On the surface, a ski technician’s job is to service, repair, and tune an athlete’s skis. Select the ski, wax the bases, file the edges. At a higher level, World Cup ski techs are responsible for making the fastest skis in the world run even faster. It’s a craft that takes an acute knowledge of snow conditions, changing weather, and physics, and often occurs in dimly lit, subterranean rooms that smell like boot liners and cold sweat. If they’re not in the ski room, you’ll find techs standing in the freezing cold, testing different sidecuts, ski constructions, mounting positions, and ramp angles.
They pull files late into the night to make sure their athletes have the right tools for the job come race day. Techs work with a mad scientist’s obsession until their skier gets to click into the bindings and put the skis through their paces.
Like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, an Olympic ski technician sits in the shadows of the athletes, coaches, even trainers, but their diligence and expertise is what shaves time off the clock for the skiers they work with. When coupled with the right athlete and the right equipment, it is the ski tech, perhaps even more than the coach, who supports the skier in the quest for victory.
“Being a technician is not a glamorous job in any way,” says Ted Ligety, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, and five-time world champion. Ligety worked with ski tech Alex Martin from 2010 until he retired at the end of the 2020-’21 season. “It’s the hardest working job in the sport.”
Breezy Johnson, the U.S. Ski Team’s touted speed skier poised to take Lindsey Vonn’s spot as the fastest downhiller in the country, relies on her tech, Aleš Sopotnik, to make sure she’s able to perform at her peak. Yes, she’s putting in the work in the gym and on snow, but it’s Sopotnik who makes sure it doesn’t go to waste when she pushes through the start gate.
“These ski servicemen often work 80 hours a week or more in the winter, on their feet in a dark, dank ski room, usually with no light,” Johnson says. “They wake up almost as early as the athletes, ski on the hill with us, carrying our clothes while we run. Then, when we get done skiing, they go back and work on the skis for six to eight hours, sometimes staying up until 2 a.m. or later if they have race skis to prep or new skis to set up. They get very little sleep, wake up, and do it again.”
But for a world-class ski technician, the job goes even beyond that. Equal parts coach, sports psychologist, and equipment manager, ski techs specialize in getting the most out of the equipment and the athlete.
“Your ski tech is the single most important person you have on your team on your way to winning races, both in training sessions and on the raceway,” explains Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, two-time overall World Cup champion, and five-time world champion. “In training, your tech is the connection directly with your ski company. It’s the everyday discussions on the mountain and in the ski room that push the evolution of the material. On race day, which skis to choose is a common decision between tech and racer. The wax and the extra black magic that can win you the race—that’s all the tech!”
The relationships these athletes have with their ski technicians grows over years. It’s the culmination of long nights of technical conversations about the tiny nuances that make the difference between Olympic medals and missed podiums.
Vonn and her longtime technician, Heinz Hämmerle, were a public example of the special bond between racer and tech. Mikaela Shiffrin and her Atomic tech, Johann Strobl, are another. Wherever you see Shiffrin on the hill—in training or at the start gate of a World Cup race—you’ll see Strobl, wearing his signature red jacket, by her side.
“I guess it’s possible to have a very cut-and-dry racer-tech relationship, but honestly, I don’t think that would last very long because we spend so much time traveling, away from home and our own families, so we have to become a bit like a traveling family,” says Shiffrin.
As a result of countless hours spent on the road, on the training hill, in the ski room, and in the start gate, athletes and techs learn not only how to work together, but to read and trust each other. After all, the success of each is inextricably linked.
“Johann is normally the last person to say anything to me before I start my run, “ says Shiffrin, “so he has had to learn a lot about who I am as a person to know what I want—or sometimes what I need—to hear before I start in order to be in the right mindset for the race.”
“There’s something unique about each racer,” says Strobl. “Every service guy tunes differently, so you have to find out what racers like or what they don’t like. At the beginning of the relationship, it can be a little bit tricky.”
The best ski technicians in the world, in other words, aren’t just pushing and pulling files behind the scenes—they’re pushing and pulling their athletes towards success.
“Mikaela is skiing pretty well, but you can always ski better,” says Strobl. “The service guys are just trying to make the racers faster.”
That’s exactly what speed specialist Johnson is counting on. Sometimes, she admits, clicking into a pair of skis prepared by Sopotnik can be downright intimidating, and she has to steel herself to the fact that the skis are going to want to go so fast, that they feel like they just might slide right out from under her.
“Sometimes I’ll step into a pair of skis and it’s like grabbing a slimy fish underwater,” says Johnson. “That’s when I have to double down and commit to being that much more forward so that I am accelerating with the skis, not them accelerating without me.”
The thing is, Johnson says, Sopotnik knows her so well emotionally that he knows just what to say at the start to keep her calm, cool, and collected. As you watch your favorite racers light up the courses in Beijing during the upcoming Winter Games, now you know exactly who is helping to make the magic happen.
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in SKI’s January print edition and was published before Breezy Johnson’s withdrawal from the 2022 Olympics.
From January 2022