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What Makes a Great Ski Racer?

One coach says it's not just about how good you are.

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Georg Capaul has coached nearly every level of ski racer including Olympians. Now, a high school coach, we caught up with Capaul to talk about what makes a great racer and what his time coaching has taught him.

What are your qualifications as a coach?

I am a one-time Olympian. I got injured the summer before the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, which would have been my second Olympics. Though I was supposed to be the coach in at Salt Lake City, it wouldn’t be right for me to say that I am a two-time Olympian because I was not the official coach in 2002. I am a one-time Olympian, a one-time PanAm Coach, and a multiple time World Championship coach.

What was your experience as an Olympic Coach?

I coached in 1988 in Calgary. When you walk into the opening ceremony and you see all the people and different flags, it’s, man, oh man, it’s a different ball game. Your nerves are fluttering, your heart rate goes up, and you have to be totally cool under pressure. The experience is not something that you can prepare yourself for. As a coach, you have to keep your feet on the ground and be confident that you have trained your athletes to the best of your ability. There’s nothing like that anywhere else; each competition has its own ceremony and celebration, but the Olympics is so special. It just makes your knees weak. Now, 35 years later, I still feel the rush and the excitement.

As a coach, what do you look for in skiers at the Olympic level?

Obviously we look for strong, hard-working, persistent skiers. But that’s what coaches at all levels look for. The athletes who compete at the Olympic level have to be able to compete well under pressure. There are big qualifications to get there and only a handful of people actually make it because there are limited numbers of people who can compete in each event. This is the place that, as an athlete, you need to perform your best. As a coach, that is what you’re looking for. Those are the athletes that you hopefully have chosen.

Would you say that performing under pressure is a skill that can be acquired or is it something that comes naturally?

I would say both. There are some people who can perform at a young age with amazing skill under pressure. You say to yourself: “Wow! Where did they learn that?” But there are also some people who may not win early on and then learn to. That’s part of what we do at Holderness, the New Hampshire Prep School I work at now. We help athletes acquire those kinds of skills. It is something that can definitely be taught, but it is very nice when skiers start off being able to perform under intense pressure.

What was the most rewarding part of being able to coach some of the world’s greatest skiers?

It was very rewarding that I was able to inspire those athletes as a coach. Many times, when you look back on someone’s career, it is not the results that mattered; you don’t walk around with all your medals around your neck. You are judged on your character. I was very fortunate to work with people who are such great characters. If they feel that I have motivated them, that’s very rewarding. I receive a letter once in a while. I’ll be reading it and I’ll think: “This is very sweet, but what made the difference? Why do they still look back on this time?” When you’re a young coach, you don’t really think about the experience because it’s just all about the medals. As you get older, all of a sudden, the whole coaching aspect of it takes on a different shape. It took me a while to figure this out.

Which athletes should people be keeping an eye out for in the 2014 Olympic skiing events?

There will definitely be people who seem like they have come up out of nowhere, people who may have used the last few years as learning experience and are ready to bring it. But the ones who have proven to be winners in the past will be in the running for a top performance. The US will definitely have athletes in that league; there’s Ted Ligety, Julia Mancuso, Lindsey Vonn, the whole US Ski Team in general will be very good. I think if she stays healthy, Shiffrin will be amazing. She had a great year last year; she’s so young, so good, and so headstrong. There’s just no limit for that girl.

What advice do you give to skiers with Olympic dreams?

To young people, I would say to have fun in the process. Go for it and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. It’s going to be a great journey; you are going to meet so many nice people. There are some people who you wouldn’t predict are going to be champions, but then all of a sudden they start performing. Never doubt yourself, ever.