15 mins with Australian skiing legend, Steven Lee

This interview represents the first in what we hope will be a series of regular ’15 minute’ interviews, delving deep into the minds of the snow-industry professionals, snowsports heroes (old and new) and well….just a good bunch of interesting people, all of whom have cut their lives in and around the mountains. The interviews will hopefully inspire you, may surprise you AND if we’ve done our job properly, could make you quit your job and move to the mountains permanently……you can thank us if that happens.

In skiing-circles, our first guest needs no introduction.  Steven Lee was practically born with skis on his feet, and was a prodigious talent from a young age. Introduced to the sport at age three in the Victorian resort of Falls Creek, he rose through the ranks quickly, impressing at a National level as a teenager, before being selected at age 22 for the Sarajevo Olympics, in 1984. Steve went on to ski in three Olympics, Sarajevo, Calgary and Albertville, and was a main-stay in the World Cup circuit until 1992, picking up a gold medal in the Furano Super Giant Slalom along the way.  To his CV, he can also add sports commentator (for channels 7, 9 and 10), co-founder of Chill Factor magazine, and more than 10 years as national selector and president of Falls Creek Race Club. He has also done skiing stunt-work in skiing adventure films starring Roger Moore and Jackie Chan.

When we caught up with Steve, he was nestling back into life in his home of Falls Creek, having just returned from Hakuba, Japan, where he spends his summers running Hakuba Powder Detours.  The winter had once gain started slowly, but Steve was optimistic that at least mother nature was trying……

Being fans of old, we were interested to learn of Steve’s career as an alpine racer, the sacrifices he made, and the differences in the level of athlete support then compared to now.  We also asked how he was received in the European community, as an Aussie born-and-bred athlete, especially one who was capable of beating their best…and even an athlete capable of beating… well, just about ANYONE, on his day.  We’ll let Steve do the talking…..

The interview

Snowriders WA: Describe the scariest moment of your competitive racing career from the beginning to end: the context, the lead in, the incident and the aftermath?

Steve: It’s hard to define one scary moment, as being scared is not something I remember. I do however recall two stand out incidents that had me questioning why I was participating in the sport. One was standing in the start gate of the Val Gardena World Cup downhill, in Italy, which was a pretty tough track on a good day (not that any are easy). It was in about 1986-87. Europe had so little snow that year apart from pre-season training on the glaciers we really hadn’t skied. The mountains were green, there was a strip of dirty man-made snow from top to bottom of the course, which was just wide enough to race down. A fall would put out in the grass dirt and rocks. The track was so fragile that during inspection, where all the racers and coaches side-slip the course to memorise it, we were in fact not allowed to make a turn, if you did, we were told you’d be disqualified. Now I love racing, but more than anything I just loved getting out and skiing. At that moment I hadn’t skied in weeks. Standing in the start gate, about to launch into a World cup downhill race, I began thinking where is the fun in this; I’m not enjoying this at all! It was a low mental point to deal with, but of course I kept racing, and yes the snow improved later in the season which helped my mental state.  For me, I raced best when I was  enjoying the sport. Training was a big part, but getting out for a free ski, some powder, or smashing up the mountain with my mates is what kept me going.

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© Sport the library/Christian Haase Olympics – Winter/Albertville 1992 Comb D-Hill / Steven Lee (AUS)

The second is a much darker episode during the 1991 Wengen World cup. A promising young Austrian skier Gernot Reinstadler was battling for race qualification amongst the strong Austrian team in the final training run, and was on point with only the final turn to go to get a start the following day. However he lost control crashing into the nets 50m from the finish line. I was standing with two Canadian skiers watching as he ripped through the nets and into the finish area leaving a thick trail of blood behind him as he slid to a stop just meters in front of us. He suffered a fractured pelvis and severe internal injuries, which turned out to be critical as he died that night in Interlaken hospital. No one had died in ski racing for years! We all knew racing was dangerous, but gave little thought to it being THAT dangerous. The race the following day was canceled, and the following week I had much debate, consultation and discussion with my coach and fellow racers if what we do was in fact worth the risk and whether or not the safety measures were sufficient.  We had the world champs coming up in the following weeks and I questioned long and hard whether to continue. I made the decision to race on, but mine, and most of the world cup guys confidence was rattled. Sadly, it took an incident and death of a young ski racer for safety measures to be much improved over the coming seasons.

Snowriders WA: What speeds do you reach as an alpine skier and how to do overcome the fear factor?

Steve: World cup downhills average speed is just over 100kmph, my top recorded speed was 169kmph. So pretty bloody fast! Speed is something you build up to; as you become more confident in your ability you can let the skis go more and look for speed on a course. However to be going 169km/h, the course has to super smooth so in reality you don’t feel it so much (the speed)! To be honest, and as strange as it sounds, things feel much faster at 90 to 100km/h down a bumpy icy section, conditions in which you are just hanging on for dear life.

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Snowriders WA: Describe your typical training regime, and your pre-race routine. Any superstitions or lucky charms?

Steve: Simply put I was methodical in both my ski and physical training and did lots of both. My year was 2 months heavy physical training merging into a further 5 months on snow and continued heavy physical training. Then 4 months of racing, with up to 3 races a week. Post season, I’d take one month to relax reboot and start it all again. That went on for close to 20 years! My pre-race routine was pretty simple, clear the head and loosen the body with some fun free-skiing (preferably powder), and then relax for 30min pre-race. Focus and lock in with run after run of mental imagery; check my equipment, warm up, check in with the coach, lock in the race strategy and go! No superstition, just good preparation.

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© Sport the library/Doug Child Skiing – World Cup / Aspen 1988 Downhill – Steven Lee (AUS)

Snowriders WA: How does your training regime in the 80-90s compare with the training regime of winter sports athletes these days?

Steve: I trained very intuitively, did things that worked well for me. I think there’s more science and technology now, and probably more detailed video analysis. I still trained as a profession athlete and was fortunate enough to receive good advice from my parents, my coaches, and also benefited from early sports science out of the newly opened Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). But at the end of the day it’s just repetition-repetition-repetition –  that’s what gets you there.

Snowriders WA: Do Aussies ski athletes receive more funding support these days than you did?

Steve: Yes, significantly.

Snowriders WA: What did you have to give up in those days in order to do what you did and compete at the highest level?

Steve: Time with family and friends. In that era there was no internet, so communication was tough. You’d get a letter here and there, otherwise a very quick phone call home would cost upwards of $50, so that didn’t happen much. For me I was truly on my own a lot of the time, especially for the months of pre-season training in Europe.

Snowriders WA: How does the funding and support Aussie skiiers receive compare with the funding/support received by say, the Austrian ski team? Is it a level playing field.

Steve: No, you can’t even compare the two. Then, now and likely forever! However that does not make it impossible to succeed.

Snowriders WA: How were you received in the more traditional European / American skiing community. Was there ever a sense that as an Aussie they didn’t expected you to be a threat, until you beat them of course?

Steve: In the early days as I was breaking into the European race scene people were constantly surprised by my ability and results. The most common question asked was “so we understand you race for Australia, but are you actually Austrian or Swiss”? No one  believed I grew up and learnt to ski 100% in Australia. However, at world cup level respect comes with results, no matter what your country of origin.

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© Sport the library/Doug Chil Skiing – World Cup /Beaver Creek 1988 Downhill- Steven Lee (AUS)

Snowriders WA: What would it take for an Aussie born athlete to win an alpine skiing gold medal at the Olympics, in say the downhill or the slalom? Is this even possible, or as Australian athletes are we just at too much of a disadvantage with the lack of funding, coaching, technical support etc?

Steve: I have no doubt it’s possible. It’s actually just as hard to win World Cups and that’s been done by several Aussie skiers, myself included. It’s largely a numbers game. Austria has thousands of racers coming through their system, we have maybe a 100, so we have to wait long stretches for those special athletes that have the talent to do so. But when they do, it all comes down to a good program. If we put the programs in place we get results. Our last alpine champion Zali Steggall is a perfect example of that winning World Championship gold and Olympic bronze medals. The big challenge without doubt is that the Alpine discipline is the toughest of all snow sports. It has by far the biggest competitor numbers and the largest fields. With that it carries the most expensive programs to support. You can (and we do) finance world class programs for moguls or aerial teams for a fraction of the cost a ‘full’ Alpine program would take. It will take a freakish athlete to carve up the racing scene, before a full program is warranted, and if done right, we’ll get gold medals. Easy as that!

Snowriders WA: Who should we be watching as the next Aussie skiing / winter sports super-star?

Steve: Well, taking in all I’ve said. Who knows, we always have promising young skiers, but that’s the easy part to be honest. The hard part comes from 18 to 24ish and cracking the world scene. Getting into the top 50 rankings, starting regularly and successfully on world cup and then the real challenge begins. I’m always hopeful we’ll see one or even two do it some time soon.

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Present day

Three Olympics, several World Cup podiums, and one World-Cup win later, Steve Lee now calls Falls Creek home, were he has several interests, including his snowmobiling and back-country tours.  He also runs guided day trips out of Hakuba, Japan, which are suitable for intermediates and above wishing to safely explore resort and back-country areas, and experience some the regions world famous Japowder! Click on the images below for more details, or contact Steve at facebook.com/skiingwithstevelee or skiingwithstevelee@gmail.com

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