Jon Olsson has got to be out of his mind. That was the general consensus when the Swedish freestyle skier made public his plan to get into ski racing and go to the Olympics for the Swedish ski racing team. Olsson quite successfully underwent the opposite transformation back in 1999. That year he left Sweden's national team to embark on what would become a long career as one of the most decorated and influential figures in freeskiing. But a racing comeback? Even with Olsson's impressive resume, to imagine pulling that off after a full decade of dormancy, he'd have to be, well, out of his mind.
But now three years into Olsson's racing return, that mind of his is looking more and more sound. After marching through FIS, Nor-Am and Europa Cup series, the Swede broke onto the World Cup, the most elite level in ski racing, in December with a giant slalom start in Val D'Isere. This weekend, he competed in his second World Cup race, a giant slalom in Adelboden, Switzerland, where he finished his first run but didn't qualify in the top 30 to make it to the second run. Olsson's giant slalom record now has him ranked third in his home country. If it sticks, that ranking would be good enough for a spot on Sweden's next Olympic squad, as long as Olsson can get two top-13 finishes on the World Cup between now and 2014.
ESPN Freeskiing: Just three years after starting from scratch, you made your first World Cup start in Val d'Isere in December. Did you think that you'd make it to that level as quickly as you did?
Jon Olsson: Well I guess I didn't come from scratch since I was a good racer as a kid. But in terms of [world] rankings I have gone from 3,600 to 64 in a very short amount of time. I think I believed in it, but it still feels kind of unreal now that I am here. I still feel like a total rookie and I have so much more to learn.
How does the competitive environment on the World Cup compare to the Europa Cup? Did you feel more pressure than usual in Val d'Isere?
I was actually super nervous in Val D. I think it was just about not being used to the environment and not knowing what to expect. Not to mention every news channel in Sweden was there to cover it.
Great athletes train 24/7 to get to where you are. Yet Treble Cone Race Academy Director Guenther Birgmann has said that you train "30 percent less than other world class alpine racers." Would you say that's accurate? How have you managed to overcome that training deficit?
I have trained about the same as the teams this year, but that is holding back on what I would like to do. Last year I skied 30 to 40 percent more but I found out that it was not the solution as "stoke" is such an underestimated factor in sports. Before Val D, I took 10 days off and I skied better than ever. My plan this year is to cut back on the number of days I ski so I'm super pumped on all the days I do strap in. I do less dryland training than most of the guys I compete against. But that is something I'm working onnot necessarily the strength that everybody thinks I am lacking, but more the endurance to be able to handle the long courses.
At this point in your career, you've gone from ski racer to freeskier, and then back again, from freeskier to racer. Was either conversion harder than the other?
When I went from ski racing to freestyle, I went from having no money to getting paid to ski powder. And at that point all I had to do to be cool was a switch 720. This time around I had to work much harder and pay a bunch of money to get here so I would say that this transition has been harder in every way. They were equally fun thoughso exciting with something new.
A lot of your fans contend that you spent the bulk of your freeskiing career receiving lower scores that you deserved in major contests. Is there any relief for you in moving back to the objectivity of racing?
[Laughs] I guess I can agree in some cases. So yes, it is nice to have a clock to race against. But when you race against a clock there is nothing more frustrating than when you get to the bottom after a killer run and find out that you were super slow. Can't argue that one. Just have to accept it and move on.
Is this a full conversion? Is Jon Olsson a full-time ski racer now?
I did do five freestyle events this fall and a kicker session in New Zealand. And I somehow managed to get second in the London Freeze Big Air. I think the lack of time I have on freestyle skis pushes the stoke to a new level when I do get to jump. That makes up for a lot of lost training. But I will admit that it is getting harder and harder to stay on top when all I do is crush gates. But that's okay. I have my 11 Winter X medals and I have seen that world for 10 years. To get where I want to be in racing I will have to cut down on the jumping, but I think that a great balance will be the best. That's when I think skiing is the most fun. And I can't wait for the Jon Olsson Invitational this spring so I get to jump again!
A few years ago, you told me that, "The year I go to the Olympics, I want to be able to still do double flips, and ski an AK line." Is that still a possibility in your mind?
One hundred percent for sure. No way am I letting go that easy. Plus the easiest tricks I know are a 360 and a double cork 1080, so I don't think that double flip should be a problem.
This spring Sammy Carlson and Bobby Brown both landed new triple flips, marking the first new tricks in years that you didn't at least help pioneer. Do you think that your commitment to racing has affected your ability to stay at the cutting edge of freestyle? Is it hard for you to leave that behind?
It is a little hard. But I've realized that if I want to reach the top in racing, I can't jump all the time like those guys, so I am just going to look at jumps in a different way and have fun with them. Unfortunately, I know that when a crowd is watching, fun to me means being very good. So I will hope that my body can find some superman powers to keep up without all the practice.