the actual luge tracks – but that’s too risky for an Olympic year. After stretching, massage, and other recovery methods, he eats dinner at 5 p.m. and then chips away at online college classes.

“In bed by 10:30 to 11,” he says. “And then repeat.”

With 192 days to go until the Pyeongchang Olympics opening ceremony, athletes from Lake Placid to Latvia have a lot of training ahead of them before the global spotlight is flicked on. Then, the world will see the fruits of their labors – and maybe another little boy and his dad will be inspired to build something in their backyard, with a distant Olympics in mind.

Staff writer Story Hinckley contributed reporting.

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