Phoebe Mills: Portrait of an Olympic judge
There is no blueprint to become an Olympic snowboarding judge. For proof, consider Phoebe Mills. The 41-year-old mother of one is the only American on the six-judge panel that will score the halfpipe and slopestyle competitions at the 2014 Sochi Games.
Raised in an ice-skating family (her oldest brother is three-time Olympic speedskater Nathaniel), Mills became a standout gymnast and competed in the 1988 Seoul Olympics at age 15, where she won a bronze medal on the balance beam. Then she got into diving. The University of Miami recruited her, and she went on to win a Big East championship and make the U.S. national team.
In 1995, Mills flew to Vail, Colo., to learn to snowboard. That led to a coaching position at Vermont's Okemo Mountain Resort, where she tutored future Olympic medalists Hannah Teter and Danny Kass, among others.
Feeling an itch to test the real world, Mills went to law school at the University of Vermont and practiced environmental law for a few years. In 2001, she started judging regional contests to stay involved in the sport, was certified with the IJC (International Judges Commission) in 2004, and has been judging events on the TTR World Snowboard Tour and for the FIS (International Ski Federation) ever since.
When Mills was offered the program manager job at the new Woodward at Copper facility in Colorado, she ditched litigation and returned to the Rockies. Which brings us to now, more or less.
Leading up to Sochi, Mills will judge the Grand Prix Olympic qualifier contests at Copper and Mammoth, giving her a good idea of what to expect in Russia. She also just got named director of Woodward Tahoe. Somehow, she still has time to do interviews.
XGames.com: Is there anything you can take from being an Olympic athlete in a different, judged sport to being an Olympic snowboarding judge?
Phoebe Mills: Totally. As an athlete, you learn to block out the judging and not worry about it. You know how good you are and the score's going to be what it's going to be, and you don't always agree with it.
You’re pulling your hair out: Which run is better? We expect that if you’re second or third or missing the finals, you’re going to have some issues with our scores.Mills
So as a judge, understanding the gravity of what it means for the athletes, I think it puts just as much pressure on me going back this time as I felt as a 15-year-old athlete.
How do you prepare to judge a contest like the Olympics?
We study tape and watch the athletes in person. My job is awesome because I get to be at Woodward every day and see the tricks that people are working on. We also have clinics, at least one a year, where we get certified and that whole time we're just watching videos, looking at what the tricks are, what's harder and why. Really deep analysis. Then we just try and watch videos from all the contests to see all the runs.
If you hear that Shaun White is working on a new triple cork, do you seek out footage of that?
Yeah. In some ways Shaun likes to keep things really under wraps, but to me it would be an advantage to have us see it -- instead of being surprised and like, "Whoa, what was that? Did he actually grab his board while he did all those spins and flips?"
So we'll see if we can get some footage beforehand. And we also get footage from NBC or anybody making a production from an event. We usually get a tape cut for the judges of all the runs. At the FIS clinic this year [in November], we'll be reviewing all the main contests from last season.
What do people miss about judging?
The stress. You're pulling your hair out: Which run is better? We expect that if you're second or third or missing the finals, you're going to have some issues with our scores. Sometimes you just know what run is better.
Then there are other contests, usually when someone complains, where you question yourself. I'll go through my scores again and try to watch it again, but I think your first instinct is usually right.
Can any parallels be drawn between snowboarding and gymnastics?
Not a ton, because obviously you're doing these tricks on a different plane.
Most impressive thing you've ever seen a snowboarder do?
The YOLO Flip [Cab double cork 1440] that I-Pod [Iouri Podladtchikov] did last winter in France. I wasn't there, but I saw it on video.
You've judged U.S. Opens and FIS World Championships and Grand Prixs. What was it like to get the nod for the Olympics?
It's funny, I didn't find out for myself that I had been selected for the Olympics. Somebody else had seen it somewhere and told me: "Did you hear? You're judging the Olympics." There was never any official notification. I eventually did get that email, but it was super-tentative at first.
It's a huge honor to judge the Olympics. There are a lot of great judges who want to do that, both in the U.S. and around the world. So I want to do it right and do it justice.