To turn is to admit defeat

Fast times and straight lines with Aotearoa’s top speed skiers.


New Zealand’s most successful speed skier at that Olympics was Lisa Powell, who placed ninth. She had come to speed skiing by fluke. A member of the NZ Alpine Ski Team (she won the Giant Slalom at the nationals), Lisa had just been dropped from the A squad to the B squad and was “sitting in my caravan at Whakapapa, wondering what to do”, when her brother Rick talked her into a mogul event. It was socked in on race day, but there was a speed race over at Turoa, so they went to that instead. Lisa raced it on her Giant Slalom skis. (GS skis are made to turn, not to go straight, or very fast. They are in no way appropriate for speed skiing.) She hit 118 km/h down the Jumbo T-bar line, and won.

Lisa got into skiing when she was nine because her parents hoped to do something together as a family. But she started to have solo ambitions, and decided she wanted to race. She joined Whakapapa’s ski team at 12, and went to Squaw Valley when she was 14 for her first year of overseas training. From then on, she spent every New Zealand summer training in the Northern Hemisphere, and every New Zealand winter training here.

“The less sticking out when you are sliding faster than terminal velocity, the better”

Alpine racing is bigger in Europe and America than it is in Aotearoa, and it’s an uphill battle for our athletes to do well, but one thing to be said growing up in New Zealand is that skiers develop resilience to challenging snow conditions, and to weather. “New Zealand has a different kind of skiing. It’s more variable. You learn to feel the snow.”

A win at the Australian speed skiing nationals followed Lisa’s victory at Turoa, and she was invited to compete in Europe. It turned out she liked speed, and speed liked her. “I won my first FIS event, and broke the New Zealand record.” Soon, along with four other skiers from New Zealand – Hugh Grierson, David Scott, Michael Gay and her brother, Rick Powell – she was Olympic-bound.

At the World Cup level, speed skiing courses have three sections: a “launching area” of 300 to 400 metres, a 100-metre-long timing zone, and a run-out. The timing zone is basically a speed trap. Whoever clocks the highest average speed through it wins. The current World Records are 254.958 km/h and 247.083 km/h for male and female skiers respectively. By comparison, Olympic lugers top out at a sedate 140 km/h. Speed skiing is the fastest non-motorised sport on earth. As Lisa puts it, “From the side of a speed skiing course, the skiers sound like a jet plane. The snow off the back of the skis is a vapour trail.”

(Fun fact: for a human falling through the air in a belly-to-earth position, terminal velocity is approximately 200 km/h. Headfirst, a person would have a terminal speed of 240 to 290 km/h.)

The sport of speed skiing dates to the 1800s, when Norwegian goldminers in California timed each other on 12-foot-long planks of wood. It was around then an American called Tommy Todd was reported to have hit more than 140 km/h. Most sources state that the first official record was set at St. Moritz in Switzerland in 1932, when Leo Gasperi broke 143 km/h. American skier Steve McKinney was the first person to go faster than 200 km/h, a feat he achieved in the thin air at Portillo, Chile in 1978. He also flew a hang-glider off Everest. Go figure.

Speed skiers don’t use the same gear as us mortals. They wear plastified race suits (“they’re so tight you have to fight your way into them,” according to one athlete), back protectors and Darth Vader-ish aerodynamic helmets, all which help safeguard them when things go wrong. Crashes don’t happen that often, but when they do, they are dangerous. Hitting the deck at more than 200 kilometres per hour is bad. Along with broken bones, speed skiers can suffer second degree burns, caused, ironically, by friction-generated heat as they slide on the snow. Lisa likens it to being dragged across a carpet at high speed.

Their skis are long, 240 centimetres tip to tail, and their poles are short. The less sticking out when you are sliding faster than terminal velocity, the better. Speed skiers also wear fairings, aerodynamic wedges mounted on the back of their lower legs, to reduce wind resistance. Wind resistance is important. Put your hand (carefully!) out of the car window next time you’re going 100. Notice how that feels. Now imagine you just hit 250.

Speed skiing had a cultural heyday in New Zealand just prior to Albertville. During the eighties, before he exchanged almost free falling down ski slopes for actually free falling off bridges, bungy pioneer Henry van Asch, along with fellow Christchurch skiers Martin Jones and Roo Thomas, led the charge. The inaugural Fosters (as in the beer) Speed Trials were held on Hamilton Face at Craigieburn Ski Field in Canterbury in 1983. According to an article in Adventure magazine from the time, “someone described it as controlled terror at the top of the run, followed by unbounded elation at the bottom.”

Nicolas Cullen, Mike Wallis, Martin Jones and Roo Thomas in the late 1980s. PHOTO: Supplied by Nick Cullen

In 1985, Henry, who professed a wee Steve McKinney obsession, broke 100 miles per hour. He set a national record at Turoa with a speed of 100.22 mph (160 km/h), which he called “the ultimate”. As he explained in an interview, “when I reached 100 mph, I felt something new happening to me – a sensation of being released from everything. I was no longer skiing, I was floating.”

That same year, the New Zealand Speed Skiers Association was established, complete with objectives such as “to select and train a national representative team to compete internationally”, training events, races, and regular meetings, though Roo, who was the president, admits there weren’t many minutes taken. They did make T-shirts, branded with slogans like “to turn is to admit defeat”.

Things got proper official in 1986, when the NZSSA ran a New Zealand Speed Cup series, with races at Cardrona, Craigieburn and Turoa, and a sanctioned FISV (Fédération internationale de ski de vitesse) World Series race at the end of the season.

Nicolas Cullen, now an Associate Professor in the School of Geography at Otago University, was a teenager in the mid- eighties when Henry visited his high school in Christchurch to give a presentation on speed skiing. A few of the kids on the school ski team were invited to have a go, and Nicolas was hooked.

He started out racing on a pair of “dusty old downhill skis” handed down from his dad (they were Head 215’s and the bindings fell off in an early race), and went on, in 1987, to compete in the now-legendary ‘Flying K’ held above Lake Alta at The Remarkables. He clocked 158.17 km/h. This was enough for both the New Zealand junior speed skiing record, as well as the record in the “production class”, the category for skiers racing on standard production skis, as opposed to the longer, straighter speed skis. More than 155 km/h is pretty fast, especially on a course made by hand, or foot. “We had to build those courses ourselves. There were no groomers up there, it was all pretty much all side-stepped out.”

Martin set the New Zealand record of 173.07 km/h, finishing fractionally behind American C.J. Mueller, who was the World Champion and had become the first human to exceed 210 km/h on skis that same year. One nutter did the thing on a mono ski. It was a big day. Before the ‘Flying K’, only one New Zealander, Henry, had surpassed 100 miles per hour. By the end of it, four had.

For a teenager, it was the stuff of dreams. “Those guys were living extreme lifestyles before ‘extreme’ became a thing,” Nick recalls. “Speed skiing in the eighties, that was awesome.”

Tawny Wagstaff grew up ski racing at Mt Hutt, but he took to speed skiing later in life than Nick did. He got involved after taking a hiatus from a career in snowsports that had spanned more than 30 seasons of instructing, coaching and guiding. The time away gave him the space to re-frame his feelings about skiing, and to notice that what he really likes to do is go fast.

“Back in 2016, I did a season just for fun. I started doing a few training exercises and drills, and kind of enjoyed going faster and faster.” He decided to find out what he had to do to get involved with speed skiing.

The main events in the discipline are Speed 1 category races, which are run-on full-length courses with speed skiing equipment. To race S1, athletes must qualify through Speed 2 events, “production class” races which happen on the same tracks, but with regular racing gear. Competitors wear standard speed suits and helmets, and compete on downhill skis, which are about 20 centimetres shorter than speed skis, and less solid.

Tawny went to Sun Peaks in Canada, where he startled the regulars on the circuit by winning his first race. “It was a good start,” he laughs. Preparing for S1 took longer, including some home-turf training at Mt Hutt (he hit 180 km/h on a course adjacent to the Platter Splatter run) and “a fair bit of time spent in front of the mirror getting the tuck right.” Speed skiers race low and tight, so low and tight they can’t see much in front of them, relying instead on markers along the side of the course to ensure they are on track. Looking up isn’t good – it slows you down.

Then there was the kit. It’s not the kind of stuff you buy off the shelf. Tawny commissioned an Auckland studio to make him a speed suit, ordered a helmet from Switzerland plus four pairs of skis from Austria, and sourced a lot of wax. Each set of skis needs 40 to 50 waxes before they can be used. Fortunately, the fairings are a DIY affair, as long as they comply with weight, length, width and material guidelines. “I’m on my third set now, made from fibreglass and surfboard foam. They get better each time,” Tawny says.

Tawny Wagstaff gives it the jandal. PHOTO: Supplied

The 2017/2018 season was good. Tawny came sixth overall, achieved a personal best of 219 km/h, and was invited to forerun the track at Vars, France. A forerunner is a non- competing athlete who skis a course before an event to test that all systems are go. It’s an honour at a place like Vars, where the Chabrières track (Tawny calls it “a beast”) is sort of the Lord’s Cricket Ground of speed skiing. It’s currently the only track where World Record attempts are made.

“I was pretty happy with making it to the end of the season in one piece,” Tawny says. “We all know anyone can crash at any time and the chances of walking away with only broken gear and a scarred mind is, I’m guessing, about 50/50. As much as we try to only focus on our best effort, which at the end of day is skier versus speed track, the reality of what we are doing is always there.”

“Every day you can walk away from, is a great day, no matter what the speed.”

Unfortunately, he didn’t make it through the next New Zealand winter in one piece, tearing his ACL at Mt Hutt, and by the time he got back overseas to compete again, Covid-19 hit. It wasn’t all bad. Tawny used lockdown wisely, spending a good 300 hours fine-tuning his skis, fairings and helmet.

It all paid off in February of this year, when Tawny got back to Europe just in time for a World Cup at Idre Fjäll, in Sweden. The track at Idre Fjäll, ‘The Chocken’ (or ‘The Shock’), is the steepest groomed slope in Europe, and Tawny hadn’t competed at international level for three years. “We did 12 or 13 runs over four days and my qualifying runs weren’t so good. But thankfully the final runs were my best runs.”

On March 11, he placed fourth. The only skiers ahead of him were Manuel Kramer, the fastest man in Austria (personal best 246.914 km/h), Simon Billy, the third fastest skier on earth (personal best, 252.809 km/h), and Simone Origone (personal best 252.987 km/h), the second fastest skier on earth.

It’s a crew Tawny is happy to mix with, and he reckons that on the right slope, in the right conditions, 250 km/h could be his. Anyways, speed is his happy place. “I’ve always liked going fast. I seem to feel quite good doing it.”

“someone described it as controlled terror at the top of the run, followed by unbounded elation at the bottom”

Lisa was disappointed with ninth at the Olympics, especially when, not long after, she placed third in a World Cup race at Vars. “It was super exciting, but I was really bummed. That was my bronze medal.” But she made her mark in other ways too, topping the New Zealand record for both men and women when she clocked 209.95 kp/h in Europe. The men’s national record is now held by Chris Gebbie, with a 232.859 kp/h at Les Arcs, the Albertville course, but Lisa can still claim the top speed ever for a New Zealand woman.

Lisa was ranked second in the world when, on a training run in Norway in March of 1993, she caught an edge. “It spun me, and I cartwheeled down. They clocked me falling at 175 km/h; I still would have come 5th at that speed.” She broke two vertebrae, shattered half her pelvis, broke a leg, an ankle, a wrist. The doctors said her injuries were consistent with someone who had been in a high-speed motorcycle crash.

Would she trade it? Nah. She recalls being with her brother and her friends, all in their twenties, travelling around Europe in a wee Citroën stuffed with gear. None of them spoke the language, and none of them cared. “One time I got a cheap chicken. It was a boiling hen, which I roasted. It was the toughest chicken I had ever eaten,” she laughs. It echoes what Roo says about his time in the eighties: “We were just a bunch of twentysomethings having fun.”

And when it comes to the skiing, it’s not the medals or non-medals or records Lisa talks about most. It’s the feeling. “You get addicted to the adrenaline,” she says. “I would end up with a massive headache at the end of the day from the adrenaline. I’ll never forget that time.”

“Getting to 200 kilometres per hour is exhilarating. You’re bouncing, fighting and fighting, then at 200 km/h, you lift like a jet plane. It’s like when you are going down the runway, and then you take off.”