As head coach of the British Snowboard Team, Hamish McKnight has followed the likes of Jenny Jones, Ben Kilner and Billy Morgan across the world in their quest to qualify for the Olympic Games in Sochi. He's shared pokey apartments at World Cup events, helped them figure out their slope and pipe runs, and played a key role in the riders' progression – it was Hamish's voice behind the video camera urging Billy to 'take the pop' when he landed his first triple cork 1440 during training last year.
Now, Hamish's work is pretty much done. Against the odds, Britain has sent seven snowboarders to the 2014 Games about to get underway - with realistic medal prospects in both men's and women's slopestyle. We caught up with him after practice in Sochi to get the lowdown on how final preparations are going - and whether that course really is as gnarly as the reports.
Yeah (laughs) I’ll be glad when it’s all over to be honest but it’s going OK.
We’re getting mixed reports about this course. What’s your take?
There’s normal comments coming out of the riders and then as soon as they end up in the mainstream press they’re getting blown out of all proportion. I mean the actual problem is, the takeoffs are just a little bit big for the kickers, so the jumps aren’t quite in the right proportion. They’re not massive massive jumps, it’s just the takeoffs are too big, so when you ride them you’re going up the take-off for ages.
And for the riders that means you don’t get any free rip, you don’t get any rhythm off the jump. It doesn’t help you to throw your tricks, you have to manufacture everything yourself. With the last jump they’ve cut a bit off the top and tried to make it look more like a normal jump and that worked a little bit. They can’t do any more now. And it’s fine, it’s just not quite up to an X Games standard or even any of the World Cup courses.
How can that happen? This is the biggest event on the calendar.
Everyone was saying ‘Ah the jumps won’t be big enough in Sochi’ and blah blah blah, and I think they had that in mind and just thought ‘f**k it, we’re gonna make them massive’ – especially cos they thought it was gonna melt loads, so they built everything super big. But in the end it was so warm the last 10 days that they couldn’t even get machines in the park to cut them back.
Is the course running fast enough?
Yeah it’s fast enough
And the rails too?
Yeah they’re fine. They’ve made adjustments to the rails each day. And again the press are all over it [after Torstein Horgmo’s crash] saying the course is dangerous and the riders are demanding changes but that’s totally normal – to have a rider’s meeting after training and tell the course designers what to change, and for them to make adjustments. That happens at every contest we ever do.
In theory the jumps are good for Billy cos he can manufacture his rotation, and squeeze it so tight that he gets it round.
And I guess everyone always has their different preferences.
Yeah, though this isn’t really anyone’s preference to be honest. It’s definitely a bit odd, but it’s fine.
Which riders do you think it suits, if any?
The Scandis I guess, but the Canadians have looked the strongest in training so far. But y’know, it’s still the same course for everyone.
Looking at the triple corks everyone thinks will be needed, Billy’s the only guy who seems to be going upwards while he’s still doing his third spin. He seems to have more time to get it round than a lot of folk, so maybe it’ll suit him?
Exactly, we were talking about this on the chairlift today. In theory it’s good for him cos he can manufacture his rotation, and squeeze it so tight that he gets it round. The problem is that doing that he sometimes misses the pop a little bit, and if you miss the pop on these jumps they don’t work. But provided he gets the pop and the timing right he’ll be good, and he could be shoulders ahead of the rest because of that. But heck, a thousand-and-one things could go wrong.
And we have to hope his knee holds up too!
Yeah his knee’s alright. He tweaked it today actually but he was riding a bit afterwards so it’s holding up.
How’s morale amongst the team?
Yeah all good. We’re in great shape actually, havin’ a ball. We’ve coped with the challenges of training as well if not better than everybody else, so we’re looking pretty good.
I hear Jamie Nicholls has hurt his neck?
Yeah he fell off a rail yesterday and gave himself a whiplash. But he did ride today, he just took it super easy. I expect he’ll be fine tomorrow [for the qualifiers]. He did a practice run yesterday before he hurt his neck, so he has done his run – which is more than most people.
Has Billy done a run?
Yep. He did a dub, dub, trip today. As usual, he’s the only guy to have done a trip [in practice]. He did two today.
How are the girls finding it? Does the course suit them?
Yeah the girls are struggling. When we first looked at the course we thought how ridiculous it was that they’d built medium takeoffs next to the big jumps, cos we were like, ‘no one’s gonna go off them – obviously all the girls are gonna use the big takeoffs’ but actually a few of them are still going over the small takeoffs, so I don’t know how the judges are gonna deal with that – it’s not really very common for that to happen.
You mean how they’re gonna score someone doing a 900 over a small jump verses a 540 over the big one?
Yeah they’re gonna have to figure out how they’re gonna weigh that. But I can’t see that someone’s gonna do a line down the medium jumps and beat someone doing a line down the big jumps. Surely it’s gotta be the big jumps all the way.
Ah there’s bits and bobs in the athletes village, like when we first got here there were bars sticking out of the walls on our way to get food, and Billy’s been shooting a compilation of ‘shit Russian things’ – big gaps in the pavement and stuff that’s not finished, which is quite funny. But basically our accommodation in the village is perfectly acceptable. We’re all good. It’s a 500 metre walk to the top of the course – we just walk out the house and get on with it.
How many are getting cut tomorrow?
Actually no one’s getting cut, it’s a bit of an unusual format. 30 men will compete, 8 will go to the finals and all the remaining 22 will go into semis for another 4 spots. It’s the same for the women: 24 girls start out competing for 8 spots in the final, then the remaining 16 go into the semis of which a further 4 make it through to the final. So there’s 12 in each final. It takes a little bit of pressure off but you still don’t really want to be in that bottom section fighting it out in the semis for a spot.
Shaun White's quite normal. It's more like other people's perceptions of him are a bit skewed.
Should we expect people to keep their powder dry until the finals or just send it?
Well the girls always do [keep their powder dry]. A lot of them don’t even do tricks in training, never mind try their whole run, but with the guys… well we’ve just done X Games so everyone knows where people are at. Billy’s shown his cards, Jamie’s done his run, most people have shown what they can do.
And they won’t be penalized by the judges if they do the same run in quails as the final rather than stepping it up?
No not at all. Not at all. You do the tricks that you’re good at, not the ones that anyone else expects you to do. For instance Billy’s more consistent at landing the harder tricks, so there’s no point him trying to do a so-called easier run.
How’s the pipe looking?
It’s basically not finished. I’m looking out the window at it right now. It’ll come together though I imagine – practice doesn’t start until Saturday… Old Shauny boy didn't turn up for training today.
Oh really? He was one of the ones who didn’t seem too happy with the course.
He's been having a nightmare with the course. A proper nightmare. I don't think he's done anything better than a 7. And he slipped over on the drop in and hurt his wrist. I noticed he's not appeared today so...
Did you watch the documentary about Shaun's road to Sochi? Did you find it enlightening?
Well, I guess, but that’s kinda how I saw him anyway. He's been hanging out with us a lot cos he knows Jamie now. He's quite normal. It's more like other people's perceptions of him are a bit skewed. He's a pretty everyday guy, he's just mega rich. He's texting Jamie and bantering and talking shit, standard funny stuff. And it's funny to think he goes away to his mansion at the end of the day. He's not staying in the village either. He's got an apartment or a hotel in Rosa Khutor, I guess cos he won't be able to get accreditations for whoever he wants with him - they’re US team accreditations and you only get so many. To have the right people around him he’s decided to stay down in the village.
These comps are never a measure of who the best rider is, really. Anything could happen. You could fall twice and come dead last, you wouldn’t be any worse a snowboarder.
Any words from the team?
They just want everyone to know how much it’s going to come down to whose day it is on the day. These comps are never a measure of who the best rider is, really. Anything could happen. You could fall twice and come dead last, you wouldn’t be any worse a snowboarder. Our team doesn’t really have the option to play it safe like the scandis – our progression has had to be a bit faster, cos we didn’t go to snowboard schools – so there’s no real ‘play it safe’ button for us. We just have to go for it and hope it works.
Well good luck Hamish, and tell the guys we’re all rooting for them!
Absolutely. I will do.