When she’s off the mountain and between training sessions and world cup races, downhill skier Jackie Wiles has a secret weapon that she thinks helps make her one of the fastest alpine racers in the U.S.: Her motorcycle.
“I have to be so focused in the moment and really concentrate on the task at hand,” Wiles, an Oregon native, says about riding her bike. “There is so much that correlates with skiing because you have to pick your line, know the obstacles around you, get your angles with your turns and then accelerate out of them. I think that’s something unique that I do that not a lot of people do.”
While Olympians, Paralympians and hopefuls spend a good portion of their adult lives working toward a singular goal of being the best in their chosen sport, there is an increasing call of encouragement for them to diversify as well-rounded athletes to help better their results.
In Wiles’ case, its her motorcycle, while figure skater Mariah Bell lugs a paddleboard out of her LA-area pad for rides in the nearby Pacific Ocean.
“I absolutely love it; I try to do it once a week,” Bell explains. “I think it helps me. It’s really low-key and my coach is all about us staying active.”
Wiles and Bell aren’t alone: Through interviews with over 15 Team USA athletes at the recent Team USA Media Summit, it is clear that out-of-training routines are no longer just about stretching, track runs, cool-down bikes and the good old weight room.
Bobsledder Aja Evans is into hot yoga, skier Laurenne Ross likes mountain biking, freestyle skier Aaron Blunck does Pilates at least once a week and Para snowboarder Brenna Huckaby counts on gymnastics to stay aware of her body movement in the air.
Adam Rippon – one of the most graceful and stylistic figure skaters in the world – goes skateboarding to help him with balance and get his mind off his rigorous training schedule.
“I know that’s pretty off-brand for me,” he says, laughing, “but it’s been pretty fun. And I love being outdoors.”
While some winter-sport seasons are so short that in-season training calls for hyper focus on just that, athletes couldn’t share enough about what they like to do in the warm-weather months when their schedules aren’t all about the next competition and instead more about keeping their bodies – and minds – sharp for what’s to come next.
“We highly encourage them to do hobbies that disconnect them from their sport, including physical hobbies,” says Brandon Siakel, a sports physiologist for the United States Olympic Committee. “We want them to have a dedicated period of time away from their sport and the grind of training so they can physically and mentally rejuvenate as much as possible. It’s something we preach.”
As a kid, hockey player Amanda Kessel spent time on the golf course with her brother (and fellow Olympic hockey player) Phil Kessel.
“Golf. I love golf,” says Amanda Kessel, a member of the 2014 U.S. women’s ice hockey team that won silver in Sochi. “I’m pretty good, but I used to be better. … Our parents dropped us off as kids at the course… I think to just get rid of us (laughs).”
There is a something to be said for the hand-eye coordination in both hockey and golf, right? While Kessel stands alone on the links, it’s mountain biking and skateboarding that are particularly popular with a host of the Paralympic athletes, including snowboarders Amy Purdy and Evan Strong, who medaled in Sochi and are looking to repeat in PyeongChang next month.
“I think skateboarding is great conditioning for snowboarding, especially since winters are only a limited amount of time and getting onto a racecourse can be even more challenging,” Strong says. “I can bring my skateboard in my backpack wherever I go. I think that gives me a competitive edge because once I get on my snowboard I feel incredibly comfortable. It’s definitely a huge part of my training with race season."
While Evans, the bobsledder, was an elite track and field competitor as an NCAA athlete, teammate Elana Meyers Taylor played softball in college and then briefly on a professional team, going up against the likes of pitching great Jennie Finch. She’s also trained with a top-level rugby squad. Now her go-to is yoga.
“I do as much as I can to stay active away from bobsled,” Meyers Taylor said. “It’s mostly about finding studios wherever I am. … The good thing about most yoga studios is they offer a free trial. So if you’re only in town for a week, you’re all set!”
Blunck, who was seventh in the men’s halfpipe event in Sochi, says a recent herniated disk in his back had doctors advising him that he should have surgery and alternatively offering up different injections. Fearful of surgery that could threaten his career, he now says he swears by Pilates, which he tries to do up to six times a month.
“It’s been the only thing that has helped my back,” he admits. “I’ve had injections that have helped, but not over a long period of time. When people first told me about it, I was like, ‘You’re out of your mind… that will do nothing for me.’ But Pilates has changed my life. It taught me how to breathe and relax and let things go.”
While the physical help can be apparent, the benefit – as Siakel noted – can also be mental. An afternoon on your paddleboard at the beach? Mariah Bell says yes please. A drive winding down the roads of rural Oregon? Jackie Wiles is all for it.
“Every time I’m on my motorcycle I feel like that’s training in itself,” Wiles said. “We go up to 80 miles per hour on the ski course, so being able to emulate those fast speeds in the off-season, you feel like you never get away from that training.”
But, Wiles continues: “Any time you do something new, you’re going to struggle a little bit. I think you realize as an elite athlete that it’s going to get harder before you get better (at it). You have to go back a little bit in anything to have growth. If you’re not putting yourself in uncomfortable situations, it’s hard to really grow from there. I think I had this great realization where if I wanted to get better, I had to be uncomfortable sometimes.”
Fellow skier Julia Mancuso has been uncomfortable at various times in her career – but in a different manner. She’s dealt with a lingering hip issue caused by dysplasia. And – like Blunck – she’s turned to Pilates.
“Since I’ve dealt with my hip being a problem… I’ve done Pilates, which really helps my (hip) joint feel better,” she says. “I love strengthening all the small muscles and it’s really made me realize you’re only as strong as your weakest link.”
Mancuso, 33, has also noticed race-day routines change in the sport: “When I first started, you woke up 45 minutes before you needed to go up to the hill, ate breakfast and then went out. Now, I think all the girls wake up an hour and a half to two hours before they need to go and everyone is in the gym doing their warm-up and making sure their bodies are ready for the day.”
Alpine skier Julia Mancuso turned to Pilates for her off-snow training.
Paralympian Oksana Masters has taken things to the next level: A bronze medalist in rowing at the 2012 London Paralympics, she added cross-country skiing to her repertoire and won two medals in 2014 in Sochi. Then? Cycling for the 2016 Rio Games.
She wouldn’t have it any other way.
“When I transitioned from rowing to skiing, I didn’t have (race) tactics because you were just in your own lane and you kept your head down,” she says of her rowing strategy. “I didn’t know how to use my brain. I started cross-country skiing to learn from that. And in cycling, (it’s) not necessarily the fittest athlete that wins, but the smartest racer. It’s about using those tactics. I have learned so much.”
Aaron Pike is another example of a Paralympian who has diversified his résumé, competing in two summer Games in marathon races as well as cross-country skiing and biathlon at the 2014 Games.
No matter their sport, the further diversified these Team USA athletes can become the better they end up as competitors – and people. And while Wiles’ family isn’t the biggest fan of her motorcycle-riding habits, she says it’s an optimal way for her to blow off steam, too.
Nor are ski jumper Kevin Bickner’s parents that wild about his off-season habit: Downhill skiing. They’re worried about him getting an out-of-season injury that will impact his career long-term. But Bickner just can’t help himself.
“When I’m done with the season I will come back to Park City and go downhill skiing every day until mountain closes,” he said, grinning ear to ear. “My parents are yelling at me telling me that I’m taking risks by doing it, but that’s the sport that helped me get into ski jumping in the first place. I like the adrenaline and doing crazy things. I’m doing it because it’s fun, not because I’m trying to achieve certain goals.”How about this? Goal: Get out and be active – no matter what you’re doing (motorcycling included). For Team USA, that status? Complete.