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Last spring I skied with a bunch of racing buddies from the old days, the “old days” being the late Eighties and early Nineties. Together we represented a cross-section of the top U.S. women skiers of that era, a smattering of the first seed in the world from every event. Some of us are still connected in the ski industry and can scam all the best equipment. Others enjoy a few weekends of skiing a year tops and are on the relics of our heydays, the skis chiefly used now as slats for Adirondack chairs. Our assembled group sported a living timeline of the radical equipment changes in the past 10 years, and it made me wonder just how much the new technology has really changed the sport.
These were the same women with whom I rolled my eyes nearly every spring when our coaches talked about the “new technique” we were to learn over the summer. Invariably, by the time November arrived, the new style turned out to be the same old thing with some minor refinement. In my roughly 20 years of competition, not much changed. There were certain golden rules you just couldn’t get around, all etched into my long-term memory by Gustavo Thoeni’s GS turn in the book entitled Pianta Su. That’s Italian for “plant and come up.” The book’s title and the turn sequence on its cover said it all. The key then was total commitment to the outside ski and lots of up and down movement to pressure and release the ski through its arc. The dynamics of slalom were basically the same, but with less time for large movements the emphasis in every turn was the pole plant for timing and an upright stance to allow quickness.
Flash forward to 2001. The look of today’s GS is Austrian Hermann Maier running down the hill as straight as possible like a freight train with cruise missiles on his feet. His legs are spread wide, with both skis bowed lethally in their arcs. Maier’s biggest up and down effort of the day will involve the podium. As for slalom, the poster boy is wunderkind World Champion Mario Matt, Maier’s teammate. The only time Matt’s poles stamp the snow is in the starting gate. Not that you’d notice anyway, since his body is so hunched over.
What’s wrong with this picture? Has this “new” technique rewritten the skier’s element of style? I can’t blame skiers of my generation for feeling somewhat betrayed, not to mention a tad bitter, at what we went through to learn rules that now appear to be obsolete. Take heart: The equipment has changed, but despite appearances the basics of technique haven’t.
Our chief command was: Keep all your weight on the downhill ski. We even lifted up the inside ski to remind ourselves of our commitment to the foot-to-foot existence. The weight transfer had to be gradual-to gently guide the ski into the turn-and complete, to force the hunk of metal into an arc. Carving with both skis at once contradicted those physics. Yet that’s what I first saw happening in 1990 on a glacier in Norway.
There, dozens of youngsters barreled down the slope, bodies hunched with their skis as wide apart as possible. They were trying to imitate Norway’s slalom sensation Ole Christian Furuseth, and I remember thinking, this too will pass. Were it only for Furuseth it might have, because his technique was largely a consequence of his tall stature and wide hips. But the Norwegians were on to something. “They were the first to get really physically powerful,” says Martin Anderson, who now coaches the USST men but was with the Norwegian team during that time. This happened to coincide with the advent of rock-hard water-injected race hills and arc-happy shaped skis. The combination of strength, conditions and equipment allowed them to hit harder at the top of the turn, run straighter at the gate and, with a wide stance for balance, use both skis to split the forces of the quick and dirty turn. “It was fast but it wasn’t pretty,” says Anderson.
As racers adjusted to the ease of the new equipment, the sport regained its composure. “Carving cleannly and maintaining momentum requires tremendous touch,” says USST women’s coach Georg Capaul. “Finesse is back in.” He points out that when the super short slalom skis entered the World Cup scene two years ago, it was the women who adjusted first, because they didn’t try to overpower the skis. The pitfall for skiers with today’s stable, easy-turning equipment is that they literally get lured into a power trip, rolling from edge to edge hypnotically and steadily gaining momentum. That style will let you be a hero on ballroom boulevards, but will leave you helpless elsewhere without the strength and technique to support it.
With that in mind, Anderson insists, “If I were going to teach 14-year-olds now, I would do it much like 10 years ago.” However, coaches who carry the torch of fundamentals have a challenge. Just as kids are prone to copy what they see, they don’t want to learn what they don’t see. Felix McGrath was the top U.S. World Cup slalom skier a decade ago, raced on the pro tour until 1997 and now coaches the University of Vermont. “I always harped on the pole plant with my athletes,” McGrath says. But then he got on the new short slalom skis. “If you ski them right, linking clean carves, you get going so fast that the pole plant goes by the wayside,” he says. Nonetheless, McGrath stresses, you need the staple in your repertoire. “No matter how good you are, if you’re in tough terrain-racing at Wengen or skiing Tuckerman’s-you need to plant.” Capaul concurs: “The pole plant has not disappeared. It’s not ‘pianta su’ anymore, but it’s still a very important part of timing.” Likewise, when Maier barrels through a GS turn, he does “come up”-it’s just not as noticeable. These subtleties are the essence of what is really new about the new technique.
Jesse Hunt is especially wary of subscribing to the technique du jour. As a USST racer in the Eighties, Hunt endured an especially damaging era of copycat coaching. Now as the USST’s head men’s technical coach, he takes special care to work on technique in ways that makes sense for the individual. “There is one skier leading the pack every year, for a variety of reasons,” says Hunt. “This year it was Mario Matt. I look at what he gets from his style and then look at each of our guys to see what applies to them. If you do something just for the sake of copying style, you’ll change your style every year.”
Incidentally, on that spring day, the one in our group with the oldest gear (1992 200-cm GS skis) stayed out the longest, planting, unweighting and making damn nice turns.