Over the last decade, freeskier Janina Kuzma, 27, has competed in big mountain contests like the Freeride World Tour, but last winter, the New Zealand native chose to focus on another discipline: halfpipe. She hopes to represent her country when ski halfpipe makes its Olympic debut this February in Sochi, Russia.
"It was a hard decision, especially since I was qualified for this past year on the FWT," said Kuzma. "I do love the tour and it did take a lot of hard work to get on it, but with the inclusion of pipe to the Olympics, I decided to try to qualify."
Kuzma is currently training halfpipe on the summertime glacier in Whistler, BC, before heading to the World Cup's season kickoff in August at Cardrona, New Zealand, where winter is just getting started in the southern hemisphere.
Her versatility in the sport of freeskiing isn't entirely new. Kuzma has also competed in big air and slopestyle over the years and in 2009, she became the first woman to win both the big mountain and halfpipe title at the New Zealand Freeski Open. (Her sister, Maria, is a professional big mountain snowboarder.)
But Kuzma's newfound focus on halfpipe came about when the sport was added to the Olympic program. In 2011, big mountain competitions were going better than ever for Kuzma. She was closing in on her dream to win the Freeride World Tour. She finished third overall in 2011 and she was looking forward to the next season. That is, until the International Olympic Committee announced in April of that year that ski halfpipe would make its debut in the 2014 Olympics. She decided to drop off the big mountain competition scene after the 2012 season and went in pursuit of World Cup points in halfpipe this past winter.
Her dedication worked. Kuzma finished 11th overall on the World Cup circuit this year, effectively clearing her way to represent New Zealand in Sochi. Kuzma credits her crossover success in part to her life of endless winters, flying back and forth between the northern and southern hemispheres. Her last full summer was when she was 18.
Even though she has logged less time in the pipe than other competitors, Kuzma only sees her big mountain experience as a plus. "My background in skiing is definitely big mountain, but I think it has helped me in the pipe," she says. "You have to deal with varying conditions in competition and it's not always a sunny day with fresh powder. Sometimes the visibility is bad and it's icy. So you just have to make the best with what you're given."
"Janina has an outstanding technical level and mental aspect and is very strong physically," says Jean-Claude Pedrolini, the international freeski team manager for Völkl, one of Kuzma's sponsors. "She is a complete skier and has the will to ski every face and every terrain in a perfect way. The ability to concentrate on point is something I think makes her better than other skiers."
These days, Kuzma works with New Zealand's snowboard team coach Tom Willmott, as well as a team of trainers. "We spend a lot of time in the gym," she says. "It's just as important as on-snow training. You have to be strong enough to take the hits to avoid injury."
More halfpipe is definitely in the cards after the Olympics, but Kuzma says she wants to get back to the big mountain scene as well.
"I haven't left it -- only put the comps on hold. Hopefully when I decide to come back the FWT will give me a wild card entry," she says. "Maybe I can put some of the tricks I learned in the pipe in a big mountain contest."