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Snow stars answer the call of the slopes

Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, Alice Robinson and Jess Hotter were forced to abruptly end their respective world tours under the threat of Covid-19. Today, the snow sport stars take their first steps back towards the slopes, and get a competitive head-start on the rest of the world. 

Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, the reigning queen of slopestyle, really wanted to be racking up more success on the Northern Hemisphere's snowy slopes . 

Instead, the 19-year-old snowboarder has been getting her adrenalin fix surfing with dolphins in the freezing Southland waters of Colac Bay.  

Jess Hotter planned to be freeskiing down the legendary, terrifying face of the Bec des Rosses in the Swiss Alps - celebrating an incredible first year on the Freeride World Tour.

Instead, she’s been pedalling her bike down the quiet roads of Ohakune, under the weight of apples, nashi pears and blackberries she’s collected from the roadside.

Alice Robinson should have been sitting on top of the giant slalom world, after a stellar and historic World Cup season - becoming the first Kiwi in over two decades to win a World Cup race.

Instead, the 18-year-old has been hiking and running in the snowless hills of Queenstown - and ruing what might have been.

The coronavirus pandemic abruptly cut short the outstanding international seasons of our best snow sports athletes. And although their collective reaction is “it sucks”, they’ve already moved on - working towards their next goal, to ski on their home slopes this winter.

This week is the start of their dry-land training programme – which means working out on everything but snow. At their base in Wanaka, 15 of our leading contenders for the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing will be working out in the gym, on the trampoline, and the new dry slope and the skate ramp.

And although it might not yet feel like it, being hemmed in at the bottom of the world should give these skiers and snowboarders an advantage over their international rivals in the lead-up to the Olympics and Paralympics.

Alice Robinson racing the World Cup giant slalom in Solden, Austria, last October. Photo: Erich Spiess/ASP Red Bull

If our ski resorts open - as predicted - in mid to late June, New Zealand will be the only place on the globe with world-class slopes up and running, says Snow Sport NZ’s high performance director, Nic Cavanagh.

“The rest of the world will want to come here this winter, but it’s likely our borders will still be closed,” he says.

“So we will have an incredible competitive advantage over the rest of the world leading into the Olympic and Paralympic qualifying period. If we can get through Covid-19, the advantages and opportunities that presents us with will be massive.”

Hotter - hanging with the best

There were rumours swirling around like snow in Ohakune that Jess Hotter was unwell.

She’d managed to find her way home from Europe, arriving just before New Zealand’s lockdown, and put herself in a 14-day isolation in the granny flat at her parents’ home. “I made it back in time, and I tested negative - but there were still people saying I had coronavirus,” she laughs.

Hotter had a dazzling debut season on the FreeRide World Tour, winning the second stop of the women’s freeski at Kicking Horse in Canada and climbing to No.4 in the world. That put her into the tour finale in Switzerland, on the perilous face of Bec de Rosses. But Covid-19 put paid to that.

“It sucks that we didn’t get to ski the best face – the one everyone looks forward to. I really hope I make the finals next year so I can ski the Bec for the first time,” she says.

She’s far from despondent. “I’m super-stoked I’ve made it back onto the tour next season, which was my main goal,” she says. “It’s a really nice feeling knowing that I can ‘hang’ – that I’m at the level of those top skiers."

Now she's hoping there will be a good New Zealand ski season - dependent on decent snowfalls and Covid-19 restrictions on ski fields.

“I’m moving to the South Island where the weather has been more consistent in the last couple of years,” she says, planning to return to work as a ski patroller at Treble Cone next month, and re-join the high performance squad in Wanaka.

She wants to work on her mental fortitude this winter, having "psyched myself out" in her first tour event in Japan.

“Dry-land training is also about mental health, and I want to get on top of the mental aspects of competing and get the tools to deal with all different situations,” she says.

Hotter has spent her time at home smartly – combining training with collecting food stores for winter.   

“For the last six weeks I’ve been biking a lot; and I’ve been collecting fruit on the side of the road while I’m out riding,” she says. “Then I’m drying them and making fruit leather for winter. I want to eat healthier.”

Robinson – No.1 and bulletproof

In just her first year out of high school, Alice Robinson has climbed to No.1 on the FIS world giant slalom rankings. It’s a spot she has to share, for now, with US Olympic champion Michaela Shiffrin and World Cup winner Italian Federica Brignone.

There was a chance the Queenstown teen could have shaken them off in the final three World Cup events of the season - but a lack of snow, followed by a pandemic cancelled them all. She’d won two of the six events on the World Cup calendar, including the last stop in Slovenia in February.

“It was pretty disappointing; I was just hitting my stride again in the last race,” says Robinson, who struggled with a knee injury early in the season. (The joint is now 'bulletproof', she says.)

“But it became pretty hard to focus on racing, with all the talk of a pandemic going on… so it was kind of a relief when it was all cancelled and we could go home.”  

Robinson’s parents were in Europe to watch her final races of the season, so they all arrived back in New Zealand – with Robinson’s sister, who’d left Australia – and spent nine weeks in isolation together.

“I’ve been training at home, doing 10 sessions a week,” she says, mixing in hiking and running. “But now I can go back to the gym with the others, I’m pretty excited to do real stuff again.

“It’s been refreshing to have a breather. I can’t wait to get back up on the mountain now.”

Robinson is zooming in on next year’s alpine world championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, slated for February. Two years ago, she finished 17th in the women’s world giant slalom – but clocked the fastest second run – and then won the world junior title.

“I’m focused on winning more World Cups, and getting top results at the world champs,” she says. “The Northern Hemisphere season is supposed to start in October, but that seems pretty optimistic at this stage. It’s all up in the air really.”

Sadowski-Synnott - riding a new wave 

It was like the domino effect, Zoi Sadowski-Synnott explains. Wherever in the world she drove or flew to in March, a ski field would close; a competition would be cancelled. 

So she and her boyfriend, Kiwi FreeRide skier Ben Richards, left Whistler for Wanaka, before New Zealand closed down too.

"It was crazy because I wasn't expecting to see my family until June," she says. "I wish the Northern Hemisphere season could have kept going because it was turning into a good one." The reigning world slopestyle snowboard champion had just won gold at the X Games in Norway. 

Sadowski-Synnott admits that for the first week back at home she was addicted to PlayStation. "I figured I'd had a good season and I didn't have anywhere else to go," she laughs.

After that she ran, trampolined and skated, and for the last few days of Level 3, went surfing in Dunedin and Colac Bay, Southland (where dolphins frolicked in the surf around her). "l'm still a beginner, but it's fun learning a new sport. It's like snowboarding, all about board control," she says. She wants to take a few more surf trips before the winter starts in earnest.

This week, she's back at the High Performance Sport NZ training centre in Wanaka - keen to try out the new dry slope and skate ramp out the back that Snow Sports NZ have been building over the past few weeks. 

"Our mountains are going to open this season, but we aren't sure what facilities we'll have up there," Sadowski-Synnott says. "So we're making sure we have alternatives to train on as well.

"It's going to be crazy - beside one resort in America, and maybe Australia, we'll be the only country snowboarding in the world. It's quite an advantage and I think we're all going to make the most of it." 

The following Northern Hemisphere season marks the start of Olympic qualifying, and Sadowski-Synnott - a bronze medallist at the 2018 Games - wants to do well in the early World Cup events to clinch her ticket for Beijing 2022.  "Then I can focus on getting tricks, so when the Olympics come around, I can get up there."

Going cold turkey

The lockdown has been especially tough, Nic Cavanagh says, for New Zealand's ‘park and pipe’ athletes.

“Every single day our athletes and coaches are out there on the snow pushing the boundaries, trying to get better. And with that comes a high degree of risk," he says. “That’s where you make breakthroughs, with risk and reward, which we safely encourage.

“But our athletes have had to go cold turkey, off that adrenalin. That’s been the biggest struggle, because it’s part of who they are.” That's why some turned to surfing at Level 3 for their adrenalin fix.

Lockdown has also allowed a few snow sport athletes to tend to long-seated injury niggles. “We might look back at this in Beijing and see the work they did on getting their bodies right,” says Cavanagh.

Ski resorts in that part of the country are planning to open in the last weekend of June. “It won’t be half pipe and big air that some of our athletes need to train, but it will get our athletes back on snow,” Cavanagh says.

“The high performance unit has some very specific requirements for our daily training environments, that are different to what the public have. Where we are usually quite bolshie in getting those facilities up and running, maybe we just have to take a cautious approach.

“It’s more important that recreation gets up and running, for the well-being of our community, before we start advocating for what we need.”

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