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Go For The Gold: John Teller

Go For The Gold

BY DOUG WILLIAMS  I AUG. 6, 2013

John Teller celebrates after after crossing the finish line to win the
gold medal in the men's ski cross at Winter X Games 15 at Buttermilk
Mountain on Jan. 30, 2011 in Aspen, Colo.

John Teller has spent much of his life on the slopes of California’s Mammoth Mountain.

Even while he was still playing with blocks and learning his ABCs he was carving his first turns and racing other little skiers down the beginner slopes. His mother, who worked in the resort’s daycare facility, took John with her. Soon he was begging to be outside.

“I was bugging her at the daycare, and basically when I got old enough, 4 or 5, I could go out and ski on my own or be with somebody else,” said Teller, 30, who grew up in Mammoth Lakes and still lives and works in his hometown. “Basically the mountain was our daycare. So there was a group of friends that I had. … All of us, since we were 5 years old, we were out there on the mountain every day, and that’s probably a big part of this, because I can probably ski better than I can walk,” he added, laughing.

“This” is Teller’s career as the top U.S. ski cross racer and a strong candidate to qualify for the U.S. team at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games in February.

Although he came to the sport only about four years ago after many years as an alpine skier, Teller quickly made his mark. He was the first American to win a world cup ski cross race in 2011. (He achieved that feat at St. Johann in Austria.) That same year, he claimed X Games gold in Aspen and finished fourth in the world cup standings.

Although Teller didn’t know it at the time, all those years he spent racing his friends on Mammoth was the perfect classroom for ski cross, a sport that made its Olympic debut during the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Years before the sport was invented, he was mastering its fundamentals.

Skiing at Mammoth with its variety of challenges — runs in the trees, above the tree line, rocky outcrops, big jumps and terrain park — was like taking Ski Cross 101.

In ski cross, four racers at a time barrel down a course featuring jumps, quick turns, changes in terrain and opponents battling for position. At Mammoth, the young Teller was doing the same thing almost every time he went up for a run.

He admitted that ski cross is a bit more organized than the full-on scramble among friends to get to the bottom of Mammoth’s long runs, but it’s essentially the same thing.

“The fun part of it is the jumping and the close-quarters skiing with your good friends,” he said. “Even my competitors on the world cup tour, obviously, when the gate drops, there’s really not any friends on the course, but we’re all friends afterward."

Teller’s U.S. ski cross teammate, Joe Swensson, believes his friend and rival learned much from his Mammoth experience. In terms of variety of terrains and conditions, Mammoth was a great learning lab.

Swensson, who learned to ski in Vermont and competed against Teller when both were in alpine, said he loves watching Teller’s smooth, flowing style. But what sets him apart, Swensson said, is Teller’s ability to adapt, honed from his years freeskiing at Mammoth.

“There’s a lot of different terrain there and it’s a huge mountain, so he’s very good on just basically making speed on natural terrain and the courses right out of the start,” Swensson said. “He has a natural touch that a lot of people don’t have."

And, Swensson said, Teller is good in traffic.

“You need to make really quick, intelligent decisions when you’re in a heat against three other guys,” Swensson said. “There’s a lot of stuff going on."

* * *

Olympic ski cross hopeful John Teller poses during the NBC/U.S.
Olympic Committee photo shoot in April 2013.

Teller’s track from toddler skier to Olympic ski cross hopeful certainly wasn’t a straight, downhill shot.

From the time he was 8, he was racing in alpine events at the Mammoth Race Program, and for many years he battled to make the U.S. alpine ski team. Five times he competed in the U.S. alpine national championships.

Eventually, though, he gave up that dream and gave up competitive skiing for a couple of years while working as a mechanic at his uncle’s garage in Mammoth Lakes, where he’s worked off and on for about 14 years.

“I was a little bit burned out,” he said. “Years of pounding my head against the wall and training my butt off. I was skiing about 200 days a year and was in the gym when I wasn’t skiing. Chasing that dream for so long, financially and mentally and everything, it just became a big toll and there’s an end point for everything. That’s kind of where I was with alpine. I was done with my skiing career. I became a full-time (auto) mechanic."

He still was drawn to the mountain — nothing could ever keep him off skis — but instead of 200 days a year on the slopes, it was 20 or 30.

But when a friend introduced him to ski cross, Teller felt something click.

“It made me realize why I fell in love with skiing so many years ago,” he said.

Suddenly, the burnout was gone and the enthusiasm was back.

In 2010, he took his first podium finish on the world cup circuit, earning a bronze at a race in Italy. The next year he won the world cup event at St. Johann in Austria, a victory that he once said, “was a dream come true and a total eye-opener for what was possible."

After finishing fourth overall in the standings in the 2010-11 season, he finished 11th in the 2011-12 campaign and ninth in the just-completed 2012-13 season.

But this past season, he found his way back onto the top of the podium again, winning a world cup race in Megeve, France, and a Nor-Am Cup event in January. He claimed USANA Skicross and the U.S. title at the Sprint Grand Prix at Canyons Resort in Park City, Utah in March and earned a bronze in the world championships in Norway a week later.

“It had been two seasons since I’d gotten a win, so that was very nice to know that I’m still in there and I can compete at that level,” he said. “Things need to fall in place in order to pull off the win, but it’s all there."

Teller’s goal going into this past world cup season was to be much more consistent, however. And that didn’t happen.

“It was a very peaks and valley season,” he said. While he had big days and podium finishes, in other events he was dismal.

As he gets ready for the start of a new season this winter - and, he hopes, a spot on the U.S. team for Sochi - he's again focusing on consistency. For more information on qualifying for the Olympic team in Sochi, click here. 

This summer he’s been riding his bike, weight training, doing some hunting and working in his uncle’s garage, but he’s been thinking about what he needs to do to achieve his Olympic goal.

For one thing, he believes he needs to know when to lay back and not be so aggressive in some races, especially on the European courses that are smaller, less technical and have smaller jumps. He believes he’s probably been too “intense” on those courses and needs to “relax and let the skis move and flow like water."

He still believes he should be in the top four in the world cup standings. “I feel that’s where I belong,” he said — and said if he can keep the peaks and make his valleys much shallower, the points and his place on the U.S. Olympic Team will come.

And, if he can get to Sochi, he’s confident he can be in the medal hunt.

Although he didn’t race well in the Sochi test event in February, finishing 14th, he was comfortable with the course. It was more of an X Games/North American layout, he said, with big jumps, high speeds and big banks, just the kind of course he loves. He just had a bad day.

“I think we’ve got a really good chance to be on the podium there,” he said.

Swensson is optimistic both he and Teller can get to Sochi. They challenge each other, just as Teller and his young buddies used to do at Mammoth all those years ago.

“It’s a weird situation because we’re obviously trying to beat each other, but at the same time we known that if John’s skiing faster than me, it’s going to push me and if I get better and beat him in training it’s going to push him to get better, so we kind of work together,” said Swensson, who earned a bronze medal at the world cup race in Val Thorens, France, in December.

“We both have the same goals. We both want to bring a medal home from Sochi. Both of us feel that we’re the best skiers in the world and we have a shot of getting up in there.”

Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has been writing for TeamUSA.org since 2011 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.