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China digging for Winter Olympics Gold

Photos by M.Weyerhaeuser/JDP Images, Vaughan Brookfield /JDP Images

At the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics the Chinese women placed 28th and 31st in the half pipe. In Vancouver they are expected to podium. To make sense of this meteoric rise and what, if anything, it means for the soul of snowboarding, we asked Lesley McKenna, who has spent a lot of time with the Chinese riders at FIS events to shed some light

So how did this all start then?
Around five years ago the Chinese Olympic Committee ranked the half pipe and freestyle aerials (in skiing) as the two disciplines they could most hope to win medals in at the next Olympics.

Why?
As a nation their expertise is skill-based sports, rather than strength based ones. They are strong at skill acquisition and respond well to having a structural progression from a low to high skill level. In spite of what many riders may think the half pipe and in fact snowboarding more generally has a structural progression, although people might not know they’ve been through it. But you start off mastering 180s, then 360s, 540s, 7s and so on. You break it down and if it works at the bottom it’ll work at the top.

So how did they go about it?
They took 400 fit and able athletes, who were good at other sports such as gymnastics and judo, and trained them intensively. Each year the number got halved and now they’re down to about 35. They recruited 13 and 14 year olds so they’re all 18 and 19 now, and their sole goal of getting a snowboarding half pipe medals at the Olympics.
Their training centre at Harbin was residential for five months a year. All they had was a lift and a half pipe. They went to Japan a lot too as they have an indoor pipe there, and they’d also spend three months in Whistler and two months in New Zealand.

How big an impact will they make at the Olympics?
They’ll probably be the only country other than the US to have four riders at the games, as they have four in the FIS top 30. And in the women at least I think they’ll podium.

Do they have a generic style?
Yes and I think it’s based on footage of riders that they’ve watched. Most of the girls ride like Kelly Clark! As they get better skill acquisition, as in trying and landing a trick nine times out of ten, they’ll bring some creative variation into their riding and start playing with the trick and making their own style though. If you look at Jiayu Liu who is current FIS World Number One, this time last year she looked more like Kelly clark than she does now. She’s developed her own tweaked style.
In, for want of a better word, Western athletes this style would develop sooner and be evident in easier tricks. For example with Kjersti Buaas, she nailed a 180 and then got her own style of an air to fakie before she could do say a 540. But the Chinese will learn each trick in order from say 180 up to 900 without putting their own style into it. The coaches are driving this with the technical goal in mind, and also remember there’s no outside stimuli, and other riding styles for them to copy or even freetime to go riding, it’s just going from one trick to the next at this stage.

Why Kelly Clark?
I guess she had the best footage on youtube.

How do the coaches feel when they do get their own style?
Oh they’re pleased definitely. It’s a cultural learning process and they seem stoked with it, they’re not anti it at all.

Why did they not import US coaches to head up their development team?
They took a look at snowboarding and how it’s still a relatively new sport compared to say gymnastics and I guess they thought we can do it ourselves. They will have got the best biomechanics scientists and movement analysts on it and broken it down like that.

How have the competitors from other nations reacted?
At first they were just kinda ignoring it as it was just something going on in the background, but now within snowboarding at least there’s great interest. The other teams are building their kids programmes and looking at the Chinese kids programme to see what they’re doing. Before the Chinese riders used to be quite shy but now they’ve come out of themselves a lot more and definitely been accepted within snowboarding.

And how has hanging with international riders affected the Chinese riders?
It’s funny as some of the girls are getting quite boisterous, high-fiving each other after good runs and screaming encouragement to each other. They’ve become more American in their behaviour. They’ve opened up and got more creative. It’s inspiring and it makes me really proud of snowboard culture. I only see their involvement as positive, it reaffirms my faith in the snowboarding as something special, creative and different.
For them it must be strange as in other sports like gymnastics or judo (which they did before) they wouldn’t have competitors from other nations cheering for them. That’s quite a unique thing about snowboarding, sharing in your competitors’ success.

Can they ride slopestyle or is it literally just the pipe?
If slopestyle was accepted into the Olympics and became a medal aim of course they’d get good at it, as the Chinese government are funding them on the basis of them getting Olympic medals. They don’t care about the TTR. So one criticism the snowboarding fraternity has is that the riders don’t have a choice in what they compete. They aren’t allowed to do slopestyle, they have to just do half pipe but then the culture is so different in China. For these riders they’re getting to snowboard and travel the world, which is so much more than many of their fellow countrymen so I’m not sure they care that much.
Two years or so ago I was in Snowpark, NZ. Normally their day is quite regimented say in two hour learning blocks but the pipe was really bad, so their coaches had gone in. And I watched these two girls go to the rail section of the park, where they’re normally not allowed to go and they were giggling and falling off and encouraging each other and laughing and it was really cool to see. I know the Chinese riders really love snowboarding and that’s the most important thing.

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