Freestyle skier Tomáš Kraus is one of the Czech Republic’s best athletes, specialising in the discipline of ski cross, which was featured for the first time this year at the Vancouver Winter Olympics. In the discipline, four skiers race each other to get to the bottom of courses full of banks and jumps, with the first two advancing to the next round. With the excitement of close jostling for position and sharp turns, it’s no surprise that the discipline is quickly becoming one of skiing’s most thrilling.
At the Olympics the Czech skier, who is 36, was expected to do well, but unfortunately things didn’t go his way. All the same, he told me when we met in Prague this week that, he greatly enjoyed the experience and he confirmed that the course built in Vancouver was one of the best he had ever raced.
The two-time World Champion and four-time World Cup winner went out in the semis and only finished 11th overall, no doubt a disappointment; nevertheless, the racer set his sights on new targets, among them winning the Czech championship last weekend at Špindlerův Mlýn. And now, he is gotten off to a new project: this week he and three other athletes (Olympian snowboarder Michal Novotný, snowboarder Martin Černík and well-known freerider Robin Kaleta) set out for a new frontier: to ski and snowboard some of the steepest drops in Thompson Pass, Alaska. Tomáš Kraus again:
“Alaska for me – and for all people involved in skiing and snowboarding - represents something like the highest goal. The best snow, the steepest slopes, the steepest hills, and for me something like the next step in skiing. Of course, I am not sure of exactly what to expect, but two of us are very experienced in freeriding and will be able to help.”
The racer does have extensive experience in the Alps, but expects skiing in the northern-most US state will be even more thrilling. The reason? Inclines of 45 degrees or more and deep powder snow.
Of course skiing and snowboarding in Alaska is not without risks, one reason why Tomáš Kraus and other members of the four-man team will be relying not just on their own experience as professionals but also on local expertise, basing decisions on daily snow and weather conditions. They will also carry along the necessary safety equipment, including tools essential in the case of avalanche or accidents. Tomáš Kraus describes the necessary precautions to take:
“For me the first thing is respect for the mountain, anyone who has tried skiing in deep powder knows that you have to have respect, you have to gain experience, and you have to have safety aids. With us we will have beepers in case we are caught in an avalanche, sticks for searching, as well as shovels. Also, an added safety aid are backpacks with airbags that inflate around the neck and shoulders, 140 litres in volume, to help keep you above the snow, to keep you on the surface.”
The team will be in Alaska for roughly fourteen days; of that they could theoretically freeride for twelve, but in reality, because of changing conditions, the team will be satisfied if it can get in four or five good days. Over the course of trying different areas in the mountains, they will also film material for a short documentary capturing the best Alaska has to offer in extreme sport. After the experience it will be the off-season at last, which for Tomáš Kraus means relaxing with his family – including his two-year-old daughter Lucinka during vacations by the sea. Relaxation doesn’t mean, however, the absence of sport. The champion skier once again:
“For me now, over the last fifteen years, my favourite sport in the off-season has been windsurfing although there aren’t as many opportunities in the Czech Republic. Over the last four or five, I’ve also taken up golf, where you can relax but also enjoy your feelings from the sport. In ski cross you have just a few fleeting moments, in golf you have hours.”
That doesn’t mean that the champion skier plans on giving up ski cross any time soon – the adrenaline rush is something he still appreciates and says is incomparable to anything else. After all, he started out as a classic alpine skier, who eventually crossed over (pardon the pun) to this extreme sport. Here’s why:
“For me it’s more fun, there’s more time in the air (laughs) and more people to compete with. It’s something that is difficult to explain. It’s your heart beating at a high rate! It’s a great feeling and I am very happy to have begun competing in ski cross.”
And Tomáš Kraus says ski cross deserved its place at Vancouver 2010 and proved very popular.
“I was sure that our sport needed to be at the Olympics: a lot of nations take part and a lot of spectators follow it. I enjoyed these Games. I won many, many races before and I wanted to win a medal but it didn’t work out. That’s sport and that’s ski cross.”
Do you think you will try and give the Olympics another shot? Will you try for Sochi?
“This is the idea but I will have to keep myself in the best possible shape for four years. Then it’s a question of health: in our sport it isn’t always easy to maintain. So we’ll see. Right now I am ready to fight for first place in every new race; as for the Olympics we’ll see in four years.”
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