Slopestyle skier Russ Henshaw's season is already off to a solid start: In August, he took bronze at the World Cup opener in New Zealand, and in September, he won the One Hit Wonder Big Air in his home country of Australia. Now, he's gearing up for his biggest season yet with his sights set on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. How did this 23-year-old skier from Down Under become one of the top slopestyle competitors in the world? We recently caught up with Henshaw as he arrived in Summit County, Colo., for the upcoming Winter Dew Tour -- taking place Dec. 12-15 at Breckenridge -- and the U.S. Grand Prix -- Dec. 19-22 at Copper Mountain -- to talk about growing up in Australia and his plans for the Olympics.
How did you get to become such a good skier from Australia?
I originally lived in Sydney, and my family used to travel to Jindabyne for skiing every weekend. When I was 14, we moved down there and never looked back. I started out racing and I was doing quite well, but soon I figured out I had far more fun jumping and being in the air than I did skiing through gates. At 12, I competed in both race events and slopestyle and big air events and eventually I convinced my dad to let me pursue freeskiing. At 15, I had a few sponsors and my dad and [former coach] Nick Draxl came up with the plan to ship me off to Europe for three months. Since then, it's kind of been a snowball effect.
I understand your family has a special tie to kangaroos and wombats. Can you elaborate?
My mum does a wildlife program in Australia that looks after injured animals until they are well enough to be released back into the wild. A lot of kangaroos and wombats are hit by cars in Australia, leaving many baby animals orphaned. She has three or four kangaroos and three or four wombats at home at the moment.
After some strong contest results in the southern hemisphere this summer, how's your confidence going into this Olympic winter?
The comps in the southern hemisphere were really fun this year. I really like doing these events just so that I don't forget what it's like being in a start gate. It's also great to see how everyone is skiing and to see how you compare. I am feeling really good going into the Games. I had a lot of time on snow in Australia, learning a bunch of tricks and the icing on the cake was doing well at the events down there.
How does the Olympic team qualification process work for Australia?
I have to finish within the top 30 in the world [on the FIS points list] to be granted a spot for the Olympics. The team won't be officially announced until late January, but I have done everything I need to do. After I managed to podium at the World Cup in Copper last year and also the World Cup in New Zealand, it's been enough to keep me inside the top 30.
We've seen many top-ranked slopestyle competitors come from unlikely places around the globe. Why do you think that is?
That's an easy one, it's because slope is accessible. Halfpipe hasn't got as many athletes because it's not as accessible for the general public to ride. Slopestyle, on the other hand, is much easier. Almost every mountain I have been to in the past five years has had some form of park, whether it's big or small. Not only do most mountains have parks, but kids can set up features in their backyards as well. I remember I used to set up rails at home whenever it snowed and tried to learn tricks that I could then take to the bigger features in the park.
Skiers have the ability to spin in four different directions, and the slopestyle course in Sochi will feature only three jumps. What are your thoughts regarding trick combinations on the Sochi course, and how much will the rails come into play?
It's a shame that there are only three jumps in Sochi, but I think they will more than make up for it with the rail section. It's only been recently that slopestyle has been getting four jumps in a run. X Games and Dew Tour are the only two events that come to mind when I think of a four-jump slope course. It's far more common to see a three-jump course. The rails in Sochi I think will play just as big of a part. The rail options for the slope course there look amazing, and I am really interested to see what I can come up with.
Would you care to let us in on any new tricks you've been working on?
I have been working on a few things, but I think I am going to keep that a secret. Everyone is just going to have to wait until Sochi to see what I have to offer.