Inside the Olympic Wax Room

Why the guy who tunes your skis is as important as your coach. Almost.

In a sport where victory is decided by hundredths of seconds, the smallest equipment tweak can spell the difference between Olympic gold, celebrity, and lucrative endorsement deals and the alternative: no-name obscurity—or in the case of Bode Miller, global scorn. Little do most fans know, ski technicians are the unsung heroes of Alpine racing, expert craftsman who spend years working with competitors to dial into the perfect ride.

Glorified ski bums, pro techs ain't. They’re mad scientists on the quest to make liquid gold. Most pick up P-Tex, filing and stone grinding skills by tuning their own skis as young racers. Others start off in ski shops or as coaches before graduating to big name companies like Nordica, Head, and Rossignol. Top skiers like Vonn and Miller might travel with up to 60 pairs of skis and a tech—or two—in tow.

It’s not all dark wax room dungeons and screeching grinders for ski techs though. Take Julia Mancuso and her tech of six years, Andrea Vianello, a twenty-two-year veteran who tuned the skis that launched Mancuso to GS gold at the 2006 Games in Turin. Before each race, Vianello and Mancuso meet to discuss the course, conditions, and come up with the perfect plan. "I speak with Julia, to see what she likes, what she prefers. We decide together,” explained Vianello, in a think Italian accent, from the wax room during the women’s World Cup races in Aspen back in November.

At race time, Vianello escorts Mancuso up to the start box, where he debriefs her on any last minute info and specifics on the skis. Next, he takes off her jacket, lays down her planks, and dusts the snow off her boots. Mancuso clicks in and Vianello gives the bindings one last tweak. Then, he wipes down the tops and bottoms of her skis. The countdown begins, and with the blast of the buzzer, Mancuso is off.

So, what separates the good tech from the regular old waxer? His signature grind. A ski tech builds his name in the racing world by developing his own secret recipe of edges, overlays, wax, and final finishes that will give his racer the winning edge. Season after season, techs take scrupulous notes, tracking all types of variables and conditions, experimenting with different formulas, assessing what works and doesn’t work. “We test that as many times as we can a year in as many types of conditions as we can a year, so when race day meets a test day, we can look at our notebook and hopefully know how to best prepare the skis,” explained Jonathan Wyant, skicrosser Daron Rahlves’ tech and wingman at the Dusty Boot in Beaver Creek back in December.

But beyond formulas and edges and technical expertise, after hours spent together pounding the road and race circuit, sharing victories, defeats, and confidences, at some point, a tech transcends the ski entourage and becomes more like family. In the end, being a good tech is all about touch—the human touch.

Kelley McMillan has been following the US Ski Team for Skiing throughout the 2009-2010 season. Stay tuned for her coverage of the Olympic Games live from Whistler.


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