The Winter Olympics are tests not only of athletic achievement but of design and engineering. May the best gear win.
You could stage a fairly representative Summer Olympics with almost no individualized equipment at all. Shoes for the sprinters and marathoners, goggles for the swimmers, gloves for the boxers. When you’re racing across dry earth or in chlorinated water, trying to wrestle another human to the ground or working as a team to place a ball into a net, your equipment doesn’t make much of a difference. (Okay, yes, in equestrian events, your horse probably matters.)
The Winter Olympics, though, are a different beast. They feature quite possibly the most extensive (and expensive) collection of sporting equipment in the world — replete with various vehicles, elongated planks of wood and sharpened blades of steel to propel athletes across the snow or ice (and frequently through the air), whether by skating, skiing or sliding. And then there are the helmets, gloves and boots required to keep faces, hands and feet warm.
Where else would an athlete or a national federation spend $25,000 on a piece of equipment, as bobsledders do? No, wait — that’s the cost to ship a sled to Beijing for the 2022 Winter Games. The sled itself, with engineering from major automakers, costs up to $250,000.
At the Winter Olympics and Paralympics, you’re often only as good as your equipment. Your gear is your everything. On the morning of a cross-country ski race, for example, the scene is pandemonium as competitors and their ski techs test out various pairs of skis and waxes to determine what’s fastest in that day’s conditions.
“It’s total chaos,” said Katharine Ogden, an alternate for the U.S. cross-country team. “It’s like a NASCAR team: If [the wax techs] don’t figure out what the best wax is on that day and the other teams do, you’re done.”
More than perhaps any other sporting event (at least those without internal combustion engines), the Winter Olympics and Paralympics are tests not only of athletic achievement but of design and engineering. May the best gear win.
Kristen Santos, 27, from Fairfield, Conn.
Santos is a walking, breathing example of the dangers of her sport. She was a favorite to make Team USA for the 2018 PyeongChang Games but was sliced on the hand and wrist by another skater’s blade in a race just a few weeks before the U.S. trials. Following surgery, she recovered enough to race at the trials but finished fourth, one spot shy of a roster berth. This year, she ranks in the top 10 in the world in all three short-track distances and is considered Team USA’s top medal hope in Beijing.
Santos describes short-track helmets as similar to bicycle helmets. She also wears Oakley EVZero performance sunglasses ($200), mostly for protection from flying ice chips. Some skaters prefer tints, but hers are almost clear.
Manufacturer/model: Nalza (gloves), StayBent (tips)
In short-track speedskating, because there is frequent contact between competitors, gloves must be mostly white so referees can better determine penalties. Santos’s gloves are standard-issue, cut-resistant Nalzas, which cost about $30. The carbon-fiber tips, which reduce friction with the ice as the skaters stabilize themselves going around corners, are worn only on the left hand. Santos’s tips cost about $20, and she attaches them to her gloves with super glue.
Manufacturer/model: Marchese Racing
Former U.S. national champion and national team coach Paul Marchese started making custom skate boots in 1988, and at least 130 Olympic medals had been won in his boots by 2018.
Santos and other skaters visit the factory, where a mold is taken of their feet. The boot then is handcrafted from carbon fiber, microfiber and thermo foams. Because of the higher cornering forces, short-track boots are higher and stiffer than long-track versions.
This Kevlar bodysuit is worn beneath the uniform and provides cut-resistant protection. “We’re skating with 17-inch blades. I wouldn’t say it’s common for someone to get cut, but it’s not uncommon,” Santos said. “Even if someone does get cut, these suits can drastically reduce the severity.”
Manufacturer/model: StayBent Weapon
Short-track blades are about 17 inches long and bent slightly toward the left — because skaters only turn left. The “bend” and “rocker” of each skater’s blades — essentially, their customized shapings — are closely guarded secrets, and Santos said she doesn’t even know her bend and rocker figures; only her blade techs do. Between runs on race day, Santos sharpens her blades on a machine called a jig. StayBent provides her blades through a sponsorship deal.
Katharine Ogden, 24, from Landgrove, Vt.
In her corner of rural Vermont, locals say Ogden learned to ski at the same time she learned to walk. That is only a slight exaggeration. She started skiing with her father at 3 and started racing at 5 — which means she has 19 years of experience as a competitive cross-country skier. In 2017, she won bronze at the junior world championships, becoming the first American woman to medal in the event. A strong World Cup season put her on the cusp of making Team USA for Beijing, but she fell just short and was named an alternate. Ben Ogden, her brother, was named to the U.S. men’s team.
Manufacturer/model: Bliz Matrix-Nano Nordic Light
Cross-country skiers don’t wear helmets, but Ogden dons these glasses, made by Sweden’s Bliz, for her sport. The wide, curved lenses give skiers a cylindrical field of vision and are said to enhance contrast when visibility is poor.
Manufacturer/model: Fischer Speedmax 3D
Ogden has been skiing on Fischers since she was 15 and is now sponsored by the Austrian company. Her world-class status affords her top-of-the-line skis from the choicest stock coming out of the factory. “There’s a specific shape of the ski that makes them desirable,” she said. “You wouldn’t notice it unless you were a high-level skier.” Nordic skis come in two types: classic and skate. Both are much lighter and thinner than Alpine skis and lack metal edges. She travels with as many as 20 pairs and determines which to use each day based on course conditions.
Boots and bindings
Manufacturer/model: Fischer Speedmax (boots) and Race Pro (bindings)
Cost: $800 (boots), $80 (bindings)
Aside from her boots and bindings, another critical component of Ogden’s race-day setup is the wax applied to the bottom of the skis. She has a wax tech, Chris Hecker, who tests out various options — some of which cost several hundred dollars for a small brick — to determine what works best in the day’s conditions.
Manufacturer/model: Swix Triac 4.0 Aero
Ogden’s poles, from Norwegian manufacturer Swix, are made of carbon fiber and provide the optimum combination of stiffness and lightness. Ogden customizes hers with cork grips and a length of 157.5 centimeters — a little over five feet. “You want them to come right about up to your mouth,” she said.
Manufacturer/model: Swix JD Race Glove
Ogden’s gloves are from Swix’s JD line, named for 2018 Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins, Ogden’s U.S. teammate and a fellow Swix-sponsored athlete. The gloves feature a leather palm and a Velcro cuff.
Manufacturer/model: Polar Vantage M2
Ogden uses her smartwatch, made by Finland’s Polar, primarily in training to monitor her heart rate and other data points. She also wears it during races but doesn’t look at the data until afterward.
Dan Cnossen, 41, from Topeka, Kan.
Cnossen, who competes in Paralympic biathlon and cross-country skiing, has one of the most inspiring stories of any athlete set to compete in Beijing. A former Navy SEAL platoon commander, he lost both legs to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2009. Despite requiring nearly 40 surgeries, he ran a mile on his prosthetics on the first anniversary of his injury. He was introduced to Nordic skiing through a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee program that recruits wounded veterans to Paralympic sports, and by 2014 he was on the U.S. team in Sochi. In PyeongChang in 2018, he won six medals, including gold in the 7.5-kilometer biathlon.
The sit-ski is a marvel of engineering, custom-molded from carbon fiber to fit Cnossen’s body and attaching to skis via bindings. “In reality, with all the [research and development] involved in designing and building it,” said Eileen Carey, director of the U.S. Paralympic Nordic team, “the cost was in the hundreds of thousands [of dollars].” For competitive reasons, The Washington Post was asked not to reveal the name or location of the engineering firm that built the sit-ski.
Manufacturer/model: Fischer SpeedMax Classic
The U.S. Paralympic Nordic team uses the same skis as its Olympic counterpart, made by Austrian company Fischer. Cnossen typically travels with as many as 50 pairs of different lengths and shapes, both “classic” and “skate” models. Along with Team USA’s technical staff, he tests skis and chooses a pair for each day’s competition, along with an optimal wax application, based on course conditions and snow quality.
Manufacturer/model: Leki HRC Max Trigger Shark
Cnossen’s poles are standard-issue, carbon-fiber Leki products, cut down to fit his lower-to-the-ground profile. He customizes them with larger-than-normal “baskets” near the tips because, unlike able-bodied skiers, he generates all of his momentum from his core, shoulders and arms — and wants to catch as much snow as possible with each stroke.
Cnossen said he doesn’t have any equipment sponsorships as some of his Olympic counterparts do, but he is grateful, given the high costs, that the U.S. Paralympic Nordic team provides equipment for national squad members.
Manufacturer/model: Steyr Sport LGB 1 air rifle
Austrian gunmaker Steyr specializes in the air pistols and rifles used by competitive shooters and biathletes. Cnossen’s rifle, which costs nearly $3,000 by itself, comes with a standard stock, but he traveled to Norway to be fitted for a $2,000 custom stock made by Jan Olav Gjermundshaug, a former world-class biathlete who became a stock-maker. Accustomed to heavy guns while in the military, Cnossen tried the lighter models preferred by most biathletes but now uses one of the heaviest rifles in the sport.
Freestyle skiing (aerials)
Ashley Caldwell, 28, from Ashburn, Va.
Caldwell was a talented adolescent gymnast whose life changed when she saw the Turin Olympics aerials competition on television in 2006. The sight of all those athletes flipping and twisting in the air on a snow-covered mountain hooked her, and by 2010 — at 16 — she was on Team USA at the Vancouver Games. Beijing will be her fourth Olympics. Though she didn’t medal in the previous three, she won the world championship in 2017, and in Beijing she could get two chances, thanks to the addition of a mixed team aerials competition. Her partner could be Justin Schoenefeld, her boyfriend of three years.
Manufacturer/model: ID One custom model
Aerials skis are straighter and shorter than most recreational or competitive Alpine models — Caldwell’s are 160 centimeters long, as opposed to 180 to 218 cm in Alpine. “Recreational skis are fatter at the tips and tails with a side cut, which allows you to turn more,” Caldwell said. “In aerials, we don’t turn, so we want them really straight. The width at the tips and tails is almost the same as under the boot.” She is sponsored by Japanese manufacturer ID One, which customizes a model for her.
Manufacturer/model: Marker Jester
Caldwell called these bindings, made by German manufacturer Marker, “the safest you can get” — always a good idea when you are doing triple flips in the snow. ID One, her ski sponsor, supplies her bindings.
Manufacturer/model: Full Tilt Drop Kick Pro
Caldwell wants them to be lightweight and comfortable.
“I could sit in these all day long,” she said of her Full Tilts, which the Seattle-based company supplies through a sponsorship deal. “And, actually, we are sitting in them all day.” One interesting customization: Ski boots, including Caldwell’s, typically tilt forward, but aerial skiers cut down the thick plastic back cuffs so they are more upright.
Manufacturer/model: Wildhorn Outfitters custom model
Wildhorn, an outdoor adventure company based in Draper, Utah, supplies her custom-made helmet from its Drift model line and even produced a custom graphic for her, the predominant colors of which are red, white and blue. She adds Oakley sunglasses to the ensemble, with rose- or yellow-tinted lenses for overcast days and dark ones for bright days.
Manufacturer/model: Auclair Race Fusion
Montreal-based Auclair provides Caldwell and much of Team USA with these high-end leather gloves. Her needs are simple: “I just want to be warm,” she said, “and I don’t want them to be too bulky.” Spyder makes uniforms for Caldwell and her U.S. teammates, though aerial skiers make one modification: They sew stirrups onto the bottom of their pants so they can loop them around their feet, keeping their pants straighter during their tricks. “It just looks better in the air,” Caldwell said.
John Shuster, 39, from Superior, Wis.
Shuster has been part of the two biggest moments in U.S. curling history: He served as lead on Pete Fenson’s team at Turin 2006, when the Americans won their first Olympic curling medal (a bronze), and he was skip at PyeongChang 2018, when he led Team USA to its first Olympic gold. In between was a steep fall from grace: After Shuster’s teams finished near the bottom of the standings at the 2010 Vancouver Games and the 2014 Sochi Games, he was dropped from the national team. Instead of slinking away, he formed a team of castoffs and outsiders, calling themselves “The Rejects,” and played his way back to an Olympic berth — and ultimately a historic gold medal. Beijing will be his fifth Olympics.
Manufacturer/model: Hardline Curling icePad
Because the curling stones — which weigh about 42 pounds and are made from granite mined from Ailsa Craig off the coast of Scotland — are provided by tournament organizers and are used by all competitors, the broom is a curler’s primary piece of individual equipment. When Shuster started in the sport in the early 2000s, brooms were made mostly of fiberglass, but now they are made of carbon fiber and graphite, rendering them lighter. Shuster likes the weight and feel of this Hardline model, which is tapered at the ends.
Manufacturer/model: Hardline Curling icePad Maxim
In the mid-2010s, after a controversy (dubbed “Broomgate”) over the composition of broom heads threatened to rip the sport apart, curling’s international federation codified the specifications for heads and the pads used to cover them. Pad covers are now made of nylon and foam and carry a code showing they are World Curling Federation-approved. Shuster’s covers, which he changes after each game, feature a skull-and-crossbones design with curling stones for eyes.
Manufacturer/model: BalancePlus Delux
In curling, one shoe (covering the front foot) is a slider, and the other (covering the trailing foot) is a gripper. Shuster has been using this pair of BalancePlus shoes off and on since 2008, and he said he plans to use them in Beijing. But some curling shops offer to convert any shoes into curling shoes, and many elite curlers wear Nike or Adidas with sliders and grippers attached.
Manufacturer/model: Columbia custom model
USA Curling partnered with Columbia Sportswear on the design of these custom-made stretch pants, based on Columbia’s Outdoor Elements model. The key features: four-way stretch, breathability and warmth. Most curlers also wear gloves, but Shuster prefers to go without.
Bella Wright, 24, from Salt Lake City
After learning to ski at 3 and launching her racing career at 6, Wright more or less has been on a direct ascent to the top of the sport. This winter, she was poised to make her first U.S. Olympic team when, in a World Cup super-G race in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in mid-December, she took a spill and suffered a broken bone in her right ankle, sending her back to the United States to recover. But she had enough World Cup points to qualify, so she still made the team bound for Beijing.
Manufacturer/model: Atomic Redster G9 Revoshock
Elite competitors use skis of varying lengths depending on the race. These photos feature Wright in her 180-centimeter giant slalom models from Atomic, the same Austrian company that sponsors her teammate Mikaela Shiffrin. In slalom — which requires quicker turns — Wright goes down to 158 cm. In super-G, with its premium on speed, she goes up to 212.
Bindings and boots
Manufacturer/model: Atomic X-Series (bindings), Atomic Redster Professional (boots)
Cost: $500 (bindings), $1,100 (boots)
At many of its locations, Atomic operates pro centers where elite skiers on the company’s roster show up for annual boot-fittings and to get their skis adjusted. One critical data point for these customizations is canting — essentially, the angle at which the ski connects to the boot, which varies based on how a skier’s weight is distributed (i.e., toward the inside or outside of the feet). Wright’s stance is close to neutral, so her skis are canted just 1 degree to the outside.
Manufacturer/model: Leki WCR Carbon
As with their skis, elite competitors use poles of different lengths for different races. And at 5-foot-10, Wright is tall for a female World Cup skier. Her poles, made by Czech Republic company Leki, are 135 centimeters for downhill and super-G — and 133 for slalom and giant slalom.
Manufacturer/model: Level SQ CF Mitt
Most elite skiers use gloves, which are considered more aerodynamic, and Wright has experimented with them. But she always returns to these mitts, made of waterproof goat leather with Thinsulate insulation and a silicone grip. “I just haven’t given [gloves] a full chance,” she said, “since I’m so used to my mittens.”
Helmet and goggles
Manufacturer/model: POC Super Skull Spin (helmet) and Clarity Comp (goggles)
Cost: $800 (helmet), $275 (goggles)
Wright calls this helmet “super lightweight and super protective.” Though she gets her helmet free from POC, a Swedish manufacturer that sponsors her, she said it’s worth the splurge for any skier. The helmet features a custom design of a tiger’s face that was done by Texas pop artist Jesse James.
Hunter Church, 25, from Cadyville, N.Y.
Many bobsledders come to the sport from other disciplines, but Church is among the few who can say he was born to bobsled. A third-generation bobsledder from Upstate New York, he learned the sport from his father and uncle, competed as a push athlete in North American Cups as a high-schooler and made a World Cup podium as a driver by 23 — becoming the first American to do that since the late Steven Holcomb three years earlier. Holcomb remains the only American driver to win Olympic medals in the past 70 years, but Church, who recently took bronze at a World Cup race in Germany, has designs on joining that elite club in Beijing.
You can’t walk into a store and buy a world-class bobsled. There are only a handful of manufacturers in the world, and Team USA has experimented recently with sleds made by BTC, a Latvian company. But the team keeps returning to this older, two-person model designed by BMW Designworks USA. Bobsled federations pairing with car manufacturers is nothing new: Japan works with a Formula One team, Germany has worked with Ferrari and BMW, and the United Kingdom has teamed with McLaren. Luckily, USA Bobsled & Skeleton pays for the sleds (as well as the estimated $25,000 it costs to ship each one, one-way, to Beijing), but Church has to pony up $2,500 annually to rent his.
Cost: $6,000 per set
Church pays out of his own pocket for his runners — the steel slabs upon which the bobsled frame rests — and he typical travels with six sets of varying dimensions and characteristics, choosing among them based on course conditions. “If it’s really cold, for example, you probably need a little more control, so you’d want to run a little thinner runner,” he said. “Or if it’s warmer, and you’re going to get a little more of that bite into the ice, you’re going to want a fatter one.”
Manufacturer/model: Bell MIPS
MIPS stands for Multidirectional Impact Protection System, and it is all about preventing brain injury in the event of a crash. Church shells out for his own helmet, and when you add up all of his out-of-pocket costs, it’s no wonder he has worked during the offseason as a security guard, bartender and hotel front-desk attendant at various points in his career.
Manufacturer/model: On Cloud
On, the Swiss running-shoe company, builds these specially made bobsled shoes out of its Cloud model. (Church wore Adidas until that company stopped customizing bobsled versions.) The spikes that give the athletes traction on the ice are the key feature of bobsled shoes. The rules are highly specific: Each shoe must have at least 250 spikes, each no thicker than 1.5 millimeters and no longer than 5 mm.
Joey Woodke, 32, from Nashville
On March 29, 2011, Woodke, then a 21-year-old Marine corporal, stepped on an improvised explosive device while on foot patrol in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, and the blast led to the amputation of his legs. During an 18-month stay at Bethesda’s Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Woodke forged a friendship with two fellow Marines who also lost their legs in combat missions. Their shared love of sports led the trio to dabble in weightlifting, hand-biking and ultimately sled hockey. By 2019, Woodke had earned a spot on the national team. The defenseman will make his Paralympic debut in Beijing.
Woodke’s sled (also known as a sledge) looks simple at first glance: a seat (or “bucket”) perched atop a metal frame, with skate blades beneath. But each part of the vehicle is engineered and manufactured separately, governed by precise specs outlined in the sport’s rules. Woodke’s bucket ($2,000) was form-fitted by Chicago prosthetics company Scheck & Siress, while the frame ($500) was built by team members for NASCAR driver Joey Logano and donated through Logano’s foundation. Finally, the blades ($100 per set) come from Unique Inventions, a Peterborough, Ontario, equipment company focused on sled hockey, and they are housed in blade-holders ($50 per set) bolted to the frame. A plastic “skag” ($50) at the front of the sled provides stability.
Manufacturer/model: Warrior Quick Strike
Cost: $130 each
Michigan-based hockey equipment manufacturer Warrior makes a line of sticks specifically for sled hockey, with players cutting theirs down to a preferred length. (Woodke’s are 31 inches long.) Sled hockey players hold a stick in each hand, which they use both to advance the puck and to propel themselves forward, with the aid of specially made ice-picks ($23 per set from Unique Inventions) bolted onto the butt-ends.
Manufacturer/model: Bauer RE-AKT 200
The RE-AKT 200, from Exeter, N.H.-based Bauer, is perhaps the most popular helmet at all levels of hockey. It features shock-absorbing foam that is said to provide a custom fit by molding itself to the player’s head.
Manufacturer/model: Bauer Supreme 3S Pro
Cost: $150 per pair
“All the brands of hockey gloves are pretty similar,” Woodke said, “but I just like how these fit my wrists and hands.” Woodke also wears a Bauer chest pad but uses elbow pads made by rival equipment company CCM.
Ilia Malinin, 17, from Vienna, Va.
There is little doubt Malinin is the future of U.S. men’s figure skating. The only question, especially after his dazzling second-place finish at the national championships in January, is whether he also represents the present. In a decision that sparked some controversy, Malinin, who only recently had begun competing in senior-level events, was passed over for Team USA’s Beijing 2022 squad in favor of three more experienced skaters — Nathan Chen, Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown — with Malinin named the first alternate. But it seems certain we will be seeing plenty more of Malinin, who attends Marshall High in Falls Church, trains at SkateQuest in Reston and is the son of former Uzbekistani Olympians Tatiana Malinina and Roman Skorniakov.
Manufacturer/model: Risport Royal Prime
Malinin is sponsored by Risport, an Italian company that has been making figure skates for nearly 50 years. The Royal Prime is Risport’s most recent top-level boot, featuring a foam-rubber insert that gives the tongue the flexibility and elasticity necessary to absorb the forces of triple and quadruple jumps. Rather than breaking in multiple pairs, Malinin sticks with just one for both practice and competition, wearing them with socks that are thin (for a snug fit) and high (to protect against blisters). Along with the boots, Risport provides Malinin with custom laces that are thicker than its standard ones — to prevent tears that could derail his performance.
Manufacturer/model: John Wilson Gold Seal Revolution
In recent years, figure skating blades have moved from steel to carbon fiber, allowing manufacturers, such as England’s John Wilson (which is said to have been making blades since 1696), to go lighter and thinner. “You want them light and thin,” Malinin said. “With a thin blade, it’s easier to turn and change direction quicker.” Malinin’s blades are 10 inches long and tapered (thicker at the front, near the toe-picks), and they feature a curvature radius (or “rocker”) of eight feet — if you draw a circle with an eight-foot radius on the ice, the blade would align to that curvature.
Red Gerard, 21, from Silverthorne, Colo.
Gerard likes to tell people that the first time he ever watched the Olympics, he was competing in it. He was 17 when he won gold in slopestyle in PyeongChang in 2018; before that, he had never seen an Olympics, once telling NBC: “I couldn’t really sit still to watch TV. I always wanted to be doing something.” The circumstances surrounding his performance in South Korea provided nearly as much drama as the competition: After bingeing episodes of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” the night before, he slept through his alarm and barely made it to the venue on time. In Beijing, Gerard, now a grizzled veteran at 21, hopes to defend his slopestyle title and improve on his fifth-place finish in big air. He comes in with momentum, having won slopestyle gold at his final pre-Olympics tuneup, the Mammoth Mountain Grand Prix in January.
Manufacturer/model: Burton Custom X Camber
Gerard could extol the performance virtues of his Burton board all day, but the minimalist graphics drew his eye first. “It was mainly black-and-white, just keeping it super mellow,” he said. “Then I tried it and liked it and never switched back.” Burton, a Burlington, Vt.-based company, is Gerard’s main equipment sponsor. His boards, which are stiffer than the retail version, go straight from the factory to board tech Ryan McDermott in Dillon, Colo., who tunes them to Gerard’s liking. “It’s not very playful,” Gerard said. “It’s definitely for jumps and riding halfpipe.”
Bindings and boots
Manufacturer/model: Burton Cartel X EST (bindings), Burton Ion (boots)
Cost: $315 (bindings), $540 (boots)
Other snowboarders might ditch their boots as soon as they lose their shine, but Gerard said of his Burton Ions: “I’ll ride a pair of boots for the whole year. I like to ride them very hard.” He describes the Ions as among the stiffest boots in the Burton line, which allows them to hold up under the high torque of his physics-defying tricks.
Helmet and goggles
Manufacturer/model: Oakley MOD3 (helmet) and Oakley Target Line (goggles)
Cost: $200 (helmet), $103 (goggles)
Oakley is another of Gerard’s sponsors, providing him with his high-end helmet and goggles, which integrate to provide ventilation that reduces fogging of the lenses. One handy feature of the helmet: Its magnetic buckle allows Gerard to fasten the helmet with his gloves on.
Manufacturer/model: Quiksilver Travis Rice Natural
Gerard is outfitted neck-to-toe in Quiksilver — jacket, pants and gloves. The Travis Rice gloves, named for the 2000s snowboard legend, are made from goatskin leather and feature microfleece lining and a Gore-Tex waterproof insert. They’re also touch screen compatible — in case Gerard needs to post to Instagram from the medal stand.
Freestyle skiing (halfpipe)
Aaron Blunck, 25, from Crested Butte, Colo.
On Oct. 13, 2020, Blunck, then a two-time Olympian in halfpipe skiing, took a gnarly spill during a training run in Switzerland, suffering, among other things, six broken ribs, a fractured pelvis, kidney lacerations and a bruised heart. Before he was airlifted off the mountain, he told the first person who got to him, “Don’t let me die.” Somehow, Blunck, the gold medalist at the 2017 world championships, was back on the halfpipe within three months — the start of a 15-month comeback that, in January, earned him a spot on Team USA’s roster for a third Winter Games. In Beijing he will be looking to improve on the seventh-place finishes he posted at Sochi 2014 and PyeongChang 2018
Manufacturer/model: Head Oblivion 84
Freestyle skis, such as these by American/Austrian behemoth Head, are set apart by their “twin tip” shape — tips that curve up at both ends — which, as Blunck explained, “allows you to ski backwards just as easily as forwards.” The skis Head sends Blunck are slightly different from those sold in stores: They are customized with an extra layer of wood, making them heavier and stiffer. “The general public might want a lighter and more playful ski,” he said. “Mine is made for hard-charging, very competitive athletes like me.”
Manufacturer/model: Reflex VOL. 2
Blunck has a personal connection to Reflex: His former coach, Ben Verge, left coaching in 2020 to revive the brand, based in Sun Valley, Idaho, that his father, Gus, had launched in 1979. “It’s a family heritage,” Blunck said. “It’s special to my heart.” The poles used by freestyle skiers are typically shorter than those for Alpine or recreational skiing.
Manufacturer/model: POC Obex Spin (helmet) and POC Opsin Clarity (goggles)
Cost: $250 (helmet), $130 (goggles)
The coolest part of this ensemble from Sweden’s POC, Blunck said, is the lenses on the goggles, which are almost translucent, visually speaking, despite being so dark. As a result, Blunck keeps the same lenses on no matter the time of day or conditions, while other skiers might swap in lighter lenses at night. “People sometimes come up to me and say, ‘Hey, nice lens choice,’ if I’m wearing them at night,” he said. “And I’m just like, ‘Come look through them.’ And they go, ‘Whoa, they’re actually incredible.’ ”
Manufacturer/model: Head Raptor WCR 140S (boots) and Tyrolia Attack 17 (bindings)
Cost: $925 (boots), $400 (bindings)
Many freestyle skiers opt for softer boots, but Blunck goes for stiffer ones from Head that are more frequently used by Alpine skiers. “With the force we’re generating, I wanted something as stiff as possible,” he said. “I’m one of the bigger boys in the halfpipe community [at 6-foot and 175 pounds], so I wanted the boot that folks like Bode Miller, Ted Ligety and Lindsey Vonn use.” Tyrolia, which makes Blunck’s bindings, is an Austrian subsidiary of Head.
Manufacturer/model: Gordini MTN Crew mitt
These mitts, from Canada’s Gordini, feature water-resistant, 600-fill insulation, with 75 percent goose down and 25 percent goose feathers. “They sent me a pair,” Blunck said, “and I’ve been running them for the last two years now.”
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