interview and photos by Jeff Schmuck
Trennon Paynter and his team are fighting the good fight. A former professional skier who cut his teeth on the World Cup mogul circuit before helping shape the newschool freestyle movement, Trennon has been around the block for quite some time. But his most recent accomplishment may very well be his best. Trennon has established and now coaches the ‘unofficial’ Canadian halfpipe team, consisting of Mike Riddle, Justin Dorey, Matt Hayward, Sarah Burke and Roz Groenewoud. Much like the US athletes competing on the FIS World Cup halfpipe circuit, these five extremely accomplished skiers are not funded or supported by the Canadian government or the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association like their counterparts in moguls and aerials. Yet under Trennon’s leadership and guidance, they spend their winters on the road on their own dime, sacrificing opportunities to film and ski powder in order to represent their country at each and every event on the World Cup circuit (along with every other halfpipe competition imaginable) in the hope that their efforts will be noticed enough to reach their ultimate goal…halfpipe skiing becoming an Olympic sport. While traveling with the team in Japan, I took the opportunity to sit down with Trennon on numerous occasions to discuss the idea and specifics behind his team, why they aren’t receiving the support they obviously deserve, and the million dollar question…if there’s still a chance for 2010, and what they’re doing to try to make it happen.
So how did this whole team come about?
Well it started when I was coaching the Alberta freestyle team. At that time it was originally a really big team, with moguls and park and pipe and me and Jay Vaughn were coaching it. Eventually they decided they wanted to separate it somewhat and create more of a freeride team. So Jay stayed with the mogul team and I went with the park and pipe side of things. So I was coaching the freeride team over the last couple of years the kids that were on it like Riddle and Hayward started getting better and better and better, and as kids get better, in a traditional sports system you would move on from the provincial team to the national one, but for park and pipe there isn’t anything there. So what happened then was we hit a point where we were like well, what do we do as these guys develop? And at the time the only option was you quit, and go pro. But some of the athletes still liked having a bit of structure and a coach and a program. I mean for sure it’s not for everyone but some of them really like that. So for me it was really bothersome that there wasn’t anything available for the top athletes. Especially for me who came up through the mogul ranks working up from the NORAM’s to World Cup’s to the National team where the better an athlete became, the more support was available for them. But with park and pipe it seemed like we had this really weird system where there’s support for kids until they got good, and then there’s nothing, so you essentially get victimized by your own success. So what I did was I moved the program up to fit the high end. So I really catered to Riddle and Hayward in particular as they got better. They were getting better results and started getting invited to the major events like X-Games and Ski Tour and all of a sudden it wasn’t working for the fresh rookie kids that were coming onto the Alberta team, because we were off to X-Games and Ski Tour and things like that and obviously they didn’t have spots. So last year especially it worked really well for the high-end group and that’s when Sarah came in. She just approached us and asked if she could join the team because she liked the idea of having more of a program and a coach to help her out at events. But everything finally came to a head after last year when the province of Alberta, and I completely understand why they did this, had to pull the pin on us being such a high performance travel-oriented team, because they were no longer running a provincial program in any sense of the word, as we had become more of an unofficial national team. So that just left us saying okay, what do we do? Because they all wanted to stay together as a team and they all still wanted to have a coach and I still believed in this group of kids and wanted it to stay together, so that’s what we did, just on our own.
Right. So where some people might be confused is that you’re not ‘officially’ the Canadian halfpipe team.
No, not at all. Officially we have no affiliation with Canada Freestyle although we do stay in contact with them and try to work with them. We definitely didn’t want to burn any bridges because we’re all obviously very hopeful to see pipe get in the Olympics and these are the guys that want to be the national team that would go the Games. So we’re definitely still trying to work with them but there’s no official tie to them and they give us zero in terms of funding and support.
Now was that their choice, or yours?
That was theirs. If Canada Freestyle had said we want to operate and fund a national halfpipe team then everyone would have definitely gone to it, but whether or not they would have stayed would have depended on how it was run. There can be scary things about being on a national team with certain limitations and obligations that depending on how it’s run people would be stoked on or not. Everyone would have liked to have had that option though, as all of these athletes believe that Canada should support the high end.
Yeah isn’t it kind of silly that there’s three halfpipe stops on the World Cup this year and CFSA doesn’t have a national team?
Well it depends on how you look at it. I think it’s crazy that they don’t, because if these athletes were officially associated with freestyle in Canada on a national team it would do wonders in attracting new members, and a lot of the sport is based on membership. So that’s the main thing having a national team would really do for CFSA, so I think their definitely missing the boat on that one. But the main reason they don’t I assume is because Canada in general doesn’t have nearly enough funding for any of their athletes in any of their sports. It’s a nationwide thing and if you talk to any Canadian athlete you’ll get the same story. In some sense it’s a bad country to be a high performance athlete in compared to so may other ones out there who give a ton of support to their athletes.
Is another big reason because halfpipe isn’t an Olympic sport yet?
Oh no question. If and when halfpipe becomes Olympic they’ll jump all over it in a heartbeat.
So all of the other countries that were here last week at the Inawashiro World Cup, were they national teams?
Well the US no. But Finland is great with AJ and Kalle. They’re nationally funded and they have Janne their coach. Same with the Norwegians and New Zealand now has one, and I was talking with their coach Drax who’s over here with Byron and Lyndon, and he was saying the New Zealand government is amazing and giving tons of support and funding. So there’s a lot of other countries that are doing it, but we’re not one of them.
So because of that, you guys have taken a similar approach to what’s happened to the US Snowboarding team with The Collection right?
Well we’re trying to find some funding because it costs everyone a fair bit to do the season, and on top of that we’d love to be able to afford to go work with some good fitness trainers and have a physiotherapist travel with us to major events so if someone gets tweaked they’re taken care of. So in the spring when we realized we weren’t going to be the Alberta team anymore and would be out on our own we figured, well we’ve got an extremely talented and marketable group of skiers, we should be able to find some sponsors. So we fumbled around trying to figure out how to talk to non-endemic sponsors about supporting the team and eventually realized that none of us really knew how to do that. So someone suggested to me why don’t you talk to an agent or a marketing firm who does that and that of course made perfect sense. So we tried calling a few agencies to see if they’d be into marketing our team and Octagon was the company that was really interested, and they’re also the company that put together The Collection. The Collection for those that don’t know started after the Salt Lake Olympics when some of the snowboarders weren’t happy with the US team. So it’s a little different because we’re in this position because there’s no Canadian team for us where as they were in a position because there was a national team and they didn’t like the obligations and the rules and whatnot. They just didn’t feel that they had as much say in things as they wanted so they wanted to form a team where it was really a rider-centered thing. So this marketing group got them some big sponsors and I talked to Kelly Clark about it and she said it’s awesome. They have a good budget and they have things like physio and trainers and coaches and all the support that they need as high performance athletes, but they run the show. The riders vote on everything that happens and they decide what they want as opposed to an association telling them what to do. So I loved the sound of that because it really fit in with my theory on how I want to coach these guys, and the whole concept is awesome so that’s what we’re trying to do with our team. So we’ve been dealing with Octagon and they seem pretty optimistic about being able to market us in the way that they did with The Collection. It’s going to take some time though and obviously it’s way too late for anything for this winter so it’ll all be for next season. So hopefully it works out with them and if not then basically we just want to be able to stay together as a team and I want to be able to continue coaching them and we’ll just continue to travel around together and the athletes will make all the decisions.
How will things change if CFSA does turn around and says, ‘ok we want to have a national team?’
Well who knows. That’s a really good question and I’m sure we’ll cross that bridge if it comes. I mean like I said everyone was really pissed that there was no national team but maybe it’s a blessing because there’s a good chance that a national team program wouldn’t work for a lot of these guys right now, because it’d be really hard with all the pro events and for a national association to give an athlete the freedom they want.
So…the million dollar question. From your perspective, is there still a chance for it to happen in 2010?
Well I am one of the very few people holding out hope although I do realize it’s a really small chance at this point. The reason I’m still holding out hope is because snowboarding was fast tracked into the Olympics in under two years, so we’re still within that time frame. I think it was about 15 months actually. So I think as long as we’re still in that time frame then there has to still be a chance.
What would you say is the final deadline?
I would say probably by New Year’s. It was November of 96 that snowboarding got into the 98 Olympics, so that would put us at November of this year as a relative guide.
There’s so much talk and theories out there about what could be done to try to help the cause. So again, from your perspective at the fore front of this movement, what it’s going to take for it to happen?
I think one of the most important things would be for the Vancouver Olympic Committee (VANOC) to really get behind it and to lobby really hard to the IOC. That in conjunction with the Canadian Olympic Committee getting behind it. I think right now the ball is more in Canada’s court than anyone, because the major influence in snowboarding getting fast tracked into Nagano was because Japan really, really wanted it to happen and they pushed really hard for it. So if we had VANOC and the COC pushing as hard as they could to the IOC and if we also had CFSA sending motions to FIS to submit it for inclusion in the Olympics, because something that I just learned at this meeting we had last week at the World Cup was that Canada can still do that. So basically those three groups really need to line up and get on board. The frustrating part about it for those of us who are involved in the sport is that it’s just so obvious that it should be in that it makes it hard to understand why these people aren’t doing more. But you just have to realize that these people just aren’t as involved as us.
Yeah, and it became so much more obvious to me last week, because a huge part of the reason coming to a World Cup event was one of the most important things I wanted to do this year was because obviously I wanted to report on it and help bring more attention to what’s going on, but mainly I wanted to see for myself how close or how far off the Olympic thing was from becoming a reality. And to be honest, I had half expected to come here this week and see you guys pulling your hair out over the judging or format, and that just wasn’t the case. Like I said in my article on it yesterday, the best part of the event was that it just felt like any other halfpipe comp. And it was a bit alarming for me in a good way because all the talk is that, oh well it’s FIS and their heads are so far up their ass that they’ll never get the judging right in time for the Olympics. And as I was walking away from the event I remember thinking to myself, they could have this in the Olympics if it was later this year let alone two years from now, because they’ve got their shit together, and they’d be ready for it. So I was really pissed off and just thinking how fucking stupid it is that it hasn’t been approved for 2010 for all these supposed reasons that seem so non-existent to me after seeing a World Cup event for myself.
Yeah the judging argument is just becoming so obsolete. I mean the only pipe event that half the world hasn’t complained about was when Candide won the X-Games by a billion points. Every comp you go to half the people there will say it was the worse judging ever, and that goes for all the pro events like X-Games and Ski Tour even more so than the World Cup’s.
Yeah, and a couple of other big things that were really awesome about this event was obviously the head judge of snowboard halfpipe in the Olympics being the head judge here, and you telling me that FIS is totally open to suggestions about format changes. I know you were telling me that in France you guys pushed for a two-run qualifier and got it, and they did the same thing here, as opposed to them being all stubborn and saying, oh no, we’re FIS, and here’s our little guidelines book on how to run this event and that’s how it’s going to be. It was so much more relaxed and less strict than people including myself once perceived it to be and it was just so refreshing to see that they were taking suggestions and feedback from you guys on how to make things better. So again, after seeing what I saw, it just baffles me more than ever that it’s not happening. I know Roz went up to the head of FIS Freestyle after the event and was asking him about why they’re not doing more to push the sport towards the Olympics, and the excuse they seem to be using now is because there’s not enough participating nations.
Well I know the standard path for a sport to get into the Olympics is that you need a certain amount of time to submit it and you need a certain number of nations competing on the World Cup circuit and a certain number of World Championships. But…
Snowboarding didn’t have those things when it got approved.
Exactly. And what I’ve found out is that there are exceptions to that, so if other sports like snowboarding have done it quicker and easier and have bent the rules a bit, then we shouldn’t be giving up hope.
How much politics are behind all this? I mean there’s theories that the other freestyle disciplines like aerials and moguls are nervous that if halfpipe comes in it’ll take money away from them.
Well I’ve always wondered about that too. Those of us that are really involved in the whole freestyle organization process are constantly scratching our heads over why they’re so slow to get it together. Like, don’t they see that this is a huge part of skiing right now? I mean if I was someone who ran a sport organization and saw this huge and growing part of a sport I’d want to be on top of it. So there’s no question that some people within the freestyle organizations must see it is a threat to existing disciplines, but I can’t say for sure if that’s what’s holding it back. Whenever you look into the inner workings of any sports organization things are always more complicated than you would hope or think. There’s no system out there that’s perfect in any sport, and there’s always complaints. Like so many people say FIS killed moguls, but when I was in moguls I had some of the best times of my life. I was bummed we couldn’t do flips and it certainly wasn’t perfect, but nothing is. You talk to an NHL hockey player and they’ll have all these complaints about the NHL and all the things they do that sucks and is stupid etc, but they’re getting paid millions of dollars to play hockey.
Do you think skiercross getting pushed in first for 2010 is an issue with it being held back as well?
For sure. The director of FIS Freestyle made a call way back in 2002 when all these new sides of skiing were popping up and starting to develop that skiercross was going to be the next big thing. So this move from FIS Freestyle to try to get skiercross into the Olympics has been going on for a long time. It wasn’t like last year they just decided hey let’s put skiercross in. But no one I think knows why the director of freestyle skiing picked skiercross as the thing that was going to take freestyle to the next level. I think all of us realize how misguided that was. Not that I think skiercross shouldn’t get into the Olympics. I think it will be fine in the Olympics, but it’s not a freestyle event. It has nothing to do with freestyle and there’s not a single freestyle skier doing it. So they definitely made the wrong call there. The other thing is that it sounds like pipe is pretty much a for sure for 2014 if it doesn’t happen in 2010. FIS has already made it very clear that getting ski halfpipe into 2014 will be their next big thing. It’s not that they’re totally out to lunch and not wanting to do anything with it, they’ve seen it now but I don’t know if they just don’t believe that it’s possible for 2010 or if they just don’t think it’s worth the effort of trying.
Just to be clear since we’re covering all the issues here, if it was to be approved for 2010 it could not be just a demo sport, it would have to be medal correct? I just recently found out that the Olympics are not doing demo sports anymore.
That’s right. The last year they had demonstration sports was in Lillehammer 94. It would be the same thing as what happened with snowboarding, it went straight into Nagano as a full medal sport, and skiercross will also be a full medal sport in Vancouver.
What about this other theory floating around that has been said by many refutable people over the last year or two about the whole process going in reverse, and the TV networks demanding that skier pipe happens? Like as Simon and I were discussing a few months back, what if NBC was to drop a briefcase full of money on the IOC’s desk and say we want skier pipe as an Olympic event and on our network?
Well that sounds like something that would have a lot of weight, but honestly, I certainly don’t know for sure what it would take. I just base my thoughts on what I hear because I’ve never been involved behind the scenes in any sport organization; I’m a coach on snow with the athletes. So I honestly don’t know for sure but I certainly think that should have some type of power. The way I kind of envision it is the head of the IOC has publicly stated that they want to appeal more to the youth because they know that young people don’t care about the Olympics anymore. They’ve made comments along the lines of we need to make kids care about the Olympics like they care about the X-Games. So they’re looking for sports like halfpipe right now, but the problem is the head of the IOC is dealing with winter and summer Olympics with tons of sports on both sides. So there’s no way anyone can expect this guy to have his finger on the pulse of what’s going in all these different sports. I mean if the average skier you ride the chairlift with doesn’t even know that skiers go in the pipe how can you expect the head of the IOC to know anything about skiing in the pipe? So the way I see it is if there was some way to make the top people at IOC understand what we all know, with how good skiers are in the pipe and how popular of a sport it is, they’d be all over it. But the problem is how do you get through to those people and educate them on that sort of thing? So what happens is they rely on associations of sports for information and so when the director of FIS Freestyle sends a message up through FIS to the IOC saying skiercross is the next big thing and all the kids are into it, then the IOC says ok, FIS is telling us this is the next big thing that all the kids are into, well let’s do it. And that’s why the head of the IOC put out that press release saying how excited they were about skiercross being the new addition, because it’s an exciting new sport that kids are into. And don’t get me wrong, it’ll be a great and exciting sport in the Olympics that NASCAR fans are totally into, but it’s not going to be anything the kids are into.
Shouldn’t they have a bit of an idea though considering that snowboard halfpipe was the first event to sell out in Torino, and that’s the first time it wasn’t figure skating or hockey?
Yeah, I’ve heard the same thing. So again, that’s why for people like us it’s so frustrating because we all know that it just should be in there. It really is just so stupid that it’s not. The major events like X-Games have figured out that you need to do both snowboarding and skiing pipe, and it was first to sell out at the last Olympics and you’ve got these skiers who totally want a chance to go to the Olympics. So they’ve basically got this perfect opportunity and they haven’t capitalized on it.
Speaking of that, it really was cool to see all the names that were at the World Cup last week, with all your guys plus AJ and Kalle, Byron, Xavier and Loic. So on that note, are there other athletes that you’d like to see here? Do you think it would help or make a difference if Tanner and Simon did the World Cup’s?
Well obviously those guys have a lot of star power and they bring a lot of attention to things with them when they come. So I think for the sake of any event whether it’s a FIS event or a pro event it’s obviously going to be better for the event if the superstars show up, because it helps bring more attention with the media circus that follows them. So it would help because with that kind of attention I’m sure FIS would take notice and think oh wow, look at this halfpipe comp with all the media that showed up and the coverage we got. But that doesn’t mean I think they should do it because no one should be telling athletes what they should and shouldn’t do. It’s just like with the Olympics. A lot of kids out there don’t think skiing halfpipe should be in the Olympics, and if that’s how they feel, then that’s awesome…just don’t go to the Olympics, or don’t watch them on TV. That’s totally cool if you’re not down with it but for those that think it should be they should have that freedom too. And what everyone has to realize despite how they feel about it is that if it gets in the Olympics it’s just going to mean more freedom, because it’s going to make for more opportunity for those who believe in it and more opportunity for those who don’t.
Last question. Have you guys decided on a team name yet? I know you were thinking of calling it The Collective.
No, we need something cool…maybe we should have a Newschoolers contest.