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The Kiwi skier closing in on the world’s best

Piera Hudson has achieved what no other Kiwi slalom skier has done for 15 years. David Leggat talks to a focused young skier on the rise, and those invested in her future.

Jonny Rice still has the newspaper clippings from 1992.

“Coberger makes skiing history”, “NZ wins first Winter Olympics medal” the headlines read.

Annelise Coberger’s slalom silver medal in Albertville, France, still resonates. No one thought it would be another 26 years for the second, and third medals - in the form of snowboarder Zoi Sadowski Synnott and freeskier Nico Porteous in Korea last February.

“I was still at school but I remember staying up late to watch her win silver in Albertville,’’ Rice says.

And now, it’s one of his charges who’s carving her mark on the world ski slopes.

The Wanaka-based Rice has been working with Piera Hudson since she became an international alpine racer seven years ago, at the age of 15.

In the last few months, Hudson has a made a substantial step forward. Over the weekend, she won the giant slalom in the Far East Cup FIS series in Wanlong, China. Last week she won bronze in the slalom event.

But it was her 26th placing in the World Cup slalom at Killington, Vermont, last month where Hudson made the biggest impact.

Only a small handful of Kiwi skiers - including Coberger, Fiona Johnson, Simon Wi Rutene and Claudia Riegler - have made top 30 finishes in the top flight of international alpine skiing.  

This doesn’t happen every year. In fact, Riegler was the most recent to do so, back in 2003.

The significance is that the top 30 earn World Cup points. Indeed, only the top 30 earn a second run. Placings are decided by the combined time of the two runs.

So let’s get this clear: no one is saying 22-year-old Hudson is off in hot pursuit of Coberger’s achievement in New Zealand’s winter sports pantheon. No one - not Rice, not Hudson, not Snow Sports New Zealand - is that naïve. But it’s fair to say it’s hugely encouraging.

And it needs to be made clear that, if 26th sounds average, it’s not.

“The comparison I’d use is alpine ski racing is a bit like Formula One,” SSNZ high performance boss Ashley Light says.

“You look at freeski and snowboard and they’re closer to the world rally championship. There are a lot more variables, budgets are different.

“They’re equally as challenging, but the difference is alpine is such a longstanding and historically strong sport that the new sports are still catching up. The top 30 is a sign that Piera is knocking on the door.”

Rice likens it to reaching a quarter-final at Wimbledon, which is a pretty measured view.

Hudson admits the result had given her an extra jolt of self-belief.

“I remember the day I left for this stint overseas at the start of November,” she says.

“The last thing Dad said to me was ‘have a bit of belief’. I guess they all knew I could do it, but until you do, there’s this doubt in your mind. You just have to pave your own way and work it out as you go.”

This is a sport of fractions of seconds. American Mikaela Shiffrin, the 23-year-old from Colorado, is two-time Olympic champion and three-time world champion at slalom and giant slalom, and undisputed queen of the alpine game.

She won in Killington in a combined time of 1m 43.25s. Hudson clocked 1m 49.86s - a 57.04s run being followed by a sharp 52.82s. That’s a 6.61s gap. Quite a bit; but, in Hudson’s eyes, it’s a big step up.

Piera Hudson with proud coach Jonny Rice at Killington.  Photo: supplied

Hudson was born and raised in central Hawkes Bay, growing up in the little township of Tikokino, 55km southwest of Hastings, the daughter of farmers John and Fiona. Now, when she’s not on the slopes, she lives in Havelock North.

So how did she come to spend, by her reckoning, 28 successive winters following the snow?

“Mum was from Dunedin and would always go to Queenstown as a kid. She wanted me and my brother [24-year-old Tristrem, a ski instructor in Canada] to see the South Island and ski.

“I was first on skis at four and we always went down for skiing holidays.”

She first went to the Northern Hemisphere at just eight, having been spotted and offered a chance to join a ski camp for New Zealand youngsters in Switzerland. That, she says, was “the beginning of it all”.

Now Hudson can tot up three world championships, four junior world championships – her 16th out of 80 in Sochi 2016 is New Zealand’s best result in 30 years – and the 2012 Youth Olympics.

She’s ranked 112th in slalom, 96th in the giant slalom, out of more than 3000 FIS racers, and is the current national champion in both disciplines.

She was overlooked for the Winter Olympics of 2014 Sochi and 2018 Pyeongchang.

On the day of the Olympic GS at Pyeongchang, Hudson was racing in Austria and nailed a big personal best.

“I knew I was supposed to be over there and it fuelled the fire,” she says.

A bit of ‘Take that, Olympic selectors’ perhaps?

“I did a hashtag of one of my posts and it really took off and it’s now my mantra: #besogoodtheycantignoreyou. When I need some motivation I just think of that.”

Her coach, Rice, 44, remains mad for the sport. He likes what he’s seeing too.

“It’s really exciting to see someone who can aspire to get beyond what Annelise did all those years ago. And Claudia. It’s what I’ve always hoped would happen,” she says.

And if you think the result in Vermont wouldn’t have made a blip on the alpine radar, think again.

While Rice and Hudson were preparing to fly from Boston to China for the Far East Cup, they received footage of Hudson’s run from the German national team along with plenty of congratulations. They appreciate the significance of the moment.

“Other big nations realise how big it is. It’s not just New Zealand. For the sport in general it’s quite good that smaller nations can get in there,” Rice says.

Hudson has no large support team, and doesn’t travel in a bubble. Her dedication to her sport is starting to pay off.

Rice admires Hudson’s resilience. “It’s not something you can enter half-heartedly. You get found out pretty quickly,” he says.

“And she’s pretty resourceful and independent as a young racer from a small country. She doesn’t have the entourage of, say, the Austrian or Swiss teams. She’s pretty good at making her suitcase appear light at airports.”

Piles of air miles are mandatory if a New Zealander wants to have a serious dip at cracking the upper echelon of the discipline.

“You have to travel,” Light says. “You can’t do it sitting back here [in New Zealand]. The courses are more challenging, longer and they’re genuine world class facilities they’re training on.”

Is it imagination or are there good things happening in women’s snow sports in particular in New Zealand?

Consider Sadowski Synott’s fabulous big air Olympic bronze medal in Korea. Think of snowboarder Christy Prior, who won a World Cup slopestyle event in 2014, suffered injuries but would have been in Korea if not for a cruelly cancelled final qualifying event. And young Alice Robinson, a hotshot slalom racer just finishing Wakatipu High School who was in Pyeongchang as the country’s youngest Olympic team member and is already catching eyes - and a potential New Zealand rival for Hudson.

“We can say there’s a rising tide in women’s snow sports,” Light says.

“They’ve had amazing role models in the past, like Coberger and Riegler, and they are amazing at learning very quickly.

“They have the ability to be coached and aren’t afraid to try what’s being suggested; occasionally the boys have a penchant for doing what they want to do, not what needs to be done.”

Rice believes Hudson now has a better grasp of what she can achieve.

“Now she can be a little more free when she races at World Cups,” with the next in Zagreb early next month. “It’s kind of liberating for her performances.”

The next step involves more hard work.

“She’s got to get better technically, better physically, but she’s no different to any other racer who isn’t number one. There’s so much you can do in ski racing just by being the best prepared and hardest worker.”

Hudson sees herself racing until at least 30. She talks freely about wanting to lift New Zealand’s standing.

“We’re always going to be the underdogs,” she says. “I want to take New Zealand to the top. It doesn’t happen overnight, but I’m in it for the long haul.”

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