At his first gig as head coach of the Russian Olympic Freeskiing Team, Canadian Chris Turpin found himself in Izhevzk, Russia, home of the AK-47, skiing a halfpipe built on a heap of garbage from a former atomic bomb factory. “It was the first time they’d let people in because the radiation had been too high,” he says. “They neglected to tell us that until afterwards.”
Turpin, who has been coaching at summer ski camps, like Whistler’s Momentum, for the past decade, has had the Olympics on his radar since high school. At the 2002 Salt Lake Games, he was part of a freeskiing demo, and he skied in the Vancouver opening ceremonies. “When rumor had it that freeskiing was going to be in the Olympics in 2014, I dabbled with the thought of being an athlete, but my body was telling me to slow down,” he says. “But I still wanted to be on the front line.”
After trying unsuccessfully to get on the coaching staff of the Canadian and American teams, he got an out-of-the-blue Facebook message from the Russian snowboarding coach, asking him if he was interested. Around the same time, he ran in to Canadian coaches Steve Ferring and Jim Schiman at the Whistler water ramps. They were there coaching the Russian mogul team, and mentioned that the country was looking for a freeskiing coach. If he was interested, they’d put in a good word.
Now, he’s the head coach of the Russian Federation Freeskiing Team. He tapped fellow Canadian Mauro Nunez to help with the pipe team, and he has two Russian assistant coaches—an ageing ballet skier and a former world champion tumbler—but he’s forging a freeskiing program with a team that has minimal park skiing experience. “Pipe has only existed in Russia for two years,” he says. “When I started, only three of the guys could physically ride pipe.”
In Russia, where sports are tied tightly to national pride, there’s little to no history of freeskiing culture. So the team came together non-traditionally. The Russian Ski Federation held a one-day slope event in Moscow and anyone who wanted to be on the team had to show up. The best skiers, regardless of their background, made the team.
“Half the guys were ex-mogul or development racers, two guys were straight up freeriders, and the rest were aerial skiers,” Turpin says. “They’re all jacked and super strong, but were a few steps behind in terms of culture. When I asked them who their favorite freeskier was they said Dale Begg-Smith.”
So he had to explain both skill and style. He had to teach skiers, who had no air sense, how to spin cork and try to explain to athletes who grew up in a highly regimented environment that they could be creative in their skiing.
Of course, there are several cultural differences coaching in a post-Communist country, too. Everything from the terrain (like the radioactive halfpipe in Izhevzk) to the way people make eye contact on the street—not recommended in Moscow, he says—is different, and reflective of Soviet history. It also shows up in how athletes interact with their coaches. “I’ve always been friends with the riders, and these guys grew up in a system where coaches eat at one table and the athletes eat at another. That bond isn’t there.”
The absence of common language doesn’t help, either. “I basically have 120 words,” he says. “I’ve had to change my coaching style a lot. I’m known for using a lot of analogies—I explain pop using a basketball metaphor—but when you try to explain that to a translator on the hill, they look at you like you’re crazy.”
But they’re getting better, he says, even without the analogies or an ingrained knowledge of freeskiing. In Sochi, Turpin says the Russian team is just looking to make the finals. They don’t want to embarrass themselves on their home turf. “We want our guys to look good, but we’re pretty much the only team that doesn’t have a history,” he says.