This week I interviewed Olympic freestyle skier, Shannon Bahrke. Shannon grew up skiing and earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team in 1998. A two time medalist, Shannon retired in 2010 following her Bronze medal performance in Vancouver. She was kind enough to share her thoughts on freestyle skiing and her career.
Josh Wahler: What makes a great freestyle skier and sets the top-level competitors apart from everyone else in the field?
Shannon Bahrke: Well I think one of the things that makes the best freestyle competitor is when they have the whole package. To me what makes a really great athlete and competitor is when they are able to execute in competition everything they have been doing in training. Sometimes athletes are so good and then they get in the gate and just fall apart. Taking it a step further, I really think what the judges want to see is a mogul skier that is so perfectly balanced. A skier whose flow from left to right is just seamless, they go the biggest off the jumps, execute the hardest degree of difficulty, and are the fastest. I love that! Although, I almost like it when they look a little out of control. When you’re thinking oh my gosh they’re hanging on for dear life. I seem to like that a little more than the judges do. One of the things also that makes the best skier is if they make it look easy, when people, “oh my gosh of course I could do that.” That I think truly makes not only a great freestyle skier, but a great athlete overall.
JW: You had a long and very accomplished career, is there any one moment or achievement that stands out as the highlight?
SB: The highlight of my career came before any of my D-list fame, lol. The moment that really defined me occurred in 2002, we had an event called the Gold Cup. It was winner take all and the winner got the first spot to the Olympics and also a check for $10,000. You knew you were going there and there was nothing that could stand in your way. I won that event right before the 2002 Olympics. Later that night the aerialists had their opportunity to compete and before their event they played the national anthem and the flag was being raised and they were playing Star Spangled Banner and I looked over and saw my dad crying. I said, “Dad why are you crying?,” and he said, “My baby’s going to the Olympics”. I think to me that really encompassed everything that I wanted. Here my parents were sacrificing so much to allow me to follow my dream. From not going on family vacations, to not putting money into savings, all those things they sacrificed for me and I was turning it around and doing something with that sacrifice and getting to compete in the Olympics, making my parents proud. So that was a really special moment for my entire family.
JW: That’s a great moment and I’m sure a lot of people would expect to hear about the Olympics and the medals you won in response to that question so it’s nice to hear about the moments and events that went into that dream.
SB: Of course all the medals are amazing but I think it’s the person and the things you do before all that happens that really defined me and that was such a cool thing to be like look mom and dad, I’m giving it back, I’m doing it. So that was a pretty cool moment.
JW: What’s something about your sport that many people don’t know or in your opinion doesn’t get talked about?
SB: One of the things that I wish more than anything would happen is that dual moguls would make it into the Olympics because it is, hands down, one of the most exciting sports to watch live. You’ve got two mogul skiers that are going head to head, as fast as they can and catching HUGE air. It’s a bit of a tennis style format, the winner keeps going until there are two competitors left – going for GOLD. It’s so dramatic and nail biting. It really bums me out that it’s not in the Olympics because it’s one of the coolest events ever and we’ve got how many ski racing events and there are all these different sports that have so many events and this is something that truly is so unique and so fun to watch. I’m hoping one day it makes it into the Olympics but I’m not sure if the International Olympic Committee will ever allow it in.
JW: With that in mind. In what way has freestyle skiing changed from the time you first started to now?
SB: Oh my gosh, it has changed so much since I started. When I started freestyle skiing we did three events. We did ballet, aerials and moguls. Not many people know that and I am definitely dating myself, but I actually made it to my first national event in ballet. So I have come a long way. Back in the day we were doing twister spreads and daffys. We couldn’t go inverted or do back flips or do front flips or do D spins or any of those things in moguls and we didn’t even really have legitimate jumps. You just went down the moguls and just jumped off the one that was the biggest out of the field. Now everything is so prepared and you have one line that looks so symmetrical and you have a very obvious jump with a huge landing pad to make it safer for the competitors. It has really changed a ton. So from back in the day doing daffys to today, some of the guys that are doing back flips with two full rotations. I mean that’s insane!! The speed some people are able to carry now is really impressive. Even looking at my run from 2002 to my run in 2010 how much the speed has increased. It’s a pretty dramatic change, but I still think our sport is plateauing a little bit especially on the women’s side and I’d love to see the girls doing bigger and more difficult tricks. I think to me that’s one of the things that’s missing right now. There are some girls doing incredible things, but I think that really needs to be the focus on moving forward.
JW: Do you think there’s a solution to the issue of plateauing and having the sport continue to evolve?
SB: I think for me on the outside it really has to do with the judges. I just don’t feel they’re rewarding the women. Sometimes it takes us a little bit longer to overcome fear, but if we get incentives and get scores that maybe we don’t quite deserve on the front end of it, that will be enough to elevate the level of jumping. If you get rewarded for those things you will start to feel that shift and I believe that shift comes from the judges. And for the men, they are doing incredible tricks and I believe the actual jump size needs to increase so they can do double backflips. I think that’s really stifling our mogul sport. They should be able to do a double back flip if they want to like the men. I think they can perform it safely and I think that’s where our sport needs to go which is to have bigger jumps and allow the athletes to really push themselves and be rewarded for it. We also lose a lot of future mogul skiers because when they watch TV and they see all these really cool, big tricks in the half pipe and in the park, and since they can’t do them in the moguls they don’t want to try our sport. It’s sad to see so many people with so much talent who would love mogul skiing, and they choose half pipe because they wanted to do double back flips. So that’s kind of sad for me to watch. I just want to say no, choose mogul skiing, it’s so cool!
JW: Hopefully it can shift in that direction.
SB: I hope so but some of the ways it’s been going lately, I don’t know. I’m not involved in that process so I don’t know the day in day out. All I know is that as a spectator that’s what I see from my point of view.
JW: I was watching you speak and you said you chose a pretty crazy path and pointed out how difficult the odds are of not just winning medals, but even making it to the Olympics. What advice would you give to young skiers or athletes in general who aspire to be Olympic athletes?
SB: The advice that I would give is that it’s a really bumpy ride. You get injured, you may not get picked the first time around, and you may not be the best person out there. I mean there’s so many things you have to overcome on this journey, but if you really love it, if you really deep in your bones love it, love it more than anything and are willing to work twice as hard as everybody around you, then you can accomplish that. But, if you don’t really love it and you think that maybe this is going to make you famous or rich or have a lot of followers on Instagram or some of those things, that’s not enough. You can’t have your parents want it for you either, you have to really want it and be willing to set aside everything in the whole world to accomplish that journey.
JW: I think that’s good life advice for anyone. You need to do things for the right reason and have passion for your goals.
SB: I wasn’t the best mogul skier out there by any stretch of the imagination, I just worked my butt off. So that to me is something you have to have, and I have in business, I’m not the smartest person out there. I never graduated with a Harvard business degree but man am I willing to work hard and find ways to make it work and to be successful. I think if you have that, that passion to work through those awful days when you’re just miserable, if you’re willing to work hard in those conditions then you want it badly enough and success will come.
JW: You do motivational speaking and help inspire others, who do you feel has played that role for you in your own life?
SB: Oh my gosh there’s so many people. It’s come from so many different directions and it’s people who don’t even know it. It’s people writing a really nice message of encouragement or how much I helped them on my Facebook. It’s my coaches that were there every step of the way or my doctor that put me back together. I’ve been inspired by so many things from the sacrifice my parents gave me, to the way I always looked up to my mom because she was a pillar of strength for me. And then watching my brother come up on the U.S. team and he also being an Olympian. I think there’s so many things that inspired me and they came when I wasn’t even looking. You can’t really search out inspiration, it kind of slaps you in the face and you’re like wow that was really cool. I hope to do that for other people, I hope to provide some kind of spontaneous bit of inspiration when they weren’t even expecting it, whether it was a laugh or a good time, or a bit of information that maybe they knew was in their head but maybe was presented in a different way that relates more to them. For me it just came from real authentic connections from people that believed in me.
– Josh Wahler