wheels, wet suits, and virtual reality

There’s not a snowflake in the sky, but Winter Olympic hopefuls are already flying off ski jumps in Utah, firing up their luge sleds in Lake Placid, N.Y., and cross-country skiing past Vermont cow pastures.

With everything from wet suits to wheels to virtual-reality tools, they’re simulating the challenges they’ll face at the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next February. The perseverance and perfection highlighted on TV for those short few weeks are being honed now, thanks in part to the innovative methods devised by coaches, trainers, and equipment designers.

In some ways the lack of natural snow or ice actually makes for safer, more efficient training. Whereas alpine skiers would spend much of their on-snow training sessions riding the chairlift, for example, a skiing simulator allows them to cut straight to the actual training run. Essentially a lateral treadmill, it mimics the forces skiers contend with while hurtling down mountains – and can be used in tandem with virtual-reality technology that replicates the sensory environment of a ski race. A huge bonus: there’s no danger of crashing.

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“What we’re trying to do is use virtual reality to expand the time that the athletes can spend in their field of play,” says Luke Bodensteiner, executive vice president, athletics at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) in Park City, Utah.

But he doesn’t want to talk too much about that. It’s one of the team’s secret weapons heading into Pyeongchang.

THE ART OF JUMPING

Bodensteiner works out of the USSA Center of Excellence, which supports 195 national team athletes with state-of-the-art facilities (including napping areas) and a staff that includes conditioning coaches, dietitians, and physical therapists.

Chris Lillis is one of those athletes, and a rising star on the United States freestyle ski team. Last year he became the youngest male to win a World Cup in aerials skiing – at age 17.

Five days a week, he averages 25 to 30 jumps off the ramps at the Olympic Park, twisting in the air before landing … in a pool. He wears ski boots and skis, and a wet suit in the summer – switching to a dry suit in the fall as the temperatures drop, sometimes with sweatpants underneath.

The easier landing means he can do twice as many jumps as he would on snow. But there’s a catch.

“When we jump on snow the landing we jump on is between 28 and 32 degrees of pitch…

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