The Brazilian jungle is worlds away from the icy pitch of a freestyle aerials jump. But nearly four years after watching his athlete Jeret Peterson flip to Vancouver Olympic silver off those near-vertical kickers, former U.S. aerials coach Ryan Snow found himself there, in shorts and a tee shirt on a humid dry slope ski park 30 miles outside São Paulo. That's because in June of this year Snow embarked on an unlikely mission to bring freestyle aerials skiing to Brazil, and with it a shot at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The craziest part? He and two female gymnasts just might pull it off.
"I've never tried to do something like this so quickly before," says Snow. "But there's 25 Olympic spots available...and I think our girls can sneak in [to Sochi]."
For an equatorial country that has only a few thousand skiers among its 200 million citizens and exactly zero outdoor snow skiing slopes, an Olympic berth would be monumental. Still, with Brazil's strong athletic tradition, Snow considers the area untapped potential in the world of skiing. Now, with former internationally ranked gymnasts Joselane Rodrigues dos Santos and Lais da Souza under his tutelage, the coach has started a competitive, FIS-recognized program on track for the Sochi Games, and he has done so in a matter of months.
The idea was born five years ago when Snow was a new coach with the U.S. Ski Team. As part of a group charged with growing the sport, Snow, a Canadian citizen married to a Brazilian, considered reaching out to his wife's South American homeland and its talent-rich sporting community, but the plan never materialized.
When Snow and the U.S. Team parted ways last year, however, the idea resurfaced, and while on vacation in Rio de Janeiro with his family, he reached out to Brazil's winter sports federation, the CBDN. A few days later he was on a flight to São Paulo to meet with the organization.
Even with the massive Andes Mountains in its backyard, competitive skiing has always been an afterthought in South America. In fact, no country from the region has ever won a medal in the Winter Olympics, and only a handful of them have even competed. Interestingly, Brazil, one of the very few borders not connected to the legendary mountain chain, wanted to change that. Brazil had been waiting for a catalyst like Snow for years. A month after his trip to São Paulo, he had his government-funded aerials program.
"We had been looking at aerials for some time and Ryan [Snow] was one of the main pieces for us to take our ideas off the paper and into action," explains Pedro Cavazzoni, the organization's technical director. "We needed an experienced coach that could help us structure a long-term plan and start a team from zero."
As a former Canadian aerials skier on the World Cup circuit and a U.S. Team coach for over five years, Snow fit the CBDN's criteria snugly. Even though he had never constructed a program from scratch, he knew he could have Brazil ready for the 2018 Olympics.
But CBDN wasn't looking at 2018--they were looking at Sochi.
"Being in the Olympics this year will...generate a lot of attention and hopefully approximate the sport to the Brazilian general public," says Cavazzoni.
Athletes train their entire lives for a chance at the Olympics, so in order to field an Olympic team in just eight months, Snow needed athletes with a shot at immediate impact. Because freestyle aerials is as much acrobatics as it is skiing, he turned to Brazil's plethora of experienced gymnasts to start his program, hosting an open tryout in June. Souza, a 24-year-old 2004 Summer Olympian, and Dos Santos, a 28-year-old gymnastics instructor, stood out as those competitors, becoming the first members of Brazil's Aerials Team without ever having stepped foot on snow.
That changed a few weeks later at a 10-day snow camp on Blackcomb Glacier in Canada.
"I had seen snow when I was competing [gymnastics] in Ukraine," says Souza. "I had never skied it though. When I did, it was perfect."
Snow remembers differently, saying there were, "a lot of lumps and falls" the first few days. Still, the women picked up enough ski skills to make it down the hill to the jump zone. Landing, Snow knew, would have to wait until nearly six months later in Ruka, Finland.
With a budget around $150,000 for the year, Brazil's aerials team spent the summer jumping into an air bag at São Roque Ski Park near São Paulo using a converted snowboard jump to simulate an aerials kicker. Snow, who speaks limited Portuguese, communicated via Google Translate, teaching the girls two tricks--a back lay (laid-out backflip) and a back tuck (knees to chest backflip).
According to last season's official results, he estimated these tricks would put them into the World Cup and on the brink of Olympic qualification. In December his calculations proved true--Souza taking 9th and Dos Santos 12th at the Finland Europa Cup, and earning enough points to compete on the World Cup circuit.
The aerialists' real breakthrough came two weeks earlier though, when they landed their first jumps on snow.
"The landing hill is pretty intimidating (with a 70-degree slope), so we had three days of just skiing down the hill," says Snow. "But then we started jumping and things went well."
So well in fact, that Souza earned her first podium, a 3rd place at the NorAm Cup, just a month later. The record finish happened on Snow's old home turf, the Utah Olympic Park in Park City, evoking not only a pride in his new athletes, but a tinge of redemption for the veteran coach.
And while the journey is far from over, Brazil's new aerials coach is embracing the challenge. He has taught a full spectrum of jumpers, but this is his first time as a full-time coach, travel coordinator, budget handler, and emotional confidant. He is truly the father of Brazilian Aerials.
Yet on a personal level the experience has been equally as fulfilling, and could provide him a second chance at the Olympic Games he may have never seen otherwise.
There won't be any Olympic hardware at the end of this dream, but he realizes waving the blue, green, and yellow in the Sochi Opening Ceremonies could have a more lasting value--a future for competitive skiing in Brazil.
"For me [getting to the Olympics] would solidify that this program is going to survive and move forward," says the coach. "My ideal legacy would be the Brazilian Aerials program as part of 2018 and beyond. That would be pretty awesome."
Look for the Brazilian aerials team at their World Cup deput at Deer Valley this weekend. Ladies aerials are scheduled for Friday, January 10.