For most of us, the Winter Olympics is something that happens once every four years, usually on the telly; for serious athletes like Edinburgh skier Murray Buchan, however, the games never really go away, the end of one training and qualification cycle leading almost directly into the start of the next.
Having finished a very respectable 17th in the men’s halfpipe in Sochi last year, you’d think Buchan would be cooling his jets for a while, perhaps playing a bit of golf or learning how to make sushi or teaching himself Italian, but not a bit of it – while he doesn’t sound overly preoccupied with PyeongChang 2018, it’s definitely a major long-term goal.
“It’s always there at the back of my head,” he says. “People say, ‘Oh, it’s four years away, you don’t have to worry about it’ but the qualification process actually starts two years prior to the event, so that’s next year, and before you know it, it’ll be on you. There are no guarantees that you’re going to qualify and there are no guarantees that you’re going to be fit, so at the moment I’m just trying to do everything I can to keep on the right curve and the right progression. Hopefully I’ll qualify and hopefully I’ll do a lot better than last year as well.”
As if to show he means business, Buchan recently took first place in the men’s halfpipe at the Brits, the most prestigious competition in the British snowsports calendar. Not only that, for his second run in the final in the seven-metre superpipe in Tignes he became the first person ever to land a double 900 at the competition – a mind-boggling, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it manoeuvre similar to a double cork, in that it requires two off-axis mid-air rotations. As well as being another impressive accolade to add to his already extensive skiing CV, the new trick also shows that, far from resting on his laurels, Buchan is still developing as an athlete, still pushing the envelope. If he’s landing double 900s now, what he’ll be capable of by 2018 is anyone’s guess.
I ask him how old he’ll be in 2018. “I’ll be 26,” he says. A pause. “Oh my god, that’s old!” It might seem ancient to a 23-year-old, but at 26 he’ll likely be a bit stronger than he was in 2014, and certainly more experienced. An improvement on 2014’s performance shouldn’t be taken for granted, but there’s definitely cause to be optimistic.
Buchan says he cooked up his contest strategy for the Brits with his friend James Webb, who was running a camp for some of the younger skiers while the competition was in progress. “He basically said to have a safer run that you know you can land and then a harder run. The first run I managed to land quite cleanly, get all my grabs and keep up my amplitude, and then for my second run I stepped it up a bit and did a double 900 – it’s a bit of a stranger rotation than a double cork but it’s the same general principle. I’m told that was the first one done at the Brits in the halfpipe, ski or snowboard, so that was nice.”
Buchan certainly had to bring his A-game to Tignes. A talented field included California-based Alexander Yeadon, who finished second, and New Zealand-based Felix Klein, who took third. “Yeadon was really good – he was the main competition,” says Buchan. “When I watched him ski I was really nervous and I knew I had to step up.”
Next on the agenda for Buchan is a two-week training period in Mammoth, California, with the rest of the GB Park and Pipe team. He mentions that they’ll be using a “private airbag” so they can try out new tricks without risk of injury. I jokingly ask if their training camp will be a similar set-up to the one American millionaire snowboarder Sean White used to prepare for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver – a halfpipe built high up on a remote glacier and accessible only by helicopter to ensure maximum secrecy.
“Almost,” he says, “you’re not far off. Later in the season they close half the mountain at Mammoth because the snow goes. Bud Keene, Sean White’s old coach, runs camps there, and he’s got a halfpipe with an airbag. We get one lift opened for us so we can keep lapping around on the lift. It costs, because it’s essentially a private ski resort, but the training is so good that it’s worth every penny, so I just really want to make the most of it.”
Want to see what the future of halfpipe skiing might look like? Then keep an eye on Buchan’s Twitter feed over the next couple of weeks.