Happy retirement Russ Henshaw!

Back in 2010 we ran a poster of Russ Henshaw and big interview on his amazing 2009-2010 season. At the time, we said

His results stack up with the best ever by any Aussie skier. Sure, there’s no Olympic backing of these events, so mainstream Australia mostly doesn’t have a clue about his achievements, but this is the best vs the best in the world at skiing’s cutting edge, and the Jindabyne teenager (he turns 20 in June) is right up there among the top handful on the planet. On his day, he beats them all. Can’t do much better than that…

As he leaves the Olympic stage for a 2nd time hobbled by injury, it’s a good time to revisit what he was doing then – just a shame a national TV audience never got to see this stage of his career.

Russ Henshaw had a season to remember! Stomping his latest tricks at the world’s top freeski comps in front of up to 30,000 fans pumping out rock concert energy levels, he started with back to back Big Air wins in London and Barcelona. Snow Action’s Owain Price caught up with him between gigs on the road for this exclusive special.

Russ X Games Big Air © Christian Pondella/ESPN Images

When you were a kid how come you went to skiing and not snowboarding?
Just because I couldn’t snowboard. My dad snowboards, my brother snowboards, I skateboard as well, I dunno, I just didn’t think of it, I grew up skiing.
You never even had a go?
A couple of times, but I kept crashing. When I was younger I was more into just going fast and jumping off things and I wasn’t able to do that on a board straight away so I just didn’t bother.
And now people do more on skis than on a board really?
For sure, I think you can do a lot more on skis, on rails you definitely can.
When did you get into the park side of it and comps?
I didn’t start doing freestyle comps until I was thirteen, but before that I was racing but still jumping in the park whenever I got the chance. I’d go over after race training and do a few jumps, so I’ve pretty much been jumping all my life.
Those jumps you are doing now are huge to put it mildly.
Yeah, they’re pretty big.
Did you just start and progress a little bit bigger or did you make a quantum leap at some point?
I slowly started hitting them bigger and bigger. Then when I first went overseas to Europe and did the circuit all the jumps were pretty much the same size, about 60 to 70 foot. Then the first really big jump I hit that was 90 or 100 foot was at the Jon Olsson Invitational three years ago. It turned out I really liked it because you have more time in the air to do your trick, rather than a small jump and not having as much time. It’s built just as safe. I’ve hit smaller jumps that are more dangerous than that.
So you’re not worried about the landing?
The landing is perfect – that jump three years ago if you landed on your hip or back or anything because of the way it was built you would come straight into the landing with no impact and just slide out, so it was built perfect. Like one of my mates was sitting down on the back of his skis to get speed then couldn’t stand up in the compression and took off and did a half a backflip to his head and nothing happened.
Some of those comp ones, like Barcelona, they look really big, but it also looks like they do a good job making them.
It looks a lot bigger than it actually is, just because when you’re standing next to it it’s all scaffolding, whereas when you’re on the hill it would be a normal jump. So it’s great for the crowd, they love it, it’s spectacular.
Coming down the whole ramp switch in Barcelona scares me just looking at the vid of it. Is it harder doing it like that?
It’s not really, the only hard bit is when you land, when you have to look back over your shoulder. Sometimes landing switch is easier than landing forwards just because you don’t land sitting down. If you land forwards and you land sitting back that can hurt, but if you land switch you either land or you just slide out.
Whereas the London one, that looked a bit dodgier.
Yeah, that was hard for them because the night before they had the snowboard competition and that was perfect. Then they left it and it started raining, so all the snow started melting. Then they tried making more snow, then the in-run snow slid, they had like a mini-avalanche. So they couldn’t get the snow back up there, they just had enough for the landing. So in the end they had to use that plastic snowflex stuff on the in-run. So it sucked for them with the weather but they still pulled it off.
How big are the crowds?
It was about 20,0000 in London. Barcelona was 25,000 or 30,000 even, which is pretty crazy for their first year. Freestyle CH in Zurich has been running for ten years and they get about 45,000 over two days.

Russ Henshaw winning the Freeze Big Air in London © Ben Burnett/Volkl

The first time you went overseas were you 14 or 15, that was just you and Nick Draxl [Russ’ coach]?
I was 15. We just went over because he has a house there with his family, so we went and lived there and tried to build my profile in Europe and get some fotos and do comps and get a bit of a name happening.
You must have got pretty successful pretty quick to get in the Jon Olsson Invitational and stuff?
The second competition I did the Volkl International Manager was there and he saw me. As soon as it was done he sat down and started negotiating. We signed a contract a week later.
Then in regard to Jon’s event he was giving out like golden keys, he only had six keys to give out, to riders that he hadn’t already invited, and he saw me at an event and gave me one just because I was riding well.
The sponsorship was pretty much straight away then, up to that your parents were supporting you?
Once I got on Volkl they started supporting me, then from Volkl I started talking to Marker, and they started hooking me up as well, and eventually I got enough support to be doing it myself.
You were getting some good results when you were only 15 – 16. Did you get any resentment from the established guys because one minute you’re no one, then suddenly you’re the new whizz kid on the block?
At first it was a bit like it was the established guys and then there were the up and comers. That’s how the groups would be at all the comps. It takes a while to crack and they give you funny looks and they’ll treat you like any other fan or rider who tries to talk to them. Then eventually they start accepting you as one of them because you are starting to get the results and beat them.
That said, some of the other guys are now in the same situation compared to you, two or three years younger – like that little guy Elias Ambuhl who was 2nd to you in Barcelona, he’s only 16.
He’s cracked the scene really fast, like last year was his first year in the States as far as I know, he was skiing really well and this year he started getting invites to the bigger competitions like the city big airs and he’s getting results.
You seem to be getting a reputation in Spain with all the nicknames you’ve got.
Good ones or bad ones?
Well there’s skiing-gator, that’s easy, then maquina-de-planchar, which literally is a clothes iron but they use it for stomp as well, so it’s more like stomping machine, and then robot, which they really use a lot.
I don’t like the term robot because it means I do the tricks the same every time and I don’t have any style, don’t have my own flavour.
But the other side is you show no fear or feel pressure, staying ice cool like a robot.
Yeah, maybe, I do it a bit different to a lot of guys when I’m competing. I listen to music when I’m skiing in the park so when it’s comp time it’s exactly the same, I’m listening to the same play list, same everything, so it calms me.
Some of those in-runs on the jumps are massive, but in the stadium situation where you’ve got that surge of faces it must be a lot different from training jumps.
I try not to look at it. If you do the comp at night it’s not too bad because you can’t see them, but in daytime you see everyone, how many people are watching just to see if you land or fall.
You must get a big buzz off them?
It’s huge, a really good feeling, it’s awesome.
What about the streetstyle event, that looked like something totally different.
The Red Bull Playstreets, yeah it’s probably one of the most fun and at the same time scariest competitions I’ve ever done. One year I went off and took out a couple of people and almost killed a dog [laughs].
You went into the crowd?
I crashed in training and slid out. Sometimes it’s pretty hard to stop. Especially because you’ve got to have no edges for that rail at the bottom so it’s almost impossible.
There’s like a bench along a roof then a narrow ramp?
Yep, then straight into the crowd. It’s pretty crazy but it’s good fun. It was good to win it finally. [Russ finished 2nd the previous two years and won the final event in 2009].
Are you starting to make decent money? Barcelona was 9000 euro, that’s a nice fat cheque.
It’s good. I am just sorting how to get paid that now, because they give it to you in cash, but after winning London I was over the limit, you can only bring in $10000 to Australia, so I would have got pulled up.
Have to find a mate to carry your cash, we can call for volunteers if you like. So you can make a decent full time living then [Russ only finished school in 2008], no pressure to find a day job?
Not at the moment, I can just focus on skiing and see where it takes me.
Which are the biggest events now?
Pretty much the biggest for skiing is the X-games. This year they are taking it to Europe as well. Then the Dew Tour is big, Jon Olsson’s event is pretty big, gets a lot of coverage. And of course the stadium big airs, they are really big.
How many events would you compete in?
It doesn’t sound much but last year I did seven, which was a lot just because of all the travelling and getting there. I was always jet lagged and tired. This year I’ve already done four events before the season even starts. It’s exhausting.
What about the judging, it seems to be a bit all over the place, especially when you get to the X-Games and they do the popularity contest thing.
Yes, judging at the moment, I feel like you have to put some guidelines down for judging otherwise it’s going to keep being messy. If you have guidelines then the crowds are going to know who is winning.
At the moment the crowd’s like, ‘Aaah that guy won with a 360 when the other guy did a 720?’, it doesn’t make sense, when to the judges it makes sense. The judging’s a bit iffy at the moment.
Does it tend to favour particular riders, especially the known riders depending where it is?
No, not really. How do I explain it, a lot of the time the judges instead of judging what they should, like the comp, they judge using their opinion, which is not so good. Like at the Freestyle CH and Freestyle Berlin they had a style element in the event, and everyone has different styles, so then it comes down to if the judges think its styly or not, whether or not the riders or the crowd think it’s styly. So it comes down to an opinion, rather then if you had guidelines you could work with – like did he grab, was it stomped, did he flail, there are all these things you could set to it that would make it so much more consistent.
How many judges do they have?
Four usually and a head judge. Sometimes in slopestyle if it’s split they’ll have six, three on top and three on bottom.

At the Jon Olsson Invitational it must be pretty fair if you can go along and kick butt to the guy that runs it?
Yeah that was a pretty good feeling. He’s a really nice guy and he’s really professional which is good. I mean he’s not old, he’s only 28, but it seems like he’s been around forever. In skiing that is kind of getting to the back end.
Does it wear your body out all the landings and stuff?
A bit, but I think the sponsors just want young and fresh faces.
The younger guys are trying new stuff too.
Yeah, and they don’t have any fear.
So you’re developing fear?
Slowly but surely, I’m not too bad yet but I think in the future it’s going to be pretty intimidating.
How hard it is to stay ahead of the game? The competitors push you obviously, but fans are also starting to whinge, ‘it’s the same, like everyone’s doing double corks, that’s boring and repetitive.’
The kids are complaining about doubles right now, but the reason we are all doing that is it’s the hardest possible trick we can do. So we feel if want to win we do the hardest trick we can do. What’s funny is the double 10 everyone does, a year ago switch 1080s were the trick that everyone did, and at the recent event I wasn’t at a person got second with a switch 10, and it was like so repetitive a year ago, everyone did it. Now that he’s done it and placed with it everyone’s saying it’s nice to see something new and refreshing, that’s different to a double, but it’s like that’s an old trick. It doesn’t make much sense. At all.
Have you got some new stuff you’re working on?
I’m working on some right side, or unnatural double corks, I really want to learn them because there’s only like two people that can do them, so I really want to get that for slopestyle competitions. And I’m working on my doubles that I already have, doing a lot of trampoline.
Everybody was wrapt in the X-Games Big Air finals. Bobby Brown went off with that switch-double misty 1440. Is it stepping up another level here?
Yeah things are definitely being stepped up with Bobby’s switch double Misty 1260 and 1440 and with TJ Schiller’s double cork 1620. Somehow I still managed to get 4th in the big air. Pretty stoked on that.
What are you going to have to do to stay competitive with those guys?
You have to go and learn more tricks/new tricks. I learnt a few after European X-Games which I think no one can really do yet. It’s a bit of a secret at this stage but what I can tell you is that it is unnatural.
After Aspen you went back to Europe and seems like straight away you are back on podium at the Austrian Open – not that 4th in Aspen was bad! But you just seem to usually go better in Europe?
Austrian open was crazy for me this year. I was in France filming with MSP until the day before the event. Then we hopped on a train to Zurich and then got a lift from Zurich with the Volkl guys. We didn’t end up getting to the resort until about 1am. Training the next day was at like 9, so I was kind of tired. The course was sick so I was pumped and I was also stoked on seeing a lot of my old friends and skiing with them. I guess I did well because I was just having fun.
Talk us through your stack at Euro X-Games, that must have shaken you up?
The crash was kind of unexpected. It was during training the day before the comp and I was still figuring out speed for the jumps in the course. In between jump number 4 and 5. I went to wash some speed to slow down and there was a ridge which I landed next to. So when I washed speed I caught my edge and flipped to the ground knocking myself out cold. Kind of funny that I did it not even jumping, I just did it in between jumps.
Can you relate any of this stuff to your free skiing, do you get to do much of that anymore?
That’s so much fun. Last year in New Zealand I did two weeks just skiing before the Heli Challenge. It was the most fun I had, just going really fast, launching off things, doing little flips, going everywhere.
Taking the tricks to the back country?
Trying, but I don’t do too much back country at the moment, just because I grew up here and there’s not really much mountainous terrain. I’d like to do more for sure.
On an average day at Thredbo are you mainly training pretty solidly?
Not so much training. Here I just like to have fun, I’m only here for two months then I train in New Zealand. Here I’ll go over all my old tricks so I don’t forget them, like how to put my shoulder down for this trick, or grab, or whatever to keep it fresh.
So the hardest one at the moment is the double cork?
I think so, for sure.
Which, for our older readers who find this stuff all incomprehensible jargon, actually means what?
A cork is when you go off axis, so like a cork 7 would be two 360s and then you go off axis as well, so your feet will go above your head or to the side or whatever, and a double is when you do that twice, you come down. It’s like a double flip with three spins, or a double back flip with a 1080, if that makes any sense.
Aaah right, got it. What do you ski on in the comps?
Same skis I ski on all the time, the Volkl Wall, the 185 Wall, super good, which is pretty much exactly the same ski you get in the shops, no difference at all. I know some ski companies change it for their athletes which I think is rubbish and not fair to the public.
Do you guys get much input into design?
We come up with ideas or what not, what we need, and they really listen to us.
What about out free skiing?
When I’m doing stuff like the Heli-Challenge I use the Volkl Gotama 190.
Would you like to do some really big mountain stuff?
For sure, I’d love to do that. I definitely want to get into big mountain stuff, it’d be sick. It’s what skiing is.
How many years do you think the body will hold up doing comps?
No idea, but I’m going to keep competing while ever I can. Then I want to do powder trips, like Japan, wherever.
What about coaching?
Yeah, I’d like to do that later.
At Thredbo do you any promo things for the kids?
When I get time. Last year I went out with the junior freeride team, the little tackers, and skied around with them for three whole days and had a ball, I love doing that.
Going back to the early days, did you have any early influences, local or foreign heroes and role models?
Nick Draxl got me into it, I used to ski with him at Thredbo. Then for heroes, probably Jon Olsson, I used to watch videos and see him skiing and get stoked about doing it.
Amazing you come up and win his event down track.
Bit weird, but good.
You must have a pretty big travel budget?
Yeah, quite a big one.
Do Volkl fork out and send you to the events?
Not quite, I get a travel budget, but I pretty much just get a lump sum from Volkl, Red Bull and Marker. Then I use my money to get me there. They usually put in an extra however much each year to get to this or that event.
They must be happy with you with things like London and Barcelona wins back to back?
They’re super super stoked. Volkl is more stoked me doing events like that than they are with me doing Dew Tour just because Volk’s a European company and it makes more sense for them to get exposure there than America.
When you started out there were some good events locally, but it seems to be a bit quiet now?
There were plenty of events, the Wild Winter Weekend at Perisher, Sprite Sessions at Thredbo, Pepsi Sessions at Buller, the Winter Planet X Games or whatever it is at Perisher, the Rip Curl at Hotham, there were a lot of them.
Funny how it goes in waves.
It sucks. Especially when it’s starting to get big now.
Yes, the interest is there. Like with the Boost Sno Sho thing, the marketers are still locked into the snowboard only. I mean, hello.
Skiing’s just as big. It’s getting really big, really popular which is good.
Do you notice with the kids round Thredbo the more outgoing ones are skiing now?
Yeah there’s a lot more skiers up at Thredbo than what there used to be, and overseas as well there’s way more. Like you used to see people and you’d go, ‘Who’s that guy? How come I don’t know him?’, because the scene was small. Now it’s not like that because there’s so many people skiing.
Would you like to see a city big air here?
I’d like to try and get one in Sydney. That’d be cool. The best time to do it would be just after winter here because everyone’s over in New Zealand anyway and can all just come over and do the event.
Could you do an outdoor scaffolding one in Sydney in August, would the snow hold up?
For sure.
What was the temperature in Barcelona?
It was 20°, 25° every day, which was nice, walking around in shorts all the time. So you could do it in Sydney, all they have to do is have enough snow for one day which is doable. It’d be cool to organise, really cool. [Sponsors … ?]
Who do you rate locally as good skiers among your contemporaries and up and comers?
The ones that have been pretty much on the scene for a while now like Boen Ferguson, Charlie Timmins, Jordan Houghton, Max Timmins, Jonno Lipzke, there’s a whole heap of them. Then the ones coming through, there’s not really too many coming through at the moment at all.
Seems like you guys are a bit of a one-off generation, must have been good for pushing each other.
Yeah, it was really good, but then now, off the top of my head I can’t think of anyone.
Has this been your most gruelling season yet? Since September and you seem to have had a few niggling injuries and some crap weather for the film shoot.
Yeah this season has been hard for me. At Winter X Games in Aspen I fell in the big air and hurt my calf which took about three weeks to a month to heal, which meant skiing was really difficult (especially slopestyle because it was the day after big air and I could barely walk). Then the weather for filming with MSP wasn’t so great, but we managed to get a few shots, and then at European X Games I knocked myself out. On top of that all the travel is starting to take a toll on my body and I am feeling pretty tired. I have been going since January 8th, the next time I will get a break will be anywhere between the 15th and the 30th of May depending on how long I film for MSP for.
But another big win must help. How was the Frostgun Invitational at Val Thorens, bit of a different format?
It was a super cool vibe and everyone was having fun, only problem was the park crew just couldn’t get the kicker right. The top eight were taken to the finals, and then everyone battled it out knockout. I ended up in the final two spots against Loic Callob Batton. He landed a dub 12, so I did a dub 10 double mute. Seems like it was enough for the win ..
Which is what Russ Henshaw manages as often as not these days, “enough for the win”, and then some — as we go to print he was leaving Val Thorens, France at 6am to head to Sweden for the Jon Olsson Invitational, his last big event in a huge season that kicked off with city Big Airs in Europe back in September. His results stack up with the best ever by any Aussie skier. Sure, there’s no Olympic backing of these events, so mainstream Australia mostly doesn’t have a clue about his achievements, but this is the best vs the best in the world at skiing’s cutting edge, and the Jindabyne teenager (he turns 20 in June) is right up there among the top handful on the planet. On his day, he beats them all. Can’t do much better than that…

Russ wins Barcelona Big Air © Pep Malo Roig