2018 looms as a pivotal year for a whole host of great Kiwi athletes, teams and sporting figures. Over coming weeks, Newsroom details the challenges that lie ahead for this nation’s best and fairest. Next up, halfpipe free-ski Olympian Nico Porteous.
In some ways, Nico Porteous is your average teenager. He asks me to call him on his mum’s cellphone, because it has a more reliable battery than his.
He tells me he laughs while watching videos of himself crashing horribly in the snowy halfpipe at Copper Mountain in Colorado last month — but only because he’s still standing, and knows he came out of it a lot better than he could have.
But then there’s a lot that’s not typically teen about Porteous. He speaks with the maturity and clarity of a 26-year-old – one who spends his life on skis, chases winters around the world, and has sponsorship deals with global giants Red Bull and GoPro. And yet this son of the Southern Alps has only just turned 16, and is about to compete at the Winter Olympics. He’ll be the youngest Kiwi ever to do so (the youngest athlete to represent New Zealand at either a summer or winter Olympics was 15-year-old Violet Walrond, who swam freestyle in a cold, grey canal at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. She was also New Zealand’s first female Olympian).
There’s little more than a fortnight until the snow games begin in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and Porteous is finally back to where he was physically in early December — before his mishap at the Freeski World Cup men’s halfpipe competition, during the US Grand Prix.
“Everything had been going really well; I’d qualified for the finals,” Porteous recalls. But in the warm-up, he attempted to execute a “switch double cork 1080” – two flips and three rotations in the air before returning to compacted snow. It’s a difficult move in any freeskier’s bag of tricks, but one that Porteous had safely landed before.
“It was the finals, which is like a completely different comp, so I was practising to ‘up’ my tricks,” he says. “I did this one trick that I was planning to do in my run – but I didn’t pop enough. You’ve seen the halfpipe — a U-shape with two flat bits on top? Well, I landed on the flat bit. I flew about 12 feet, then bounced into the pipe, which is a 22ft wall.
“It was actually a pretty funny crash to watch on video.”
“Without being cocky, I don’t see myself as being young.”
– Nico Porteous
But Porteous wasn’t laughing while he waited at the hospital for two hours to hear the results of the MRI on his banged-up knee. “That was a very scary moment for me,” he admits. “I was extremely close to tearing the ACL [anterior cruciate ligament], which means nine months off snow. [Not going to the Olympics] was all I could think about for those two hours.”
The imaging revealed a stretched ACL, where the ligament isn’t totally ruptured. “I know I was extremely lucky,” he says. “And as soon as I knew those MRI results, I thought the crash was funny.
“I mean, you can only laugh at yourself. It’s just part of the sport you’ve signed up to – you have to take those risks.”
Maybe that sanguine attitude is what got him through the seven weeks of intense rehabilitation that have put him back on track for the Winter Olympics, where he will be the youngest member of the New Zealand team (he was selected when he was still 15).
“It’s been a frustrating seven weeks, because I’ve never really had a full-on bad injury, where you had to do proper rehab in the gym every day,” he says. “There were times when I thought I was ready; those critical points where you can’t push too hard and you really have to hold yourself back, stay on the plan and not progress too fast or it’s two steps forward, one step back. But I’ve had a really amazing support team who helped me do it and guided me the whole way. I’m really thankful.”
Part of that team is his Kiwi coach, Tommy Pyatt, who’s coached Porteous since he was six; and his parents – mum, Chris, and dad, Andrew. Chris Porteous travels the world with her two sons – Nico’s older brother Miguel, 18, is also a freeskier, who happens to be competing for New Zealand at the Winter Olympics, also in the men’s halfpipe.
“I’m quite spoilt in the support that I get from my mum,” the youngest Porteous says. “Not that my job is really hard – but it just makes it that little bit easier. It’s so good to have someone there when we come home from a big day training, and we don’t feel like cooking dinner or doing our laundry.
“I wouldn’t know what it would be like not to have someone like that. I see other athletes in the New Zealand team travelling by themselves, doing everything for themselves, and I think ‘I just have so much respect for you’.”
Every year, the Porteous brothers switch hemispheres so they are always in the snow, gliding between Cardrona, Colorado or Calgary. The boys have been home-schooled, and Nico is still studying through Te Aho O Te Kura Pounamu, the national correspondence school – determined to “get good grades” and later study at an online university.
When I speak to him, he’s in Colorado, supporting Miguel who’s competing in the X-Games on Buttermilk Mountain. “Mum’s here, but Dad is back home in Wanaka working … someone has to pay the bills,” Nico quips. “We’ll meet up with him again in Pyeongchang.”
Nico remembers being introduced to the snow by his parents when he was six weeks – “or maybe six months” – old; at least, family photographs show the baby asleep in a backpack as his parents skied. “It must have started a spark in me,” says the boy who learned to ski in France at the age of four, then practised on the carpet at home.
The brothers share what they call a friendly rivalry, even when they’re trying to out-spin each other at the very peak of their sport. “At the end of the day, we’re both there to compete and get the best result possible,” Nico says. “It never goes past the point of friendly rivalry; never gets to the point where we snob each other off for a couple of days. But our competitive natures come through, and it actually helps; it pushes us to progress much quicker.”
The younger Porteous likes to think age is irrelevant in freeski. He’s the youngest competitor on the halfpipe world circuit. When he was 14, he was the youngest person in the world to pull off a triple cork 1440 (upside down three times, and four full spins).
“Funnily enough, our sport progresses so fast, that trick is extremely common now … Someone two years younger than me has since done that trick, and now kids younger than him are doing it left, right and centre.
“Without being cocky, I don’t see myself as being young. In our sport, age doesn’t matter. It’s not like weightlifting where testosterone and being bigger makes a difference in how much you can lift. It’s about how much you train and how much skill you develop to be up amongst the top guys.”
He mentions Kelly Sildaru, the 15-year-old Estonian who he regards as the best female freeskier in the world – she won the 2016 X Games gold medal in slopestyle at the age of 13.
The skill isn’t all on skis. You’ve got to have a strong mind, he says. “I do a lot of work with sports psychologists. It’s about believing in yourself without showing it to others; not being cocky in your mind or body, but confident in the tricks you do. No one likes anyone who is super-cocky.”
Porteous has tried to prepare himself for the atmosphere of an Olympic Games. “Will it be any different from any other comp? In my mind, no. In my visualisations, no. But I know it will be. I’ve got some steps prepared in case I’m extremely overwhelmed; some things that I can do if I ever need to escape the whole Olympic thing and make it feel like a normal comp.
“But, either way, I’m excited to go. I’m absolutely over the moon to be representing New Zealand and wearing the Silver Fern. It still hasn’t really sunk in yet, but it will when I’m walking in the opening ceremony.
“My big goal at these Olympics is to make the finals – the top 12. Once you make finals, it’s a completely new comp and anyone can win, anything can happen.”
In spite of the wounded knee, Porteous feels ready to take on the world in the halfpipe at Bokwang Phoenix Park.
“I worked extremely hard over the summer camps and all through the New Zealand season working on my tricks, making sure they’re on lock.” Which, if you didn’t know, means 100 percent under control. “I’m feeling amazing – nice and strong now. I’m going to be all good for the big competition.”
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