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Snowboarder Zoi hears the mountains calling

The intensity of Zoi Sadowski-Synnott's life has ramped up since she won bronze at the Winter Olympics, but there's still homework to do before she can snowboard full-time. Suzanne McFadden reports. 

Zoi Sadowski-Synnott is counting down the days until her high school life is over.

Sure, she’s not unlike most Year 13 students in that respect. Except this remarkable 17-year-old already has her head in the clouds - above the snow-packed ramps of Copper Mountain or Milan.

In her final year at Mt Aspiring College, the Winter Olympic bronze medallist snowboarder admits she's finding it hard to stay motivated in school, when the mountains are calling.

“I feel like I already know what I want to do with my life once I leave school," the Wanaka teenager says. "So all of the things I’m studying don’t really tie in with what I want to do.”

Come November, once her NCEA exams are over, Sadowski-Synnott will be free to chase her dream - and join the world snowboarding tour. Then, she says, she can “just snowboard all the time”. Maybe until she’s 30, she reckons.

If her life had taken a different course, she would most likely be off to university next year, studying accountancy, because of her love of maths and numbers. (It’s still something she hopes to do in her future).

But one history-making day four months ago in South Korea almost certainly cemented her alternate plan.

Snatching bronze in the snowboard big air final at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang - breaking New Zealand's 26-year medal drought, and becoming the youngest Kiwi woman to win an Olympic medal, at 16 years and 353 days – made Sadowski-Synnott even more determined to be a professional snowboarder. And realise her goal of winning both Olympic and X Games gold. 

But, for now, she has to manage the multiple roles of high school student, international athlete and celebrity.

“It’s a whole other world,” she says.

Sadowski-Synnott’s timetable before PyeongChang was already pretty hectic for a teenager, what with school, training, competing and chasing winters around the world. But when you add a little fame to the equation, life becomes even more frantic.

Take the latter half of last week. On Wednesday, she spent the afternoon with the brownies and pippins of Wanaka, volunteering her time to help build a waterfall by the lake, and letting them wear her medal. After school on Thursday, she led the procession for the opening of Winterfest, before captaining a team in “The Legends of Steel - Brecon Street Rail Showdown”, a night-time tricks competition in downtown Queenstown. Her friend and Olympic bronze medallist twin, Nico Porteous, led the opposing team.

"Everyone who knows of me, but doesn’t really know me, thinks I’m a different person. I’m still the same.”

- Olympic bronze medalist Zoi Sadowski-Synott

I finally catch up with Sadowski-Synnott late on Friday afternoon, when she's in a car, returning to Queenstown, for a night of filming with adventure filmmakers Diaries Downunder. She warns me the call will cut out as soon as she crosses the Crown Range.

“Life is definitely a lot busier,” she says. “I thought it was going to be really relaxed after the Olympics, but it turns out that I’ve got a way more busy schedule after everything that’s happened.

“I like it though. It’s been cool to see a different side of life, to see what can happen out of winning an Olympic medal.”

She’s very aware of the importance of showing up at local events, talking to the media, and endorsing her sport – especially with young girls.

“When I volunteered with the pippins and brownies, they all told me they’d seen me on TV. I already knew a few of them - from teaching them to play tee-ball at the local primary school last year - and they said ‘I knew you before you were famous'!” Sadowski-Synnott laughs.

“A few of the girls were like ‘I ski, but I’m going to start snowboarding this year’. And I’m like ‘Yeah, that’s sick’. I hope that I played a part in that.”

She’s now invited to major events around the globe. Days after she arrived home from PyeongChang, she was off to the US Open, where she just missed the final, coming seventh. Last month, she made her X Games debut, in Norway, finishing fourth in the big air final.

The snowboarder who won in Oslo, Japanese rider Kokomo Murase, made history in the sport by becoming the first woman to land a backside double cork 1260 mute. She was also the youngest medallist in X Games winter history - at just 13 years old.

The two women who stood above Sadowski-Synnott on the Winter Olympics podium – Austrian Anna Gasser and American Jamie Anderson – were both in their mid-20s. So the Kiwi teenager, who last year became the youngest-ever winner of a slopestyle World Cup title, envisions her professional career stretching until she’s at least 30.

“Some riders can get to 35 and still be at the top of their game. But it just depends on who you are, and how long you can keep pushing it,” she says.

Things are about to get more challenging for Sadowski-Synnott, now that the New Zealand ski and snowboard season has begun. She’s already been on the slopes of Cardrona a handful of times since the alpine resort opened just over a week ago, and last weekend she was at the opening of Treble Cone.

Her competitive season begins in August, with the Air + Style event in Sydney, before the Winter Games in Wanaka. Sadowski-Synnott and Porteous will both be star attractions in their home town – competing in both the World Cup events and the junior freestyle snowboard world championships.

“That whole month I don’t know when I’ll have the time to go to school. I just hope I’ll be able to keep up with my work,” she says.

The Northern Hemisphere snow season kicks off before her school year ends. She will compete in a World Cup event in China, return home to sit her final exams, and then hit the world snowboard circuit in earnest, until this time next year.

She can’t wait. “I’m aiming to perfect my riding, experience more big competitions, keep up my points and have some fun – without the the weight of schoolwork on my shoulders,” she says. After points from just two events, she’s currently ranked 17th in the world in big air.

Since the Winter Olympics, Sadowski-Synnott has been training intensely off the snow. That’s meant working out in the gym and trampolining, under the watch of her coach Mitch Brown, and skateboarding and surfing for fun.

At the Winter Games, she wants to introduce new tricks to her runs - “tricks that I’ve never done in competition before, that I can put down on home turf”.

Last month, she spent time on the slopes of Mammoth Mountain in California, to get back on snow again before competing in Norway. “They had an airbag there, and I was trying some new tricks,” she says, but not divulging just what those tricks are.

The young girl who once dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player says she misses that game, having to quit when she took up snowboarding seriously. But next year, she says, she hopes to join the local football league and “just play for fun”. She isn’t following the World Cup in Russia, because she doesn’t have a TV.

Some things haven’t changed.

“All of my friends still know me as me. But everyone who knows of me, but doesn’t really know me, thinks I’m a different person. I’m still the same.”

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