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"Lucky" is Jennifer Heil's operative word right now. Lucky to be injury free. Lucky to be working with her current entourage of trainers. Lucky to have an 'adopted' family in Montreal. And very lucky to be crowned the 2004 Women's World Cup Tour Mogul Champion. Luck, however, does not bestow its favors without some form of pre-existing skeleton. In Heil's case, it is a framework consisting of hard work, dedication, intelligence, a fiery spirit and raw talent.
Heil, a Faculty of Management student who was born in Spruce Grove, Alberta, has had a life-long dream of being an Olympian. "I remember bugging my mom to buy me the Sports Illustrated preview for the Barcelona Games" says Heil. "I cut out all the pictures and then decorated my binder. While at school I would just stare at the determination on the athlete's faces and knew that was one tough goal I wanted to accomplish." During the 2002 Salt Lake City winter games, Heil, then 19 years old, was the youngest Canadian at the Olympics. She placed 4th in the mogul competition, missing out on a bronze medal by 1/100th of a point.
With two years of experience under her belt as a member of the Canadian National Ski Team, Heil decided it was actually time to take a year off and heal her ailing body. Leslie Larson, a local Hellerwork practitioner (deep-tissue massage) and part of Heil's triumvirate of trainers here in Montreal, attributes that decision to Heil's sage-like awareness. Says Larson, "It was really a mature and fateful decision, as opposed to what seemed obvious to everyone else at the time which was to keep going."
'To keep going' was Heil's plan all along, but in her own, idiosyncratic way. In a sport that makes extreme demands on its participants, the mogul fields were already exacting a punishing toll on Heil's young body. "The fun had disappeared from my skiing because my body was in so much pain," says Heil. So great was Heil's physical discomfort that her pre-race warm-ups became exercises in mental agility. "I wasn't able to ski a top to bottom run before competition. I would just side-slip it and try to engrain the best line into my memory."
Ensconced in Montreal for a year, Heil arranged to work with a world-class team of trainers to help get her body back in line. What she did not anticipate was that her entire approach to skiing would transform, from a sport-specific focus to a much more well-rounded approach. According to Scott Livingston, the strength and conditioning coach for the Montreal Canadiens, "There is a difference between athleticism and fitness for performance. In Jenn's case, she's a great skier and has wonderful technique, but in order for her to succeed on the World Cup circuit and at the Olympics, she's having to increase her total fitness level and address a wide range of conditioning factors: anaerobic, aerobic, flexibility, strength and power." In effect, Heil's trainers are working with her to develop the next layer of her athletic journey. They are helping her move beyond the realm of great skiing and into the sphere of high-performance athleticism.
After a year away from competition, Heil returned with a vengeance. She was awarded the coveted Crystal Globe for being the World Cup mogul champion. Says Heil, "It is something every skier dreams of winning. It's our sport's version of the Stanley Cup." Heil's new, holistic approach to training also allowed her to benefit from her first injury-free season. There's more to come, says Livingston: "She is so exciting to work with because we are just skimming the surface of her potential right now, and we are already getting such great results."
Pushing her sport to the next level is a driving force behind Heil's work ethic. "I've done my biggest jumps in the US where my arch rival is an American girl," says Heil. "She's in her home town, so I have to pull out my bigger bag of tricks." Those tricks include a 360 iron cross (Heil rotates 180 degrees, points her ski tips down and crosses them, then uncrosses them before completing the 360 and landing). She also performs a 360 grab, in which she crouches down and grabs her skis with one hand, pulling them into her chest level as she performs her rotation. "I am well known for my 360s," says Heil. "Generally I go a lot bigger than the other girls, a lot higher. That makes it a lot slower in the air and ultimately a lot more impressive."
With a recent alteration to competition rules, inverted aerials are now permitted off of the two mandatory jumps. Heil is currently working on perfecting a backflip-mutegrab and a backflip-ironcross. Performing a new move, especially under the pressure of competition, is never an easy feat. But as Heil explains, the process takes place in stages. "Before I ever attempt anything on snow, it is first perfected on a dry land trampoline and then off of a water ramp so that I can land in a lake, hopefully upright!"
As a group, Heil's trainers are all working towards building a strong, high performance athlete who does not have to worry about her body. Says Livingston, "She can now focus on attaining her goals on the mountain and on moves she has never performed before." That collective attitude, subscribed to by both Heil and her trainers, has positioned her in a rather enviable competitive state. "Nobody knows if they can go out and accomplish their goals, their dreams", says Heil. "But at least I can set myself up to do that. When I hang up my skis I'm not going to have any regrets, wishing I could have worked harder, or wishing I had better trainers. From that perspective, I am really lucky." Keep your eyes open for a podium-worthy performance from Jennifer Heil at the 2006 Winter Olympic games.