Jayden Cooney: Reaching for the Stars

Despite the relative unpopularity of winter sports in Australia, few have thrust themselves into our lounge-rooms like the Freestyle Aerial event. Former World and Olympic Champion Kirsty Marshall (OAM) led the way in the 90’s, followed closely by Alisa Camplin (OAM) (remember the ‘Wrigley Extra’ commercials) and Lydia Lassila, also Olympic champions, and more recently, David Morris who won silver in Sochi in 2014.  Could the next champion be a born-and-bred Perth local?

Enter Perth teenager and trampoline gymnast, Jayden Cooney: Jayden has just taken up the sport despite never having skied nor even been to the snow before. Sound odd? Not really – more and more these days, athletes are created rather than discovered. Talent scouts scour the country for athletes with the right build, height, VO2 max, and athletic ability.  It’s just then a matter of teaching them the rest. Easy right? Not according to Jayden who at age 19 left her more familiar sport of trampoline gymnastics and took up aerial skiing:

“The only time I had seen the slightest amount of snow was from a distance on the mountains in Canada whilst competing in the Pacific Rim Competition for Australia…. it’s not very common to see snow in Western Australia”; jokes Jayden.

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So Jayden, obviously you’re made of the ‘right stuff’. How did did it all come about? Were you approached because of your gymnastic ability or did you have an interest in snow sports and apply yourself?

Both actually. I competed in the sport of trampoline gymnastics internationally for Australia at numerous events including Senior World Championships and was able to medal both nationally and internationally; so I was already well established in that sport. Adding to that, I had started to develop an interest in aerials after seeing it on the TV, so got in touch with current Australian freestyle aerialist David Morris. Recognising my potential as a trampoline gymnast, David suggested I apply under the recruitment program at the Victorian Institute of Sport (VIS).  After bugging me for a few days, I finally submitted my application.  I was then selected to attend the trial at the VIS, which consisted of a physical screening, strength and conditioning as well as acrobatic/aerial awareness testing. I was delighted to be selected into the program and I am now training under former Olympian, Bree Munro, and my ski coach Chloe Merry.

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There’s not much snow in Western Australia. Where have you been doing your aerial training, and whats the objective in the first year?

The majority of our training when in Australia is based out of Melbourne. This year we have been skiing at Mt Buller for the southern winter season and water ramping in Lilydale, at the Ski and Snowboard Australia ramping facility; where we essentially ski down plastic ramps before landing in a dam. It’s a great place to practice jumping skills before taking those tricks onto to snow, where the stakes are higher.

The first years’ of the aerial program are all about gaining experience on skis. So that meant six weeks on the snow at Buller before transferring back to the water ramp. Fortunately for me, the aerial part is familiar; its just a matter of gaining skills and building experience on the skis, and launching off jumps into the water, and then the snow. Like all skills, that comes only with experience. I am also learning how to adapt the skills I have learned in trampoline to performing them with skis on.

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Are there overlaps in skills between trampoline and skiing?

Whilst you wouldn’t think trampolining and skiing had much in common, one thing that trampolining teaches you is awareness of where your body is in space and how it’s moving, as well as assisting with balance when on skis. The main part of aerial skiing is having the aerial awareness to complete single, double and possibly triple somersaults with numerous twists in them. Coming into the sport I already had a strong acrobatic background as I can perform many of the tricks on a trampoline already I just need to learn how to do them with skis on. We do a lot of work in a twisting harness attached to bungee cords above a trampoline, to train multiple flips and twists with the flow and timing of aerial skiers. I was so excited to try this out on day one and found the skills so much easier as the bungee really slows everything down and allowed me to float up in the air and perform my tricks.

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What is the hardest part of completing a jump?
Doing the jumps themselves; the aerial part is surprisingly not that difficult (given my background) however skiing into the jump beforehand is definitely the most challenging part out of it all for me. Skiing off a jump at speed is a foreign feeling where as being in the air is far more natural.

What stage are you at in your training program, can you explain your progression from rookie until now. And have you reached a point yet where you can enter a competition or is that still to come?

At this stage I have been asked to join the VIS Aerial Program in Snow Basin, Utah, for their winter season. This is to gain further skiing experience and perform upright jumps on snow. Oddly enough, aerials for Australian athletes means you to start competing at an international level, which involves doing single and double flips with twists – there’s no club or state championship scene in Australia. I’m looking forward to competing as I progress through those skills.

SRWA: So that’s like going out to bat in your first cricket match and having to face Mitchell Starc!! So do you have a fear of heights; we’re guessing not!

Luckily for me I don’t have a fear heights! At the moment we are working towards getting some big air and getting off bigger jumps. For the first flips I’ll be doing on snow, I’ll get to about five m in the air and that’s only the smallest jump. There are three jumps aerialists use, a single, double and triple kicker. Each jump progressively gets bigger and is designed to make you do one, two or three flips. The biggest jumps send athletes over 15 m into the air, which is the equivalent of a four-story building!

The biggest jumps send athletes over 15 m into the air, which is the equivalent of a four-story building!

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What are the issues you face as a Western Australian based winter athlete?

I have to travel a lot more than other athletes in the program. It’s an expensive sport, both for equipment and travel, and training so often away from home makes holding a job nearly impossible. At the moment I’m relying on family support, and have been looking for additional help to ease the financial burden, so that I may focus on my performances and continue to improve. I’m very appreciative of the assistance I’ve received so far as all the little things really add up.

If someone told you that you would be training to be an aerial freestyle skier five years ago what would you have said?

To be honest I would have asked what “aerial freestyle skiing” was 🙂

Do you have an aerial ski hero? And do you try to model your technique on a particular skier?

Whilst I wouldn’t say I had a hero  certain people definitely inspire me to give this opportunity everything I’ve got.  The first one would be David Morris. Not only is he an amazing talent within the sport but has had to overcome huge challenges to get to the level he is at now. His work ethic and determination is definitely something I look up to and is a great role model for our development team. He’s also mentored me through my transition into the sport since day one and continues to help behind the scenes.  Lydia Lassila is another big influence.  Lydia took the sport of Aerial Skiing to new heights for females not only in Australia but for the entire world of aerials. She is an amazing athlete with the will and drive to push her limits. With a bit of luck, I’d like to do the same.

So what do your friends and family think about you doing aerials, crazy, brave, or dead-set legend?

Honestly, most people had no idea what it was and had to look it up. But later they definitely thought I was crazy for even thinking about attempting it. However my family and close friends whilst thinking I’m crazy have all been supportive of my decision to give this sport a go, because they understand my passion for self-improvement and achieving new and more exciting goals.

What’s next on you on your aerial journey, and what are your goals going into the future?

Long term I’d like to represent my country at the highest level and one day compete at the Olympic Games. In the immediate short term it would be to progress through the program quickly and attain the necessary skills to start focusing on competing at World Cup events.

SRWA: Thanks for talking to us Jayden. We wish you all the best of luck and will follow your career with interest.

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