Fearless freeskier takes up a winter affair
Kiwi Winter Olympian and mountain explorer, Janina Kuzma, has become a film-maker, shining a light on gutsy female freeskiers.
Sometime about now, Janina Kuzma would have been skiing down the shrinking faces of the world’s last tropical glaciers in Papua, Indonesia.
The two-time Winter Olympian should have been filming the third movie in her series, A Winter Affair, showcasing the daring exploits of the world’s top women freeskiers on slopes "no one knew existed".
A global pandemic had a say in that, though, and sent Kuzma and her husband, Chris Rodgers, rushing back home to New Zealand before lockdown.
But the alternatives to her thrilling escapades are far from a letdown.
While the rest of the world are off the skifields, she’s just spent four days camping out in the back country of Queenstown and Wanaka’s mountains, learning to be a ski guide.
Next week, she's captain of Team Kuzma in the Obsidian – an innovative new mixed-team challenge contested across the Southern Alps.
With no international skiers able to fly in to compete at this year’s Winter Games – traditionally the first stop in the Park and Pipe World Cup season - a new event was created combining 21 of New Zealand’s best skiers and snowboarders, female and male.
Kuzma was happy to take the lead in her team of seven, which includes Olympic bronze medallist snowboarder Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, and Olympic slopestyle skiers Finn Bilous and Jackson Wells.
“We’re super excited. It’s saved the season for a lot of the athletes, who now have an event to compete again,” the 34-year-old Kuzma says.
“It’s tough times for everyone - not knowing whether the 2022 Olympics will go ahead, or even the Olympic qualifiers. At least this takes their mind off that, and they can get back into that state of competing.”
Kuzma should be in her element in these five challenges over 10 days. Regarded as one of the most versatile freeskiers in the world, she’s been among the best in big mountain events around the globe, and represented New Zealand in the freeski halfpipe at the last two Winter Olympics.
The girl who grew up in the midst of a civil war in Papua New Guinea and then the jungles of Borneo is a two-time World Heli Challenge champion too.
But she’s also spent the last few years starring in films highlighting female action athletes throughout the world.
On the final day of the Obsidian, the three teams face the Mountain Shred challenge – all sent to different ski resorts to build a creative line, using the natural terrain or making their own jumps. Videographers embedded in each team will film the athletes, who are then judged on style, creativity and sport.
“I have some super-styley riders in my team and I can’t wait to showcase them on film,” Kuzma says.
“Filming is my passion. For me, if you’re competing on the Freeride World Tour, and you get asked to film with a production team, you’ve made it as an athlete.”
Kuzma’s incredibly gutsy antics climbing huge mountain faces then skiing down them have made her a star in the last five Shades of Winter female freeski films produced by Austrian freeskier Sandra Lahnsteiner. They’ve picked up multiple awards at film festivals around the world.
“I feel very grateful to have been included as one of the main protagonists in an amazing field of athletes. It was my breakthrough really,” she says.
It gave her the confidence to start up her own film company, A Winter Affair. “It’s about skiing in exotic locations around the world that people didn’t know existed,” Kuzma says.
The first film, 'East West', was shot in New Zealand as Kuzma and fellow Kiwi skier Anna Smoothy and Ayako Kuroda of Japan set out to ski over the Southern Alps - crossing the Liebig Range from Mt Cook Village in the east to the Fox Glacier in the west.
“It was a huge eye opener to see how much the glacier had melted since I was there in 1999 on a school trip,” Kuzma wrote afterwards.
Last year, she produced 'Peace Mountain' after she and Swedish freeskier Evelina Nilsson skied Mt Herman – a mountain that sits on the borders of Israel, Lebanon and Syria.
“It was the most exciting trip I’ve ever been on,” says Kuzma, who had to pass by armed soldiers at the borders they crossed, but skied down the serene slopes in peace.
The next two films in the series have been put on hold. Kuzma was set to ski the glaciers of West Papua, and then the untouched couloirs (narrow gullies) of Tasmania. Hopefully, she will get there next year.
So why are the stars of her films mostly women?
“A lot of the ski films have a huge male influence. But there are so many great female skiers out there – I just wanted to give a platform to those women to get their names out there. And so they could go on adventures, rather than always competing," she says.
To become more familiar with back country terrain for her filming, Kuzma has been training to become a professional ski guide.
“New Zealand has some of the most amazing female guides, like Lydia Bradey, the first woman to climb Everest without oxygen,” she says. “They are incredible people who are so stoked I’m going down this pathway.”
Kuzma’s pathway has taken a new turn in the past year. After finishing fifth in the halfpipe at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and then 16th at the 2018 Games in PyeongChang, she decided not to campaign for the next Olympics in Beijing.
“No, I’m done,” she laughs. “There are so many great young athletes coming through, doing the most amazing tricks. It’s definitely my time to move on and continue with my filming.”
Her husband, Chris, though, is still fully ensconced in the Olympic cycle, as the equipment manager for New Zealand’s Winter Olympic team.
Kuzma has also decided to finish up with the Freeride World Tour. As much as she loved competing on it over the last eight years, she says it was a constant battle for equality for women skiers. The tour only started paying equal prize money to men and women earlier this year.
But she hasn’t given up the fight.
“I was coaching some up-and-coming freeride girls over the school holidays at Treble Cone. The first thing I hammered into them was ‘Equality, equality, equality, girls. You deserve to be paid equal. You need to fight for your rights’,” she says.
She’s also wants to help more young women, and has taken on the role of mentor for a young freeride skier.
“For a girl to ask me to mentor her, that means a lot. I would have loved to have had a mentor when I was younger. It makes me feel really proud – and proud of her for having the courage to ask me.”
* Live coverage of the Obsidian will be on the Winter Games NZ social media channels, and Sky Sport will screen a four-part Obsidian show after the event.