Words from: “Winter Olympics: Hanging out for a medal”
Author: Michael Burgess, NZ Herald
Janina Kuzma is special. The average New Zealand sports fan won’t know much about her — but probably should.
Not only is she one of the world’s leading female exponents on the free ski half pipe, she also jumps off huge mountains for a living.
It’s a rare ability; a bit like being a sprinter and distance runner, or doing BMX tricks in a bowl as well as downhill mountain biking.
“It is unique — definitely,” says coach Tom Willmot. “No one else on the free style tour has excelled in free ride as well … people tend to specialise in one discipline or another.”
One week, Kuzma will be flying several metres above the half pipe, trying to master the intricacies of a complex trick, the next she might be careering down a sheer mountain face, skiing off cliffs and trying to avoid avalanches.
“I’ve been lucky to do both,” said Kuzma. “And sometimes the change of focus is good.”
Kuzma, a Cardrona ambassador, was the centre of local attention at the Winter Games in Wanaka last Friday, competing in the final of the World Cup half pipe, finishing on the podium in second place.
Kuzma’s first love is her big mountain adventures but next season, she will focus almost exclusively on the half pipe, building towards the 2018 Winter Olympics. She’s coming off a great season, with several podium finishes at World Cups and is ranked in the world’s top two.
Kuzma was a late adapter to the half pipe but has risen fast, despite a difficult start. The 29-year-old broke her back in training soon after the transition in 2011, misjudging a jump to land on top of the pipe. She suffered a compression fracture and a blow to her confidence.
“I worked with a sport psychologist to get over the accident,” said Kuzma. “At the end of the day, it’s just another trick … you don’t want to build up fear around one trick. But it is a reality of our sport — one mistake, and you can be out for the whole winter.”
She came fifth at the 2014 Olympics, and is among our best prospects.
“Janina’s had a really good 18 months,” said Willmot. “She’s been on a real high since Sochi. She has a good variety of tricks and executes them well.”
Willmot also raves about her “superhuman work ethic”, citing a training session in Oregon where she hiked 35 times to the top of the half pipe (there was no tow rope) in 30 degree temperatures.
Kuzma was born in Brisbane, and spent large parts of her childhood in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Canada before moving to New Zealand as an 18-year-old. Her family has followed her to Wanaka.
She has excelled in the big mountain events. She’s a two-time winner of the World Heli Skiing challenge and has twice been crowned Canadian free ski champion, as well as picking up numerous local honours. She also finished third on the free ski world tour in 2011.
She features in some spectacular clips on YouTube — her 2011 run at the Xtreme Verbier in Switzerland is a good example.
“It takes years of experience to face your fears,” said Kuzma. “They usually bomb the face [so] you are relatively safe but in a big mountain environment, you never know if there is going to be an avalanche.”
Kuzma’s most daunting — and thrilling — experience was in Alaska when shooting for the Shades of Winter film. She was hand-picked for the movie, which follows six of the world’s best female skiers.
“In Alaska, there is no avalanche control,” said Kuzma. “You get dropped off in a helicopter and you are standing at the top of the mountain, thinking ‘where is my out? If an avalanche happens, I need to get to that ridge so I don’t get caught’.”
Almost every day, you’ll find her hanging in the Cardrona sky.
“You have to keep improving, that’s part of the game,” said Kuzma. “I don’t really think about being a [Olympic] medallist. I just want to ski how I ski and do everything I can. But yes, I think I possibly could. I was on the podium [this season] with the bronze and silver medallist [from Sochi]. I definitely could make it.”
For more on Janina Kuzma, check out her Cardrona Ambassador page: