Matt Gnoza possessed a clear vision for the U.S. Freestyle Moguls Ski Team when he was promoted to head coach in April.
Gnoza envisioned success, but that was the destination. The starting point was preparation. It’s what he emphasized day after day during the offseason. He asked his skiers to put in more work than they were accustomed to with the promise they’d be more prepared for the upcoming moguls season, which begins with the 2016 FIS Freestyle World Cup opener in Ruka, Finland on Dec. 12.
“With the change in leadership, we got an opportunity to focus on carving out a strong, well-prepared team,” Gnoza said recently. “We really upped the ante in our preparation process.”
Bryon Wilson, a 2010 moguls Olympic bronze medalist, can attest to that. He joined his teammates in putting that work in during the offseason. He admitted that not every day was easy, but he’s confident the time and effort will be worth it.
“I think we have a super talented group,” Wilson said. “I think what we were lacking before was a little structure. We probably had the most prep work of any summer. The whole men’s team had 1,000 jumps at the water ramps in preparation. We estimated as a team we did 700,000 stairs. I think that’s going to translate into success. It’s stuff you have to do to be successful.”
Gnoza is optimistic the U.S. moguls team can see success on the men’s and women’s sides this season.
For the women’s team, this season will be quite different without Hannah Kearney leading the way. Kearney retired at the end of last season after putting the finishing touches on a legendary career with an Olympic gold and bronze medal, 46 world cup victories, 10 world cup crystal globes and eight world championship medals.
Kearney will be missed in many ways by her former teammates.
“It’s definitely strange not to have her around,” Heidi Kloser said. “She was a very powerful person. Everyone learned from her and listened to her. Without her around, there’s no hierarchy. I don’t know if the team wants that style back or not. It’s different without Hannah around.
“I’m sad she’s not here. I loved competing against her. It would be fun to beat her now that I’m strong again. It’s going to be different.”
No one may be more excited for the weekend’s competition than Kloser. No one has certainly waited as long as she has. She hasn’t competed since she tore knee ligaments and broke her femur in a crash during a training run at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. She suffered a setback in her recovery and underwent a second surgery this past January.
Kloser is finally 100 percent and fully rehabbed. She’s out now to enjoy skiing again, but also to reach and even surpass the level she was at two years ago.
“I’m really excited for this weekend,” Kloser said. “It’s going to be great enjoying it again. It’s been a real long time. I’m just thrilled I get the opportunity to compete again after everything that’s happened. I just want to go out and have fun.
“I have full intentions of being better than I was when I got hurt. I think that’s very possible. I’m very close to where I was when I got hurt. I just want to keep pushing to that and push far and see where I can go from there.”
Among the other women’s moguls skiers, Gnoza was hopeful K.C. Oakley could build off the potential she showed last season with a world cup victory at Deer Valley, Utah. He thought Keaton McCargo could also take that next step this season, especially with the precision he had seen in her jumps. Nessa Dziemian, Mikaela Matthews and Sophia Schwartz are also ones to watch for this season.
Gnoza also saw great potential on the men’s side. The men’s team had five moguls skiers finish between seventh and 12th in last season’s world cup standings. Gnoza wants to see those standings lead to more podium finishes this season.
“I think it’s very realistic,” Gnoza said.
Troy Murphy opened some eyes with his win at the national championship in March. Jeremy Cota, who finished seventh in the world cup moguls standings last season, is on the cusp of that next tier. Gnoza described Thomas Rowley’s potential as being “endless.” He also believed Patrick Deneen, the 2009 world champion who has since struggled to return to the top of the podium, had another level to reach this season.
Wilson, who finished 10th in the standings last season, is entering this season with a different mentality.
“I have a better mindset going into this year than any before,” said Wilson, whose brother Bradley could return later this season from a knee injury. “I think it’s growth in my whole career. I’m more mature and able to kind of look at freestyle in a more healthy way.
“I think I put a little bit too much pressure on myself in previous years, having to do this, having to do that. Just go out there and trust in my skill, trust in my prep work. What I did to this point will carry me. It’s just to have fun. It’s simple.”
What is also simple is Gnoza’s team philosophy. He believes that can also lead to success.
“One of the main goals I have is to build a sense of team here,” Gnoza said. “When one person on the team wins, everybody basically wins. Hopefully one moguls skier can win on any given day. They're all pushing each other to get better.”
Scott Powers is a sportswriter based in Chicago. He previously worked at ESPN, where he covered the Chicago Blackhawks. Powers is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.