[Editor's note: It's been a while since we've done an interview series (if you missed our last ones, check out Thinkers and Leading Ladies). This time, we bring you Behind the Curtain, where we talk to the people backstage in the ski industry, the often-invisible, always hard-working coaches, techs, ski patrollers, course builders and more. Here is part one of the series. Check out part two with event announcer Frankie Alisuag and part three with coach Elana Chase.]
Over some 15 years, Kenny Nault has tuned everything from downhill skis to slopestyle snowboards. In 2006, Nault worked as an assistant tech for The Collection, a snowboard team that included Winter Olympians Ross Powers, Gretchen Bleiler and Kelly Clark. He got into freestyle skiing the following year, adding the Canadian Halfpipe Team, Grete Eliassen and Jon Olsson to his client list. Now the Global Freeride Director for Swix, Nault travels the major contest circuit, applying his expertise to the skis of Sammy Carlson, Justin Dorey, Mike Riddle, Alex Schlopy, JF Houle, Roz Groenewoud and Phil Casabon.
When I started in skiing, I befriended Dan Bruno, Tanner [Hall]'s tech at the time. He and I were really the only two techs in freeskiing then. That shocked me. I assumed most of the kids had probably raced at some point and that they'd have more knowledge about ski tuning.
It's funny. I was talking to Bruce Wells [Jossi Wells' dad] and he told me about one year at the US Open when was tuning Jossi's skis in the start area. Jossi said something like, "Go hide over there in the trees and do what you're doing." He didn't want anybody to see that they were actually taking care of his skis. Kids then had this snowboard mentality: "Oh, it's halfpipe, or it's terrain park. You don't take care of your skis."
Now techs are way more prevalent. At Winter X, for example, there are four or five techs including myself working in any of the start areas. When I go to a Grand Prix, there will be as many as 10 or 12 benches up there between all the different teams and athletes competing.
Winter X is pretty much the week of hell. We have about 20 athletes we take care of there, in both ski and snowboard. We're doing two to three layers of wax between every session. If they practice in the morning, we'll have those three layers done. And if they practice again at night, or they have the comp at night, we'll do it again. They are 15-hour days.
There's no point in waxing less for training. The goal is to get used to getting as much amplitude as possible, and to become comfortable with high speeds. In the pipe, a different wax job can change your height, where you're landing on the transition, everything.
Of the athletes I work with, Sammy [Carlson] is most sensitive to how fast I have his skis running. He'll take a couple runs and say, "You know what, they could be faster." He wants to be able to make a couple turns between jumps in a slopestyle. If he lands a little low, he wants to have plenty of speed to clear the next jump. With how big the jumps are getting, that stuff is crucial.
At the Grand Prix in Copper, it was puking snow for the finals and [Justin] Dorey and [Mike] Riddle were still able to do their 12s and finish first and second. That's when I feel I'm able to make my biggest contribution. When the conditions aren't right, my athletes are still able to throw down an awesome run. Times like those I'm really stoked to know that I played an important role in an athlete's success.
Techs can get competitive with each other at times. But I'm actually very open about everything that I'm doing. With the level of care that I'm giving every night to the skis, I could tell you exactly how I waxed. Some people will listen. Others will take shortcuts, not go through every single step, and that will show.
Tuning for slope and pipe is a little different than tuning for racing. Alpine racing guys are looking for one fast run out of their skis, and then they're done. I have to deal with athletes taking seven or eight practice runs. And I'll usually only get one chance to wax between that and the beginning of a three-run final. I use a lot of powders to increase durability, and I'll wax a little bit colder than I would for an alpine guy because I'm looking for that wax to last as long as possible.
In racing, World Cup techs will often get a cut of their athletes' winnings. That's not how I do it. I have it worked out with my athletes so that they are really supporting the Swix brand. The services and travel that I put in as their tech then make up a part of the compensation they receive for being our sponsored athletes. It's a fair trade-off, and it works well for us.
What I'm normally doing in the start area is what you call an overlay. That's basically tossing pure Cera on the base of the ski. It's our most hydrophobic, and most expensive, wax. At retail prices, Super Cera costs about $220 for one application to one pair of skis. It's basically pure fluorocarbons, our best designed wax. It gives the athlete an extra boost when he or she drops in.
I like to think that all the maintenance we do on athletes' skis helps with progression. Every day they go and ski, they're on fast, tuned skis. It allows athletes to go bigger. It allows them to work on new doubles. It really helps them push the sport.