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Beaches key to Australian Winter Olympic success

29 May 2013

SOCHI 2014: For most of the world, Australia evokes imagery of a sunburnt country – surfing, swimming and cricket. The idea that Australia competes at the Winter Olympics, let alone winning medals at the last five Games, comes as a big surprise to most.

Ironically, it is Australia’s beaches and temperate conditions that are being used to give Australia’s winter athletes the edge over their competitors.

One man responsible for this is John Marsden - Senior Sports Scientist for Winter Programs at the NSW Institute of Sport and Australian Institute of Sport.

Speaking at a gruelling training session on the sand dunes at Sydney’s Palm Beach, Marsden noted the importance of strength and conditioning for the athletes while off the snow and ice.

“One of the advantages we have here in Australia is that we have great conditions for dry land training,” Marsden said. “I think we can get a real advantage over our competitors this way and one of our goals is to have the fittest guys on the circuit.

“All of our guys have had really good gains over the last four to five years and the results are really showing through now. Obviously they are becoming much more skilled at their sport but I think that their increase in their physical parameters allows them to do much more.”

As well as traditional strength and endurance training Marsden encourages athletes to surf and do other activities that relate to their sports and keep them supremely fit.

“We spend a lot of time in the gym obviously, getting strong,” Marsden said.  “We also do a lot of bike riding and the ones who surf spend a lot of time in the surf.  So sometimes they are getting six to eight hours a day of actually being active.”

One of Marsden’s charges is back-to-back World Champion and World Cup winner Alex “Chumpy” Pullin.

Leading the world in snowboard cross, Pullin says his recent success on the international circuit is due in part to his dedicated off-snow training program.

“There is a lot involved with the fitness and strength in our sport,” Pullin said. “The more strength and explosive power I can put on and endurance - it shows at every event. I just plan on being stronger and more ready again for the next season.

“I feel it also allows me to improve my techniques as well – it’s probably where I get most of my gains. It’s really good to rock up to an event and just feel so ready.”

Marsden has been working with Pullin, his teammates and the ski cross athletes to ensure they have the fitness to match their skills.

“Snowboard cross isn’t just a 60 second event going down the hill,” Marsden said. “You’ve probably got four or five races at least that you’ve got to do in a day. It’s like running 800m five times at a maximum effort. And then you’ve got three to five hours a day training as well, at altitude. Fitness is incredibly important.”

Gym training is also an integral part of training for aerial skier David Morris. Ranked number two in the world after the 2012/13 World Cup season, Morris has been at home in Melbourne for the last two months hard at work keeping up his fitness.

“In the gym I do a lot of jumping activities like squat jumps, box jump single leg hops and landings as they're specific to my landings on snow,” the 28-year-old said.

“I do mostly heavy weights to be able to handle the forces my body goes through skiing up a jump and also landing on the hill. It's also good to be strong enough to take a hard hit and be able to continue.

“Aerials is very fast and aggressive so my weights program is orientated around this. When I stand up in a squat I do it quickly to train my muscles to move at higher speeds. I train explosive movements and my program has me doing anywhere from 10 reps down to 4.”

Morris and the female aerial skiers will shortly head to the USA where they will undertake three or four months of water jump training in Park City, Utah.

“Water ramping is the most important training we get as it simulates the jumps on snow,” Morris said.

“The water ramp jumps are the same size and shape we have on snow and we come in at the same speeds. Once we have mastered a skill into water we repeat it exactly the same onto a landing hill on snow. We just have to land on a solid surface instead, which is actually softer than hitting the water.”

With no tracks in the southern hemisphere, Australia’s sliders from bobsleigh, luge and skeleton, are forced to get creative in how they train for the Games.

Members of the men’s bobsleigh squad gather at an athletics track on Sydney’s northern beaches where they practice the explosive push starts that are so important in the sport. With a hand crafted sled on wheels, the biggest athletes on the Winter Team spend tireless hours perfecting their timing by pushing and jumping into the sled.

“What we do here on the track is exactly what the North American and European nations do in their off-season too,” bobsleigh pilot Heath Spence said.

“A 2-Man sled will have a minimum weight of about 170kg,” Spence said. “That pushed by two people equates to not very much if you hit it at the same time.”

Skeleton athlete John Farrow, combines gym and sled training with a unique variety of cross training activities.

“Downhill mountain biking, riding my motor bike – even go-karting, these are all key to my training,” Farrow said.

“Once you are on the sled, you are on a vehicle that you have to take round corners, pick lines, choose apexes. It’s like a Formula One race – you need to stay focused and do as fast a time as possible.”

Australia hopes to send a team of over 50 athletes to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, taking place in Russia from 7 – 23 February.  The athletes are leaving no stones unturned or sand dunes unconquered in preparation.

Alice Wheeler

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