Live Chat with Russ Henshaw

snow action team 06.10.2014

Going to the olympics looks like living the dream, but for Australia’s #1 freestyler Russ Henshaw it was a blur of rehab, pain killers and not knowing if he could even get on course, never mind be competitive after snapping his other acl at x-games just a few days before practice started in sochi [yes, he’d been skiing for a year minus one ACL already!].
He gave it his best shot, did us couch potatoes watching proud, then flew home for a double knee job.
SnowAction’s Owain Price caught up with Russ back home in Jindabyne, already working hard on his rehab, but with time on his hands for a long chat, covering everything from Olympics to injuries to judging to freestyle’s future and what’s the bottom line — fun. Oh, and revealing what’s the World’s #1 terrain park..

© peter morning/espn images

© peter morning/espn images

I guess we start with the Olympics, did it live up to your expectations? Did you have many?
I went into it wanting to have fun. It was definitely a challenge, a lot different to what I thought it would be. As you can see I ended up tearing my other ACL at the X-Games, which was four days prior to when training started for the Olympics.
It was weird, it didnt really hurt at the time. I didn’t think I’d done it. The medical staff at X-Games didn’t think I’d done it. I didn’t really know how much pain I was in until I got back on snow. It wasn’t so much the ACL, it was that I’d done a bit of bone bruising, and so jumping was quite a challenge at the Olympics.
So the first three, four days of training was basically figuring out how many painkillers I should eat before training and trying to find a line between taking enough that it numbs the pain but so I can still do my event.
So you didn’t even have one good leg to feel strong on?
No. So it was definitely a challenge. I basically spent the whole time doing my training, then when I wasn’t training it was seeing doctors, physios and doing as much rehab as I could do to do everything I could to try and get in the start gate.
Was that the graft of your dad’s tendon that didn’t take properly?
It took properly, it was super strong, it’s just such a common injury with skiing. Especially what I’m doing with all the spinning. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. These two (left) that I snapped were both just freak tricks that I’ve done a lot. This one (right) I went too far on the jump and my knee just gave way.
Was that in the final at X-Games?
In the final at X-Games it was this knee (left). I skied for a year without an ACL in this leg (right). At X-Games it was a trick I’ve done a million times, I just got unlucky on the last run, the speed changed, I slightly knuckled the jump and it was enough to do my ACL. It sucks.
Yeah, it sucks for sure. So you hadn’t had it fixed because of the Olympics?
It’s funny, this one I tore exactly one year later after this one, on the exact same jump, which was a bit weird. But I didn’t fix it because the Olympic qualification was going on. I had enough time where I could ski, do the rehab I needed to and then go skiing and see if it worked without it. If it did work I still had enough time to qualify, then do surgery after.
How many events did you have to do to qualify?
I only needed to do well at one more World Cup, because I’d done well enough already.
You had won the Dew Tour, did they take that into account?
They did, but it didn’t count towards your points or ranking, you still had to get top 30 in two World Cups.
So it was in that top 30 or nothing.
Yes, but it ended up working, and I was having no problems with it. The same with this one, apart from the bone bruising. Once that settled down I really could probably have kept skiing withut the ACL. The way I try to describe it to people is it’s kind of like driving a car with a flat tyre, you can still do it, get from A to B, do everything you need to do, but it’s not good for the car in the long run.
russ was skiing great at x-games, minus right acl and all. © christian pondella/espn images

russ was skiing great at x-games, minus right acl and all. © christian pondella/espn images

But does it go on you on certain moves though?
I only felt my knee do that twice the whole year that I skied without the ACL, and it was when I’d go too big on a jump and land in a backseat position, which is the position people quite often tear their ACL, and I’d feel my knee shift.
What about the whole event, going from what your are used to as an individual thing to joining a team, represent the country, get to march and all that?
I didn’t actually get to do the opening ceremony, I didn’t get to go and watch any other events, it was very bizarre.
Because you were in rehab?
I literally spent the whole time doing everything I could to get in the start gate. I didn’t have any time on snow between X-Games and my first day of training at the Olympics, and my knee felt fine just walking around and stuff. I could run, jump, hop. Didn’t have any instability. But then when I got on snow I realised the bone bruising was quite bad. Just clipping into my ski hurt. And after my first day of training I knew it wasn’t good.
Landing on a rail, jumps, that would hurt like hell?
It was excruciating. After my first day of training I honestly thought I was going to have to pull out, I didn’t think I’d be able to compete. So just for me to be able to drop in and do my run was a success.
You did great. To get in the final like that was awesome.
That first run of qualifying was the first time I’d done my run – we’d had a week of training, but I hadn’t done it the whole time because of my knee.
Were you planning to just get one good big run in at finals?
In finals the trick that I went down on in my second run I wanted to try in my first run. But I stuffed up a bit on the jump before it, I kind of took off and drifted too far to the left on the landing, and because the snow was so soft and slow I didn’t think I had enough speed to get it back on line, so I just did the trick that I’d been doing in qualifiers.
Then on the last run I basically just had to go for it.
So bit frustrating that I didn’t land, but at the same time it’s nice to walk away knowing that I gave it my all, I gave it my best shot considering the circumstances. I’d be frustrated if I walked away and was thinking “I wish I had of done this or tried this”.
Can’t do more than that, especially in the conditions.
As far as judging goes there was a lot of talk afterwards about whether the robotic/smooth guys were getting scored higher than the styly guys like Henrik or whatever.

It’s the same with every event, it’s just magnified because it was the Olympics. Every event after the event there’s always crticism because this person or that person didn’t do well. What people have to understand is that the judges have 30 seconds to make their decision. Like I used to have arguments with the judges. There’s no point in fighting it. Some days you do well, the judges really enjoy watching you skiing, some days they might pick on you a little. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s a judged sport, that’s how it is.
There’s consistency in results from independent events like X-Games across to FIS/Olympics anyway, like Nick Goepper for example – he wins X, then bronze at Sochi a couple of weeks later. So it’s not one format over another. That said, down the track is there a danger that ‘FISsification’ is going to bugger things up?
I really hope the FIS don’t bring in like a standardised course or rules on what tricks you can or can’t do.
So it goes like moguls?
Exactly. Which would kill the sport really. There’s no real formula.
How was the course, did they do a good job generally, apart from the snow conditions?
Yes, I think they did a good job. What let them down a bit was the maintanence. It seemed like they had just flown in a bunch of people from Moscow that had never seen a course before. Because it was melting so much they needed to pull the snow off then pack it in where we’d been skiing and the ruts had formed and stuff, then salt it. It was too soft to get a cat on it, they couldn’t groom it. But they just kept pulling the snow off and chucking it to the side of the course, so the take-offs to the rails as the week went on were slowly getting smaller and smaller, which doesn’t seem like much, but when you’re training on a certain trick and it keeps changing the way you do it, it’s hard.
But it was a good course though, I enjoyed it as much as I could with the pain. I wish I wasn’t in as much pain, I probably would have had a lot more fun.
A lot of you guys have been together competing since you were teenagers, you are pretty close, did the vibe change with it being in national teams?
No. We were in our ‘teams’, in our uniforms, but I was skiing with the Norwegians, the Americans, with whoever it may be, we were just skiing like it was another competition. We were helping each other with tricks, talking each other through different aspects of the course and how we navigate our way through these rail features or this jump or whatever.
I think the media over there saw that and latched onto it because it’s not very common at the Olympics that countries are hanging out together.
No, it’s got to be like World War III usually.
Exactly. It was cool. I hope it doesn’t lose that, I really enjoy that.
Do you think most crew will take some time off now, you don’t have to do World Cups for a while even if you want to do Olympics again?
I don’t think people are going to do too many World Cups. I don’t really want to. Maybe World Champs. It’s going to go back to the way it was. People will do the events they want. This last year was madness because we were doing the events we normally do plus the FIS events.
In terms of the events in general and to watch is X-Games the best? Just the skiing skills of those mobile follow camera guys is amazing.
I think Dew Tour is doing just as good coverage now, with the same guys doing follow cams. They want to be as big as X-Games. It’s much the same with the TV coverage too, they’re both huge. But it’s two completely different courses though. I personally enjoy riding the Dew Tour course more, probably because I spend more time in Breckenridge than I do in Aspen as that’s where I base myself. But both courses are super fun to ride, I have a ball at both of them. The calibre of the riders is the same. I’d probably say Dew Tour is on par or pretty close to on par with X-Games now.
That’s going to remain pretty much invitational for those events?
It is, but they take like the top 10 or 12 off the AFP rankings, and top 3 off podium from the year before, and then the rest are discretionary. So say I drop out of the top 10 because I’m injured this year I might get that spot on past results.
Unlike Olympics.
Yes. What people don’t understand with the Olympics is that X-Games and Dew Tour are harder events, because anybody can enter, not just 4 per country, so in Dew Tour there’s 32 invited, you get like 50% Americans, lots of Norwegians and Swedes, and they’re all amazing skiers. But they don’t all get the chance to go to the Olympics.
The Olympics is obviously one of the highest level events I’ve ever been too, but I wonder what it would have been like if all the guys had been there as well.
One of the great things with slopestyle is you are getting people out of the woodwork from anywhere competing too, not just big alpine countries – like Woodsy [James Woods], who came from a plastic ski park in an industrial city in England. And it catches on anywhere there’s snow.
Compared to a lot of the other ski sports, like Downhill, or even half pipe, what we do is so accessible. Every resort has a little rail or you can find your own little bump or jump or whatever and do little tricks on a powder day. Kids overseas can set up a rail in their backyard when it snows, they can try the tricks on a rail that’s a couple of centimetres out of the ground that they see us doing on the big events. It’s so accessible compared to something like half pipe, there’s only like 10 resorts in the world that have a 22’ half pipe.
Well, soon to be 11 now we’ve got a 22’ cutter at Perisher thanks to Shaun White’s visit.*
Yes, so hopefully not long to wait for that.
Are you still doing events like the city Big Airs, done any of those lately?
Not lately. That’s the whole Olympic thing again, over the past year I’ve put all my time and energy into just slopestyle, but now I want to get back into all the events I used to.
Some of them look really fun.
That’s it, it’s really fun. And it keeps my sponsors happy.
To me the funnest one ever was Redbull Playstreets.
The first year I ever did that it was like the drop in, you drop off a retaining wall into a landing, then it was a sharp turn into a jump, and I didn’t have edges on my skis because of the rails, and I lost my footing going round that corner and slid straight into a little old lady with a dog.
The dog you nearly killed from memory last interview.
The dog was horrible! But that was a really fun event. But Redbull only do events once or twice, they did that 3 years in a row.
Yes, since Playstreets there hasn’t been anything that out there for skiers. They did the giant cat park thing for Travis Rice for boarders in Canada, but there hasn’t been anything that good for skiers.
It’d be good. They did the Linecatcher big mountain event in Europe, but lately Redbull have been putting their money into high performance camps to help the athletes going to the Olympics.
Those out there events really get people fired up to have fun, which is the spin off from slopestyle in the Olympics hopefully — lots of people have seen you and Anna on Channel 10 and are itching to get into it at home now, at whatever level.
© www.perisher.com.au

© www.perisher.com.au

Here in Australia is where I have the most fun skiing. Perisher’s really good for that too, because of the progression. They have four parks. There’s Piper, Yabbie Flats, Leichardt and then the big one, so you can work your way up and work your way through.
We were up on Front Valley for night skiing late last September, and watching little kids, like a 5 year old ripper on a board just going off everything, is great.
It’s awesome. That’s the thing too that I hope doesn’t get lost either in what we do is that kid’s aren’t looking at learning this trick because “I need to get this sponsor”, or “I need to win this event”. Obviously you’ve got to progress to do well, but it’s got to remain fun.
And I want everybody to know how fun it is. For me I dreamt of being a pro skier, but it wasn’t like I went and learnt these tricks so I could get this sponsor. I went and learnt the tricks because I was having fun pushing myself and progressing. I want to relay that to all the kids, so hopefully they know the best way to go about it is to have fun, and if it’s meant to be it’s meant to be, and if it’s not you’re not let down.
In terms of stepping up the level of tricks where can you go from here?
It’s definitely very hard. I think the biggest thing, and what they are looking for most, is not just the hardest trick but making it look effortless. Some of those tricks to get them to being effortless is so hard. Like it’s really hard to pysche yourself up to do a triple cork in a regular day in the park.
The best time to try them is in a competition when you’ve got that pressure and you’ve got the sweaty palms.
The adrenaline’s pumping.
Yeah, you’re thinking clearer.
Plus in the comps, well not in Russia, but generally you know the set up is perfectly built and everything’s going to work so you can go for it.

Exactly. For me a lot of the tricks I’ve mastered over the years have been from me doing events. The repetition has come from doing them in events. Like triple corks for instance, I’ve done maybe two that haven’t been in an event. The rest have been on film shoots, when there’s a helicopter in the air and you know you have to do it. It’s so hard.
Were you always a good skateboarder growing up?
Yes we had halfpipes in my backyard. I skated every weekend, and when I was younger we couldn’t afford to go overseas, so living in Sydney I just skated.
And this may sound dumb, but I did a little bit of roller blading as well. A lot of the flips and stuff that I learnt on snow I learnt on roller blades first at the skate park because I wanted, when I got back to the snow next season, to be able to show my mates that I could do a backie or whatever.
That’s going back when you were 11 or 12?
Ten. I was a little grommet. I’d learn all the ski tricks on roller blades in the blistering sun at home while my friends were over in the northern hemisphere skiing.
So that’s the closest thing to slopestyle you think, skateboarding and roller blading?
I’ve been doing a lot more skateboarding lately. It’s good cross training. I didn’t stop skating in the lead up to the Olympics. It’s good for your balance.
And it keeps you pysched. How did your ACL go?
I skated in a knee brace. I didn’t wear it in the gym, or walkiing around, I’d only wear it doing activities like skating, trampoline, or skiing.
What about the new permanent pipe*, will you be getting in there now you’ll have one in the backyard?
I’ll definitely get in there and have some fun, but I’ll wait till spring when it’s soft! I don’t like the idea of 22 foot icy walls. It scares me. A lot.
© www.perisher.com.au

© www.perisher.com.au

It must be hard for the Wells boys to do everything. OK, they grew up with it at Cardrona, but it’s still got to be hard at that level doing both disciplines?
It’s tough, there’s only really the Wells guys that do it now. I used to when I was really young, but then I started focusing on slopestyle purely because I had more fun doing that than half pipe.
At X-Games do you still do Big Air and Slope?
I got invited to the Big Air this year but I pulled out because the landing was a bit flat, and I didn’t want to hurt myself a week before the Olympics. Then I ended up hurting myself anyway.
Would you like to see Big Air in the Olympics?
No. It could be a show, a demonstration, but I don’t think it should be in the Olympics because it would just slowly turn into aerials. And it’s not aerials. People have to understand about what we do obviously these events are huge, there’s big prizemoney and stuff, but at the end of the day they’re just a show. The format for big air has to keep changing so it keeps it interesting for the crowd that’s watching. Sometimes it’ll be 2 tricks best trick counts, sometimes you get 3 runs and do 2 different tricks, sometimes it’ll be a knockout format.
How do you rate the One Hit Wonder, that’s the event that brings some top guys here to mix it with you and a few of the local lad?
It’s good fun, really good fun. Shame about the weather last year.
But at least they know how to deal with soft snow – could of used some of those Thredbo guys at Sochi looking after the course.
They didn’t know how to deal with it over there. They didn’t get SPT, who do all the major events, I don’t know why they didn’t just get the guys that know what they are doing.
Last time back in 2010 we asked you if there was anyone coming up putting their hand up to join the top level. There’s the local crew who came up with you, the Houghton brothers, Charlie Timmins, Boen Ferguson, but looks like there’s still a big gap to be filled.
Yes, it’s really tough for them too. I don’t know, it seems like this year there was a bit of a thing for the kids where they were too cool to do a program. Whereas when we were growing up we all did the Winter Sports Program.
Race club and all that, so you got your edging down?
Yes, that’s the other thing, the kids now are just jumping straight into the park. So they don’t have any edge control or know how to ski. Which if you’re going to do slopestyle, it’s a pretty important part of it knowing how to ski before you start jumping. (laughs)
Sure, you can have a lot of fun skiing by yourselves, but if they did want to progress it’s nice to have someone there to push you along a little, that’s what I found.
Would you like to be coaching down track?
Yes, I love coaching. Obviously I don’t have time to do it much at the moment, but I did a day at Perisher last year with 5 of the little grommets, they auctioned off a day’s skiing with me for a charity fundraiser, I think it was for the Jindabyne school bus to get up the mountain. I skied with the kids, I spent the day teaching them how to slide rails and do tricks, I had a ball. I love doing that stuff. I could definitely see myself doing that.
The Russ Academy.
Sure, why not.
Do you see yourself about mid-career as far as the big events go. Like Simon Dumont, he’s 28, he’s the old man of the sport at the moment. How long can you go?
Yes, I don’t know, there’s no real limit on how old you can be as long as you still have the mindset to be able to do the tricks.
And the body’s standing up.
The thing when you’re younger, which I’m starting to notice as –
As an ancient 23 year old.
Ha ha, yes, when you’re younger you’re made of rubber, you crash, you shake yourself off, you get up and off you go. As you get older you feel things more, but if you’re willing to spend the time in the gym and do all the things looking after your body I don’t think there’s any limit to how long you can go for.
After I’m done competing I’d like to get into some filming, I’ve done bits and pieces in the past, but I’d like to do back to back seasons with a production company and do backcountry trips and do all that kind of stuff. Which you can do until whenever – the landings are a lot more forgiving in the pow than they are on the icy parks in Colorado.
Looking at injuries it seems so random the timing. Like Tom Wallisch was absolutely killing it, winning everything, then he’s injured and come Olympics he’s not even on the American team.
He tore his ACL and tried skiing without it, same as I did. I spoke to the doctors about it and some people can do it and some can’t. He was struggling a bit with pain and certain tricks he couldn’t land properly. So now he’s getting his knee fixed.
He was just unfortunate in the timing of his injury. But then again, that’s part of what we do. Injuries kind of define you as an athlete because some people when they get injured they don’t come back the same.
But if you take the injury as a blessing in disguise, work your butt off, do your physio, go to the gym, there’s no reason why you can’t come back stronger. A little time off isn’t bad for the body either, it’s a good little reset.
Do you find yourself just carrying blows and random soreness and stuff from all the smacking-ins you get?
This season I definitely did. This season just because of the Olympics I was pushing myself a lot, and crashing a little more than I would have liked. So I always had something going on, a little niggle.
How long before you’re back on snow?
I’m going to wait at least four months probably, the doctor said 3 months, which is pretty crazy for what I’ve done, but there’s not much going on in June. So I’ll wait till July then get into it.
What do you view as your career highlights/favourites so far?
The most memorable is winning the X-Games medal, and winning the Dew Tour, then backing that up with bronze at the next Dew Tour.
To wrap up, what are you favourite parks in the world?
I’d say number one is Perisher, just because it’s such fast laps, and I get to ski with all my mates at home. I’m not staying in a hotel room. It’s a minute and a half lap. I’ve been trying to tell all my friends overseas about skiing here and they never believed me because it’s Australia. Then they finally came out last year and were blown away, they’d been missing out because they didn’t realise I’d been telling them the truth.
Then I’d say Breckenridge and Keystone, they’re pretty even for early season. Then I really enjoy skiing Mammoth in spring. And Whistler Blackcomb. They’re both super fun. µ
*As we went to press with this interview the new permanent pipe at Perisher was waiting on planning approvals; subsequently the window for pre-winter work passed so it’ll be 2015 all going well.