The missing piece

Canadian freestyle skier Steve Omischl should never be confused with a competitor lacking in confidence.
Canadian aerialist Steve Omischl will be a heavy gold-medal favourite in Vancouver if he can remain healthy. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

Canadian freestyle skier Steve Omischl should never be confused with a competitor lacking in confidence.

And why should he?

As a 30-year-old veteran in 2008, Omischl put together the greatest season of any aerial athlete in history. The North Bay, Ont., native captured six of nine World Cup events, and reached the podium eight times.

The 2005 world champion began this season considerably slower, but quickly turned things around with a World Cup victory in Sainte-Adele, Que., last month. Omischl followed that effort with a bronze medal in Deer Valley, Utah, claiming he jumped better on the American course.

His momentum continued last Friday, winning the World Cup event at Cypress Mountain in West Vancouver — site of the Olympic venue for all freestyle events during the 2010 Winter Games.

The victory puts him on pace for his fourth career World Cup title.

Yet for all of Omischl's accomplishments in the sport, one remains missing from his mantle: Olympic gold.

During his first Winter Games at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, a young and proud Omischl placed 11th.

The Torino Games four years later were supposed to be his crowning achievement after he jumped to the 2005 world title. However, the Canadian struggled in the summer with plantar fasciitis — a painful inflammatory condition centred in the arch of his foot.

Forced to miss nearly six months leading up to the 2006 Olympics, Omischl stumbled to 20th in Turin, Italy.

Now with the Vancouver Games only a year away, Omischl is healthy and ready for perhaps one final shot at Olympic glory. You're coming off a World Cup victory on home soil at Cypress Mountain. How would you assess your performance there?

Omischl: I would say overall I'm happy with how I performed at Cypress. There are always areas to improve though, and I think I still have some room to do just that. It was a very tight finish on the podium and really could have gone either way with who was first, second or third. [It] speaks about the depth on the tour and I'm happy to come away with another win. In general, I feel very confident and know I'm in control of my jumping. This venue will be the site for all freestyle events at the Vancouver Olympics. Does this win give you an advantage over your rivals?

Omischl: It doesn't matter to our sport [in regards to future success]. Maybe in downhill or bobsleigh, but our venue here is pretty much the same as any other venue anywhere else in the world. The only thing that we need to get used to is the conditions in Cypress because they change drastically.

We need to be prepared for that because one day it could be raining and the next there could be three feet of snow. There is no weather forecast here. Doing a test event here now won't make much of a difference because anything can happen in 2010. After a couple of top-10 finishes early in the season, you've really come on strong, including your first win last month. What's been the difference?

Omischl won his first World Cup event of the season last month in Sainte-Adele, Que. ((Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press))
Omischl: Absolutely nothing. Yeah, I got off to a tough start. We had bad weather and I didn't train as much as I would've liked in November and December before we got to the first event. But I had to get some events under my belt before I was going to have good results in competitions and now I feel good. I'm capable of picking up where I finished off last year. You had the greatest season of any competitor in 2008. Did you have an indication of the type of year you were going to have after the first victory?

Omischl: No. I had a good training camp and was jumping well. I was healthy for the entire season and if I'm jumping to the level I'm capable of, then I'm going to be on the podium every week. The first event I won in China, I was felling pretty good out of the gate. If I put my skies on I'm in a good position to do well. You seem to be getting better and stronger as you get older? Is that normal for most competitors in your sport or are you the exception?

Omischl: It's pretty normal. The technical aspect of our sport you learn right from the beginning. I mean some of the younger guys are just as good technically as I am now, but it's all the little things I'm doing off the hill that have made me so consistent. I've learned that through years of competing. So that's why it seems to be getting better. I'm sure it's going to get to a point where my age is going to catch up with me, but for now, if I can stay healthy I'll be fine. What are some of those little things that allow you to remain consistent?

Omischl: I pay attention to detail off the hill. I make sure that I do every single workout properly. I'm doing my physio [therapy] and recovery and I'm not doing things that take energy away from that. I also don't cut my hours of sleep short the week of an event and I avoid horrendous travel. I make sure that I always have snacks with me so I don't lose energy or focus. Experience plays a big role and all those things add up. You've done everything imaginable in your sport except win an Olympic medal. Do you use past Olympic failures as a continual source of motivation?

A foot injury cost Omischl a shot at Olympic gold during the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy. ((Lionel Cironneau/Associated Press))
Omischl: No. I understand that I'm going to have good weeks and bad weeks. I was quite proud with my performance in Salt Lake. In Torino, I was suffering through an injury and it was my first event back in about six months so I couldn't expect much. It's unfortunate but that's life. Of course I want to have better results that I've had in the past. First and foremost, I want to jump well and perform to the level that I'm capable of. Why were you proud of your 11th-place performance at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics?

Omischl: I was the young guy coming up and I probably shouldn't have made the team when I did. I didn't know what I was doing, but I still qualified fourth. It caught up with me in the final. I actually jumped pretty well before the final.

I missed my landing [in the final] on my first jump and my second jump was pretty nice, but it wasn't enough because you can't miss a landing. It was a tactical [mistake] and I didn't have enough experience at that point to know conditions and the type of speed for that jump. Coming off the 2005 world title, you had high expectations leading up to the Torino Games. Many were still hoping you would reach the podium despite your foot injury. How frustrating was it not to be at your best in 2006?

Omischl: I got hurt in the middle of July of 2005, just after I won the world championships. I competed at one event because I was desperate to go to the Olympics, but that didn't go well because I was in a lot of pain. So the next event I was at the Olympics in the semifinals and I bit off more than I could chew. I did a hard jump in the semifinals and was anticipating doing an even harder jump in the final, but I just didn't perform well. How difficult was it to know you could've won an Olympic medal if not for the injury.

Omischl: It sucked. I didn't want to go out like that. I mean I was world champion going into Torino. If you look at my stats, the worst season of my career was 2006 [because] I missed every event. Every year that I've been healthy I don't think that I was outside of the top four in the World Cup tour, so it was very bad timing. What is your aim for Vancouver? Do you want to simply reach the podium or are you gunning for gold?

Omischl: I get a kick out of those questions [begins to laugh]. I'm gunning for what I'm capable of and I'm fine with wherever that puts me. I want to finish my career the way it should be finished. Canada has always had terrific freestyle skiers. Is there a good chance we will see multiple medals from you and your teammates in Vancouver?

Omischl: Anything is possible. We've always had a strong team so I don't think it's going to be different than any other year. We have a dominant team on the World Cup tour and that's all you can ask for. It's no secret Canadian Olympic Committee officials have high hopes for Canada to win the medal count in 2010. Does that put any more pressure on your team?

Omischl: That's their goal. My goal is to focus on my job and what I have to do. It's so obvious. The only way you're going to get results [in Vancouver] is if you focus on the job first. Any time I get this question I answer it pretty simple: that I need to hit a takeoff and hit a landing. That's all I can control. If other people want to talk about medal counts let them talk. Overall, how do you feel about competing at the Olympics on home turf?

Omischl: Ten years from now, I will look back and say, "Wow, that was amazing," but for now I've got a job to do. If I get my eyes off of what I've got to do, then I'm not going to have the performance I'm looking for. I don't want to say I don't care — I will in 10 years — but right now I can't get caught up in that.