Winter Olympic medal hopefuls Zoi Sadowski-Synnott and Alice Robinson headed back into a troubled world after very different Kiwi winters. But both came out of the experience so much richer.
It’s not an easy decision to leave the safety of New Zealand’s Covid-free bubble and head straight back into the middle of a global pandemic. Why would you?
The answer for Winter Olympians Alice Robinson and Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, while not simple, is compelling: Because your sights are set on Olympic gold medals and your main competitors have already stepped up to the plate.
If you’ve ever questioned the grit or determination of our winter athletes, take another look.
These young sportswomen – Robinson just 19 years old, and Sadowski-Synnott recently turned 20 – have been doing the hard yards and Covid-19 is just one more hurdle to overcome. It’s been a challenge, but in some unexpected ways, there have been benefits for the two young snow-sport stars, now both back at home in New Zealand.
We’re 10 months into an 18-month qualifying period for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing, and there wasn’t much happening in the way of competitions when Olympic qualifying kicked off in July 2020.
But the Kiwi winter worked out well for Sadowski-Synnott and other members of the New Zealand snowboard team. With New Zealand borders closed but their home training ground, Cardrona Alpine Resort, still providing a full training facility, they had the whole place to themselves. In any other year, the world’s top snow athletes would also be in New Zealand.
“We really weren’t sure if we’d even get a New Zealand season, so when we did, it was a really good one and we had more than enough facilities to train just like any other year,” says Sadowski-Synnott. “We kind of had a private park; that was insane.
“Me and my coach put a lot of work into the season, since we weren’t sure if we’d be able to go overseas to compete. I think coming off that and then having a good rest before going into the Northern Hemisphere at the start of January set me up for a good one, just being prepared mentally and physically.”
By “a good one” she means defending her 2019 world championship title in snowboard slopestyle – the first athlete ever to do so – and backing this up with silver in the big air event a few days later. Along with a silver in slopestyle and bronze in big air at the X Games, bringing her X Games medal tally to five.
In fact, Sadowski-Synnott made the podium at every major event she entered this season.
A cynical mind might question the quality of the field and the level of competition because the rest of the world was being held back by Covid.
“Everyone was there,” explains Sadowski-Synnott. “I felt like I had a head start over everyone because I had four or five months in New Zealand, but at the same time everyone was training on airbags or on dry slopes overseas, so it felt like everyone came out of the gates swinging.
“At the first competition, the World Cup Big Air in Kreischberg, Austria, the level was insanely high. It was really cool to see no one had taken a step back because of Covid. It seemed like everyone was a lot hungrier.”
Sadowski-Synnott won the Kreischberg World Cup with a brand-new trick, a backside 1080, which she mastered during the New Zealand season.
The Alpine Skiing World Cup tour also saw a full contingent of international athletes fired up for their Olympic qualifying races – but unfortunately for Alice Robinson, the New Zealand season had been an entirely different story.
“I was playing catch-up with all the other athletes. Apart from their lockdowns in March and April they pretty much had a normal pre-season whereas I was missing six months on snow because of not having any coaches here.”
While Robinson could get to the snow, getting quality training was near impossible with her entire coaching and technical support team back in their European or American homes, unable to enter New Zealand.
“Maybe if you’re a bit older you can manage these things and it’s a bit easier on your own, but I still rely really heavily on my team,” she says. “Maybe the conditions here are better but I can’t really do anything without them. I had to go overseas to train.”
For Robinson, crunch time came in August, with new cases of Covid-19 recorded in the community and New Zealand starting to move back up the alert levels.
“I was like, ok, I’ve had enough,” says Robinson. “It was getting too close to the start of the Northern Hemisphere season and I hadn’t really done any training, so I just needed to get over there.”
Not everyone will be able to relate to the idea of intentionally putting yourself in harm’s way, but then not many Kiwis have held a world ranking in alpine ski racing. None of us, in fact. Robinson is the first to attain this feat in the alpine disciplines. Would we honestly expect her to sit back and watch her Olympic medal dream disappear?
“If it [the World Cup tour] is on, I’ve got to go,” Robinson explains. “All the races were going ahead so we just had to learn to live with it and get on with it and that’s just what everyone did.”
Sadowski-Synnott had a similar mindset. “I was pretty uncertain about going over because of getting Covid. A lot of people end up with long-term problems and for someone who’s training for the Olympics and wanting to peak at the Olympics it would really not be good,” she says.
“That definitely played on my mind, but this was the only chance to qualify so we had to just take the risk.”
Robinson appeared to be back on track, with her coaches and support team with her, but the results didn’t come quite how she’d hoped and the stress began to mount.
“A lot of people expected a lot from me, and I don’t think anyone really understood how much my year had been affected by Covid and how much training I’d missed,” she says. “I think I was a bit naïve going into the season thinking it would all just happen so easily when I’d missed so much.
“I hadn’t had the miles that everyone else had. It’s kind of like a snowball effect, when one thing starts to go not so well, it just accumulates and you’ve got to find a way to get over the obstacles.”
At that point, the pandemic came in to play again.
“Most people I would normally reach out to for support were in New Zealand and far away – Mum, Dad, my sister and brother. I had some of my friends over there but no family which was harder for me because I’ve never really done that before,” Robinson says.
Robinson knew it would be several months before she’d be able to get back home with limited spots available in managed isolation.
“The earliest I could get back was April and I’d known that since January. So I was like, whatever happens, if the season gets cancelled because of Covid or I get hurt, I can’t get back. It was very stressful.”
But you don’t get to the top of an extreme sport like ski racing without having guts, and soon enough Robinson began to turn things around.
“I realised that’s just how it is, you can’t really sit there being gloomy, you’ve just got to get on with it,” she says. “Things started to come right. I kind of got over the stress of wanting the results and I just wanted to ski well again, and that went hand-in-hand with the success.
“Building my confidence back over time from being at rock bottom to being back on the top was something that felt quite far-fetched at some points in the season.”
Robinson finished her season on a high, winning the FIS Giant Slalom World Cup finals in Austria, having earned World Cup silver two weeks before, fourth place at the world championships, and a career-best 10th in the Super-G.
“I definitely learnt a lot about resilience this year,” says Robinson.
“The lessons I’ve learnt this year have been very hard, but I think they’ve made me a stronger person and a stronger athlete and that’s going to help me a lot down the track. Knowing that I’ve been in more difficult situations before and I’ve handled it, so I can handle anything now.”
Sadowski-Synnott experienced her lessons in resilience as a shy 16-year-old, thrown somewhat unwillingly into the limelight after her 2018 Olympic bronze medal.
“It was very overwhelming and pretty crazy,” she says. “I definitely felt the pressure following that and it definitely affected my results the following year. But now I’ve matured as an athlete and as a person.
“My way of looking at it is that with every up comes a down and with every down comes an up. So there’s always something to look forward to and something to humble you because you’re not always going to be up so high.
“I’ve learnt how to deal with it which is very important going into this next season.”
Because next season is the Olympics, and the huge weight of expectation.
“I feel it, but I think that’s expected and I think it would be worse if there was no expectation,” says Robinson. “People expect something of you because they know you can do it.”
Sadowski-Synnott agrees. “It’s exciting having that expectation now because after Korea I was scared of it. I didn’t think I belonged in the realm of the top five or the top 10, but now I feel like I’ve put in the work.
“If I got anything less than what I’m aiming for, it would be a disappointment. That’s just what I’m going to have to deal with if it happens – but I’m aiming for the top.”