Steve Omischl has heard the anthem, watched the flag rise, and hoisted the hardware, winning gold on the World Cup aerials circuit 20 times in the last decade. On 20 other occasions he’s placed second or third, making his “conversion rate”—40 podiums in 78 career international competitions to date—a remarkable 51 per cent. He’s a four-time overall World Cup champion, and owns the best season—eight podiums, including six golds, in nine events in 2007-08—by any athlete in the history of his sport. Last February, he won the Olympic tune-up event at Cypress Mountain, site of the Vancouver 2010 aerials competition. His coach and teammates have anointed him as “the man to beat” come Games time. But ask the 31-year-old if he has dared to imagine the moment, the picture-perfect finish to a stellar career, and he practically recoils.
“No,” he says, sounding more than a little horrified. “You never visualize outcome. You visualize how to get to the outcome. If you are worried about how you are going to look on the podium, you are thinking about the wrong things.”
It’s the golden paradox. To fulfill the lifelong dream and capture the only thing that has eluded him—an Olympic medal—Omischl must first block it out of his mind. Somehow ignore the press and the pressure, the expectations of friends, family, sponsors and a success-hungry nation, and treat Feb. 22 (preliminaries) and Feb. 24 (the finals) as another couple of days at the office. “Don’t get caught up in the hype,” is what he keeps telling himself. “The Olympics, at the end of the day, is just like any other event. I click on my skis. I do a jump. I land. Just because the Olympic rings are there, or I have to march in the opening ceremonies, it’s not special.”
Omischl knows from bitter experience just how hard it is be at your best when the world is watching. In Salt Lake City in 2002, as an up-and-coming 23-year-old, he flipped and twisted his way to fourth place after the preliminaries, but buckled under the pressure of the finals, blowing the landing on his first jump and ultimately ending up 11th. Heading into Turin in 2006, he was the defending world champion, but a foot injury in the off-season cost him months of valuable training time. At the Olympics, Omischl finished a disappointing 20th, failing to make it out of the qualifying round, a result he attributes more to his mindset than his physical infirmities. Obsessing about what it would take to win the gold, he tried to send a message to his competition in the prelims, unleashing a difficult quad-twisting triple. Once again, he botched the landing. “I had never competed that jump successfully before, and I’d only even attempted it three times in competition and it hadn’t gone well,” he says. “I bit off more than I could chew.” It was, he said at the time, “the lowest point” of his life. And a valuable lesson: the gold medal winner, China’s Xiaopeng Han, chose easier jumps than many of his peers, but won by executing them flawlessly.
Steve Omischl: OLYMPIC NUGGETS
- Why did you choose aerials?
- Turning gates in alpine got boring.
- If not aerials, what sport would you choose?
- BASE jumping [parachuting from fixed objects like buildings, antennas, spans, and the earth]. It looks pretty intense.
- Do you have a pre-event ritual or superstition?
- Do you listen to music before competition or training?
- Yes. I’ve got 10,000 songs in my iPod and I choose things depending on my mood, to compensate if I’m feeling too aggressive or mellow. If I’m too amped up, I might listen to something a little relaxing like Metric or Sam Roberts. If I’m too mellow, it’s something like Metallica or Sum 41 or Billy Talent.
- Do you have a guilty pleasure?
- Popcorn at the movies.
- With lots of butter?
- Well, I’ve gotten away from it, but yes.
- Do you have an inspirational quote or saying that you use?
- Off the top of my head, no.
- Is there an athlete that you admire outside of your sport?
- I used to say Tiger Woods (laughs). But for his accolades on the golf course, it’s still Tiger Woods.
- What are you post-Olympic plans?
- Getting into BASE jumping. I’m going to do everything after the Games, take a little time and have some fun.
Omischl is determined that Vancouver will be different. No dreaming, no distractions, just a singular focus on the job at hand. He has gently suggested to his mother, Burgi—the woman who raised him as a single parent and taught him how to ski on the hill behind their house in North Bay, Ont.—that she stay home and watch it all unfold on TV. (The former grocery store manager made the trip to Salt Lake and Turin.) One of his two sisters is planning to come cheer him on, but has been told there will be no shared dinners, visits, or even conversations before the competition. “As far as I’m concerned, if my family comes, they’re just another face in the crowd,” says Omischl. “If you were giving a presentation at work, you wouldn’t have them there with you in the boardroom. I’ve got a job to do.”
There is also a plan. For months, the freestyler has been laying the groundwork for the most difficult jump permitted in aerials competition, the quint twisting triple backflip—five full corkscrews combined with three backward rotations. Even done right, the moves eat up almost every millisecond of time in the air, forcing a blind landing. It’s the jump that won the Czech Republic’s Ales Valenta the gold in Salt Lake City in 2002. But no one on the World Cup circuit currently does it, and Omischl himself has yet to test it out in competition. “It will depend on the [snow] conditions. If they’re good, I can see doing it. If not, it’s not an option,” he says. Going into the Games, Omischl sees the quint as his weapon of last resort—a high-risk, high-reward jump that could set him apart if everyone else brings their “A” game. “I’ll have it ready if the competition is flawless that day. But if I don’t need it, there’s no way I’m going to do it.”
Behind it all is the realization that Vancouver 2010 is Omischl’s best, and probably last, chance at Olympic glory. A sport that sends you hurtling six storeys up, then back toward earth at 65 km/hr takes a heavy toll. The good landings are “like stepping off a curb,” notes Omischl. The bad ones are like getting hit by a truck. “I have the hips of a 10-year-old golden retriever,” he jokes. Much of his time is now spent managing nagging injuries, like the aching back that caused him to take a month off after the conclusion of last season. And even training has changed as the years have worn on—now focusing on quality, rather than quantity. “It really affects the volume of jumps I can do.”
Omischl was a freestyler before he even knew it was sport, building jumps in his backyard and (surreptitiously) on the nearby Laurentian Ski Hill in North Bay—where last year a black-diamond run was named in his honour. The ramps got bigger, the flights higher. “Eventually, around 13, my friends were like, ‘Do a flip!’ That’s when I got involved with freestyle,” he says. In 1994, his own Olympic dream was kindled as he watched Team Canada’s Jean-Luc Brassard win gold in the moguls at Lillehammer, and Phil Laroche and Lloyd Langlois take home silver and bronze in the aerials competition. By the next summer, he was at a camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., learning to do flips and twists off a ramp on the edge of the water. “I got a taste and I was hooked. I was like, this is a sport? I can make a career out of it? This is the greatest thing ever!”
In a few weeks, Omischl will be standing at the top of another ramp, halfway up the side of Cypress Mountain, wearing the red maple leaf and trying to block out the crowds, the cameras, and the pressure. His decade of high flying will be distilled to two jumps in the prelims, and if all goes well, two more in the finals. For now, as Olympians like to say, it is all about process—building toward the unmentionable dream, step by methodical step. The focus is fearsome. “If I do everything possible, then I will be able to live with whatever the result is,” says Omischl. “To say, halfway through a workout, that I don’t need to do this set—then that’s something I have left on the table, and something I am going to have to live with forever. But if I do everything that I can possibly do then there won’t be any regrets, whether I come first or last.” Another day at the office, and the job of a lifetime. “For me,” he says, “these Games started 10 years ago.”