Around the time of the last Winter Olympics, Sarah Hoefflin was doing her first ski season, working a seasonal job and generally getting up to everything a seasonaire does over the winter. Before that, she was studying neuroscience at university. Four year later, she’s just won her first X Games gold medal and is on track to compete in slopestyle at the Peyongchang Winter Olympics.
Any freeski athlete will tell you that’s an accelerated journey to success by any feat, with a large proportion of Olympic competitors having grown up on the slopes, training and competing from a reasonably young age. So where did Sarah suddenly spring from and how did she make it from ski bum to Olympic hopeful in a mere four years?
As far as any story goes, Sarah had a pretty unique introduction to freeskiing. A Swiss national, she lived in just outside Geneva until she was twelve, skiing with her family, and then moved to the UK where the opportunity to ski was less frequent. It wasn’t until she went to university that she discovered her love of freeskiing, training indoors and competing in inter-university competitions. Then, like any self-respecting graduate, Sarah headed to the mountains for a fun pause before starting real life. But before real life came knocking, she competed and cleaned up in the British Freeski Championships and decided to try her hand on a more international competition circuit the winter after.
Sarah has to think a bit when I ask her about the Brits and her subsequent breakthrough on the international scene, musing “I wasn’t even very good back then.” But I was competing at that particular Brits, too, and even then it was clear that Sarah had a raw natural talent for freeskiing and a strong, confident style. I ask if she feels like her own story as unique as I think it is? “Oh yeah. I mean, a few girls [on the competition circuit] started a little bit later but I don’t think anyone’s gone to university and discovered freestyle there at the age of twenty. So, I suppose it is quite different, but I’ve been doing it for quite a long time now!” Any thoughts on how she managed to progress so quickly? The ever-modest, “I really love skiing so I’ve just been doing it a lot in the last few years!”
Once Sarah made the decision to compete in a bigger, more in international competition, as she puts it, “just to test it out,” her bag of tricks and strong style caught the attention of the Swiss team coach. The rest, as they say, is history. “It gave me a reason to ski more than anything.” Sarah explains, “It became more of an acceptable thing, whereas before I was more just having fun and thinking ‘at some point I’m going to have to start real life and real work.’ It was just the perfect excuse to say ‘I’m on the Swiss team now, I MUST train! I HAVE to ski!’”
The structure of training and coaching has really paid off, seeing Sarah pin down her style, learn new tricks and compete all over the world at events ranging from the X Games to FIS World Cup Olympic qualifiers. Consistently strong results in qualifying events have gained her a firm standing in the qualification bracket for the Pyeongchang 2018. She even took home the FIS Crystal Globe for ending the winter 2016 / 17 season at the top of the slopestyle league table. “Having a coach has really helped my skiing,” she explains. “And without the team I wouldn’t be able to travel everywhere to competitions, so it’s great they have taken me under their wing. I wouldn’t be doing this otherwise.”
About the Olympics… how does it feel to be on track to compete at the biggest, most public slopestyle contest in the world? Is there added pressure or extra excitement? Sarah seems to be taking it all in her stride. “To be honest I don’t really think about it that much! I think the federations are putting a lot of pressure on the people to do well, but I think it’s kind of obvious. It’s the [Olympics], so I can understand it.”
Although, while Sarah is putting the games to the back of her mind, where training is concerned, it’s full steam ahead. “[Our coaches] refer to it a lot. They’re planning what we’re gonna do for the Olympics. They’re fully on it, one hundred percent. Everyone is, every federation from every country is really trying to get everyone up to scratch for it. But I’m quite happy with it. I mean, I really want to do well so I’m taking all the ideas on board. And I guess that as long as I don’t get injured it should work out! Fingers crossed…!”
So with all the training and qualification events, what’s day-to-day life looking like for Sarah and the rest of the Swiss team in the run-up to the games? Pretty busy by all accounts. I managed to get some phone time in with Sarah between a stop-off in Annecy for the Sosh Big Air, a trip to Canada, and then a trip to Austria. From November 2017, she’s going to be on the road pretty much constantly, save for a break over Christmas, either competing or training until around mid-March 2018. “It’s pretty intense.” She explains, ‘But I just accept that there are a few months of the year where it’s going to be hard to be home and be around friends and my boyfriend and family. I mean, it is hard, but I’m competing, it’s fun, and it’s my job in a way. At the end of the season I feel a bit tired, but I think everyone feels like that!”
And I couldn’t leave off without asking Sarah a bit about the women’s freeski scene. Before Sochi there was a massive divide in the ability gap between male and female athletes, but since then, the rate of women’s progression has shot up massively. Does Sarah feel like she entered the professional scene at an exciting time? She thinks for a second. “I think when I started it was easier, because the level for the girls just wasn’t as high, so it was a little bit easier to get noticed, to do well. Luckily, I managed to catch up and now I think I’ve been progressing at the same speed as all the other girls.”
“I think if you provide girls with the right training facilities and the coach and everything, they can achieve so high and they can do so well.” She carries on. “It’s definitely happening now and it’s really great to see.” It’s not until we start talking about Sarah’s advice to potential female freeskiers that she gets to talking about her own style and how she honed it. When I met Sarah, I thought of her as totally fearless, and have continued to think of her as such. Is her self-assuredness what has helped push her to the level she’s at today? But she tells me that’s not that case. “I wouldn’t say I’m fearless at all! I suppose sometimes I have to step out of my comfort zone but generally I’m pretty sure of myself before I do a trick. When I was at university I would be like ‘I’m fearless, I’m not scared, I’m just going to try this trick.’ Which was stupid because I got injured all the time. I’ve definitely learned how to not do stupid things, that it’s important to be healthy and not get hurt.”
She goes onto explain that she feels her consistent good results over the past few years have been down to playing it safe, putting down runs she knows she will always land. “But this year, with the speed that the [women’s] level is progressing, I’m starting to step out of my comfort zone a little bit more and do some tricks where sometimes I’m like ‘hmm… ok, I really have to think about this one!’”
And as far as skiing goes, what does the future hold for Sarah Hoefflin? “Hopefully learning triples. My career is barely just starting now. Or I could be doing some other really fun job, the possibilities are endless. I’m taking it a step at a time.” I, for one, am really excited to see more of Sarah. In the Winter Olympics and beyond.