The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Athletes

Stuntman Alex Honnold Also Rock Climbs

In December, I wrote about Alex Honnold for the cover of Outside, ahead of his planned ropeless climb of Taiwan’s 1,667-foot Taipei 101 tower, now the world’s fifth tallest building. Sender Films had recently sold the project to the National Geographic Channel as a live television special. It was going to be the biggest thing yet for the 28-year-old nomadic climber, who’d already been featured on 60 Minutes for his life-or-death free-solo climbs in Yosemite. It would also arguably be the most significant media events in rock-climbing history.

Then the whole thing kinda fell apart. The building climb was postponed indefinitely after the adults at National Geographic began to worry about things like safety and liability. There had been talk of putting mattress-like crash pads on the balconies among the thousand other details that needed to be sorted out if this was to be as big as Discovery’s Nik Wallenda live high-wire acts or Red Bull’s Stratos stunt.

Lost in all of the hype—and one really awkward photo—was the fact that Honnold remains a remarkable climber who’s doing more than anyone to push the boundaries of his sport. For those of you interested in following his career, the time to get excited isn’t when the dog-and-pony show—as professional climbers call it—is in full effect, but when Honhold disappears. This is how he’s done most of his amazing free-solo climbs in Zion and Yosemite national parks. So it went on January 15, when Honnold made the first free-solo ascent of Mexico’s 1,500-foot 5.12+ Sendero Luminoso. With him was a minimal crew of friends and cameramen. The climb was among the most difficult and committing routes that anybody has ever dared to climb without a rope. It also provided the material for a very successful North Face viral video.

Honnold’s next feat—the Fitz Roy Traverse, in Patagonia, with Tommy Caldwell—had almost no commercial application (or advertisement). That climb took five days, between February 12 and 16, and was explained in detail by Alpinist magazine. (The late Chad Kellogg was on Fitz Roy at the same time.) It was just one of those pure climbing feats that reminds everyone what a guy like Alex is really about: Knocking off some of the most difficult routes on earth, in the most outrageous style, and making enough money doing it to avoid washing dishes or guiding clients.

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Olympic Inspiration for Young Athletes

Every two years, when the Olympics roll around, I always have the same reaction. In my excitement, I forget the naysayers who've predicted the stadiums and venues won't be ready. I tune out the terrible weather and terrorist threats, and the broadcasters lamenting empty seats. I forgive the crass manipulation of athletics for primetime television, and the network's tacky editing that cuts out the first two minutes of the women's giant slalom and two-man bobsled races as though they never happened. I fret about spoilers and tear up over the thanks-mom commercials. I'm the sucker who still loves the cheesy vignettes, the grainy video footage of tiny ice dancers who grow up to be Olympic champions.

Every night for two weeks, I'm glued to the television. But when I'm not, all I want is to be outside, running faster and pushing myself to the edge of what's possible. I'm older than the oldest competitor in Sochi, and yet, winter or summer, the Games always inspire me to be a better, stronger, smarter athlete.

The Sochi Games are the first Olympics that my children are watching, too. At three and five, my daughters are vigilant, obsessive fans. At first, I thought it was the novelty of television. We have one but rarely turn it on. But now, a week in, they're legitimately hooked. Their love of winter sports knows no bounds: They're savvy about skeleton and captivated by ice dancing, and they go wild for sibling athletes, most notably the trio of mogul sisters from Montreal. Three-year-old Maisy is partial to events with big air and amplitude, preferably on one board, not two; when the men's Super G ski racing came on, she asked imploringly, "When are they going to do something?"

A part of me worries about their rabid TV consumption and the habits they might be forming by sitting screen-side for 30 to 60 minutes a night. A small part of me. The fact is, watching the Olympics inspires them, too. They buzz with plans: They want to learn to play hockey and learn to carve racing turns in the snow; they want ski poles and a snowboard. They want to jump. I can almost see their spongey little brains absorbing the life lessons of competitive athletics, playing out nightly on tape-delay from Russia: Fall and get up. Make a mistake, and keep trying. Stay focused, keep your composure. Stick with your sisters. Keep going, keep trying. 

Yet for all of the heartening displays of sportsmanship coming out of Sochi, I still have mixed feelings about competitive sports, both for my daughters and myself. I hope they become competent, confident, well-rounded outdoor athletes. I want them to love the outdoors as I do, and feel the pleasure that comes from moving their bodies in nature. But they're far too young to start specializing, as more and more young children are urged to do these days. My Facebook feed is deluged by updates from friends whose kindergarteners have a busier race schedule than most adults: mountain biking, cross-country skiing, BMX. It's hard not to get a complex from the steady stream of slalom results trickling in from the junior circuit in Vermont or Colorado.

Study after study shows that children are happier, healthier, and more successful in school and life when they're active, but competition at a young age comes at a cost: weekends spent on the soccer circuit, driving around the state to swim meets. The Welsch sisters, a pair of young running phenoms from Texas, travel to triathlons and trail races at least once, if not twice, a week. My older daughter is only in kindergarten, but already we're trying to juggle homework and after-school activities. Time crunch aside, the greater risk is that children become so preoccupied with winning that they lose sight of the larger joy of why we move and play in the first place: to feel strong and free and alive in our bodies.

So what is the right age for kids to begin competing? The answer is different for every child, and every family. Eighteen-year-old alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin, who notched an impressive fifth-place finish in her Olympic debut at the giant slalom earlier this week, started skiing when she was three and was racing gates by seven; at 11 she went off to a ski academy. Still, her parents were determined to keep her race schedule light and her home life, if not exactly normal, then at least diversified. She and her older brother, a college ski racer, played soccer and cross-trained by doing chores in the yard. When Mikaela began competing on the World Cup at 15, her mother traveled with her to all her races.

Charlie White, half of the gold-medal ice dancing duo, grew up playing ice hockey and skating. In one of NBC's many vignettes about the pair, a school-age White, decked out in full hockey regalia, was asked which he liked better. "Neither," he replied. "I guess I like whatever sport I'm doing when I'm doing it." For a little while at least, he was just a regular kid who loved the ice. When he began to compete, his mother, like Mikaela's, accompanied him to every event.

It's a familiar story: The Lafour-Dupointe sisters from Montreal grew up racing moguls from a young age. But their parents, too, insisted that family came first, competitive skiing second. Strong families build balanced athletes.

Parenting is deeply personal, but it's also increasingly competitive, and it can be hard not to get sucked into what other children are doing, how other parents are parenting. Is my kid fast enough, smart enough, good enough? These comparisons, of course, disguise a deeper, thinly-veiled worry: Am I? The ultimate gift, and biggest challenge, might be to let go of our own expectations, ego, and competitive drive and follow our children's lead, wherever that may lead us.

Part of the appeal of the Olympics is that they mark time, delivering a biannual dose of nostalgia that's both personal and universal. At nine, I lay on my grandparents' shag carpet in Pennsylvania, with my feet pressed up against an electric space heater, and watched the U.S. hockey team beat the USSR in Lake Placid. Nearly 30 years later, my husband and I tuned into the 2008 Beijing Summer Games from an island in Ontario, one-month old Pippa swaddled and snoozing in the laundry basket that doubled as her crib. In 2010, during the Vancouver Winter Games, Maisy hadn't been born and my father was still alive. Two summers ago, three-year-old Pippa was jumping off our island dock into deep water while American swimmers raced to victory in London.

What will my daughters be doing in 2016? 2020? Maybe they'll be competitive skiers or swimmers or runners; maybe they'll play the banjo or write stories. It's impossible to know, and almost heartbreaking to imagine them grown. I'm perfectly content to just wait and see.

But for now, ice hockey's on, and the girls want to skate.

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The U.S. Is Losing the Gear Arms Race

The official opening ceremony sweaters by Ralph Lauren—love them, hate them, or employ them in lieu of a stomach pump—are famously sourced, spun, dyed, and knit in the United States. It’s a feel-good moment for those who care about Made in America labels and retaining stateside manufacturing jobs. But, as the Sochi Potemkin Village is to Russians, the sweater is just an excuse to wrap ourselves in the illusion of patriotism—and the charade of insourcing.  

Today, almost all our apparel—including the technical, waterproof-breathable shells and downy insulators we covet—is manufactured in Asia, or at least outside the U.S. Less than two percent of all the apparel purchased here annually is made in this country. One could argue (successfully) that sometime in the last 30 years, we as a nation lost many of those jobs to globalization, cheap goods, supply chain economics, and so-called free trade—which too often means sweatshop labor.

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But that’s not the case with manufacturing outdoor gear—the skis, snowboards, boots, bindings, helmets, goggles, body armor, and even speed suits helping Bode Miller and Mikaela Shiffrin in Sochi. We didn’t lose those jobs because we never had them. Or at least not many of them.   

Take the Spyder-branded speed suits the U.S. Ski Team is wearing this week. The high-tech uniforms are produced by a Swedish-owned company in Poland. It’s one of a handful of such manufacturers, almost all of which are European-based. “The guy who started the company was a ski racer in the 1980s,” says Barry Levinson, co-president of the Colorado company SRD, or Ski Racing Development, which also contracts with the factory for suits. “Financially it would be impossible to try to do it here. Actually, I can’t think of one piece of equipment that an Olympic ski racer will be using that’s made in the U.S.”

With a few notable exceptions—K2 skis were once made in Washington but are now pressed in Asia—Europe has a stranglehold on the production of high-end skis and boots. There are a few reasons for this, including government subsidies that float ski companies during lean years and in return demand continued employment. Then there are Europe-based feeder companies that make the edges, sidewalls, base materials, and cores so manufacturers don’t have to warehouse goods or incur the cost of long-distance shipping. But the real reason Europe reigns when it comes to making ski gear is institutional knowledge. Read—the people.

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Last week at the ski show in Denver, I met a Frenchman named Eric Bobrowicz (he goes by Bob), a master ski shaper who recently launched the small ski company White-Doctor. “Master ski shaper” is a credentialed title in Europe. Bob earned it after spending 40 years making skis for big brands like Rossignol and Dynastar. In this country, anybody with a CNC machine, a ski press, and some glue can make a pair of sticks that look like skis, but finding the balance between torsional rigidity and longitudinal flex takes a lot of experience. Get it wrong and the skis don’t feel supple, buttery, and powerful—they feel like planks. Bob’s skis aren’t planks.

There are people like Bob throughout Europe. And companies take advantage of that human capital. A few years ago, 91-year-old Völkl shifted its entire production of skis back to Germany. Prior to that, many of its fatter skis were being built in Asia. And guess what? We actually noticed the bump in quality at our annual Outside and Mountain magazine ski test in Snowbird, Utah. The Völkl reps in the U.S. tell me that there are multiple generations of families working in the German factory.

The ski boot business is even more familial and cloistered. I’ve visited the northern Italian towns of Montebelluna and Asolo where alpine brands like Tecnica, Nordica, Salomon, Atomic, Lange, Rossignol, Dalbello, and backcountry brands like Scarpa and Dynafit lovingly craft boots. Almost the entire ski boot business can be found in these two European enclaves. Prior to making ski boots, the sister towns were known for the production of high-end hiking boots—a tradition that’s continued non-stop since the 1600s. Yes, they’ve been hand-shaping lasts—the foot shaped form boots are built around—for more than 400 years. Today, if you need a trustworthy buckle or a specific variety of urethane or Pebax for the boot you’re designing, you’ll find it far easier to source in Montebelluna than in Asia. If you can get it outside the country—the Italians don’t take kindly to outsourcing ski boot jobs.

All of this centers around a common theme—U.S. innovation and European execution. Bob Lange invented the plastic ski boot in the U.S. in the 1960s. But it was Nordica that figured out how to properly inject molds. So Lange sold his company to the Europeans who had a better handle on production.

Switch Europe for Asia in that last sentence and it sounds like we’re talking about tech. But with skiing this is ancient history. Another prime example is Head. Most of the upcoming race podiums will go to skiers on Head skis. Howard Head was an American aircraft engineer and skier who invented the first metal laminate ski in 1947. Racers are still skiing on U.S.-invented metal laminate skis, but for most of its history, Head has been an Austrian brand.

Gore-Tex jackets, double lens goggles, snowboards, chairlifts, fat skis, rockered skis, all U.S. inventions, aren’t coming from U.S. factories. As Bob Dylan sang, “They don’t make nothing here no more.”

But don’t despair just yet. Because beneath that Italian ski boot you’ll find the one Made In America item I can guarantee you our star skiers are wearing right now. Smartwool socks—the official supplier to the U.S. Ski Team, and way nicer looking than those ridiculous sweaters. 

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Mikaela Shiffrin's Date with Olympic Destiny

Four years ago, the current reigning world-champion slalom skier Mikaela Shiffrin, then all of 14, realized timing was everything. The more she skied slalom, ski racing’s most technical event, the more she felt a unique tempo. She honed in on the sound of the gates hitting the snow. She heard a beat—usually drums, but sometimes the rhythmic strumming of a guitar. “Tempo” became her trigger word.

“If anyone said ‘tempo’, I’d search for that correct feeling,” says Shiffrin. “I wasn’t worried about the technical movements; I was just looking for perfect timing. It changes with every course, but I’ve gotten to the point where I can inspect the course and feel the tempo before I ski it.”

On January 14, 2014, Shiffrin won her third World Cup slalom race of the season, solidifying her position as Olympic favorite in the event. The 18-year-old has also podiumed twice in giant slalom this season, another discipline in which she's a viable medal contendar in Sochi. Last season, her second on the World Cup circuit, Shiffrin won the slalom race at the world championships in Schladming, Austria, becoming the fourth youngest woman—and just third non-European—to win the World Cup Slalom title. Oh, and she also graduated high school from Vermont’s Burke Mountain Academy.

Off the slopes, the rosy cheeked, curly haired American teen looks as wholesome as her friends describe her.

“She’s the epitome of a normal girl,” says her BMA roommate Brayton Pech. “She's not afraid to make fun of herself. She doesn't swear. She does these great impressions from Pixar movies. She loves to nap. She’s a good listener. She's never fake… she's exactly who she is.”

But when it comes to owning technical ski races, she’s all focus and hard work. “I’m not the most athletic person,” Shiffrin says. “Sports are in my genes, but there are a lot of other girls who I’ve gone up against who are better athletes—they’re stronger, bigger, faster, scrappier, and mentally tougher.”

But nothing could deter Shiffrin from improving. She was—and still is—hell bent on becoming tangibly better everyday.

“I’m always hungry to ski,” she says. “There are times when I do need a day off but it’s because I’m fatigued, not because I don’t want to put my boots on.”

At BMA, a small boarding school with a ski-racing emphasis (alum include Erik Schlopy and Diann Roffe), Shiffrin was usually the first one on the hill, warming up and helping set the course. After training, she’d ski another five runs on her own, working on various drills to perfect her technique.

“She’s a student of skiing,” says Kirk Dwyer, her coach at BMA, who Shiffrin credits with establishing her work ethic. “She’s probably spent more time analyzing video than any skier out there.”

Pech remembers a powder day when class was cancelled. After a few runs, Shiffrin disappeared.

“I was on the chairlift and looked over at our training hill. Half the fencing was covered in snow and Mikaela was doing drills on her Super G skis. What most of us see as work, she sees as fun.”

Shiffrin’s parents, Jeff and Eileen, noticed her talent early on. “She had the fundamentals dialed by the time she was six,” says Eileen. “She was already arcing these awesome turns.”

In 2003, her family left Vail, Colorado, for New England, where Shiffrin and her older brother Taylor enrolled at Burke. A brief stint back in Colorado proved to Shiffrin that the east coast, with its challenging conditions and efficient vertical, was the optimal place to develop as a ski racer. Her modus operandi: high volume.

“There are few skiers who can ski the amount Mikaela skis,” says Dwyer.

When she was 14, while most of her peers were competing in up to 30 races a season, Shiffrin only raced a dozen times. Instead of traveling to races around the country and skiing two timed runs, she skied all day, everyday, working on her technique.

“At that stage, and even now, I need a lot of training,” says Shiffrin. “I’m racing with girls who have 10 years mileage on me, so I have to take every chance to train.”

Shiffrin explains that because 60-second runs take up a small portion of a typical five-hour training day, a lot of her time revolves around visualization.

“You can pretty much simulate training,” she says. “If you visualize well enough, your brain can’t tell between skiing and visualizing. Then, you can get double or triple the amount of training.”

Shiffrin started her first World Cup race at the age of 15. Two years later, she won her first World Cup race in Are, Sweden, becoming the second-youngest American ever to win an alpine World Cup event. Instead of traveling with the U.S. Ski Team—and teammates ten years her senior—Mikaela chose to travel the World Cup circuit with her mom. Eileen has spent the last two winters driving around the Alps with her daughter, taking care of meals and laundry, and helping her study and complete high school while on the road. She even plays a coach’s role from time to time.

“She has a good eye,” says Shiffrin. “If I have a tough day I can look at video with her and we can start to figure out what happened. It’s been like that ever since I can remember.”

With Shiffrin’s work ethic and determination, she most likely could have succeeded in a number of sports. But when her coach recently asked her why she didn’t pursue soccer, she answered confidently:

“I’m a ski racer. That’s how I identify myself, with skis strapped to my feet."

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Making Cross-Country Skiing Relevant

If Kikkan Randall wins cross-country gold on February 11, as most pundits predict, it will be a first for the U.S. and the first Olympic medal won by an American in the sport since Bill Koch took home the silver in 1976. Her biggest accomplishment, though, might be convincing people that cross-country skiing is entertaining.

With streaks of pink in her blond hair and a penchant for feather boas, Randall, 31, brings snowboarder-punk flair to an other­wise staid sport. She also races the sprint, an event that wasn't part of elite competition until 2001. (It debuted at the Olympics in Salt Lake City.) Compared with the 30-­kilometer grind that has always defined cross-country, the sprint is a kilometer and a half of fury, where six athletes go elbow-to-elbow on a hilly, twist­ing track. Think Roller Derby on snow.

"It's six skiers on a course that's sometimes no more than ten feet wide," says Randall. "You've got skis and poles going different directions, and you don't know the winner until they lunge for the finish."

Randall captured the overall World Cup sprint title in 2012, then repeated last year while also winning the gold in the sprint ­relay at the World Championships with teammate Jessie Diggins. Known for her aggressive approach to training—in high school, her cross-country-running teammates dubbed her the Kikkanimal—she credits her success to a distinctive fitness regimen, which mixes long hours of endurance work with Olympic weight lifting.

Twice a week, Randall, who's five feet five inches and 135 pounds, with Adonis abs and prize-fighter biceps, completes a series of power cleans and snatches. She also does pull-ups with a 60-pound weight dangling from her waist. "Going into the 2011 season, I began working with a strength coach, and that's when my results picked up," she says. "I've noticed a new level of power in my skiing."

To prepare for the Olympics, Randall, who finished eighth in the sprint at the 2010 Games, has been helicoptering from ­Anchorage, Alaska, out to the Eagle Glacier, where in July her coaches built a replica of the Sochi sprint course. "There will still be some wild cards when we get there," she says. "But I'll be ready."

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