Take 5: Germany’s Silvia Mittermuller in Breckenridge
FIS World Cup slopestyle standings
By now, the women’s World Cup season is finished — and Mittermuller is right in the thick of things.
1. Jamie Anderson, USA
2. Karly Shorr, USA
3. Silvia Mittermuller, Germany
4. Jessika Jenson, USA
5. Katie Ormerod, Great Britain
Silvia Mittermüller always gets front-row parking in Breckenridge.
And no, it’s not because she’s a slopestyle veteran with a decade’s worth of podium finishes at Winter X Games, Dew Tour, the European Open, the Canadian Open and now a win on the World Cup circuit. It’s because she bikes just about everywhere in her adopted winter hometown: though rain, through snow, through sun, through sleet — sometimes all in the same afternoon.
“It’s one benefit of riding a bike,” she said, pulling her hood tight as we stepped out of The Crown and into a freak spring storm on Main Street. Like so many hardcore athletes in Summit County — the Munich native’s friends call her “The Germerican” — her mountain bike was parked out front for the chilly ride from our downtown interview to the Breckenridge Recreation Center about a mile north.
It’s all part of Mittermüller’s routine. When she isn’t traveling the world for competitions, the 32-year-old bikes to Breck Station around 8 a.m. for the gondola ride to One Ski Hill Place, where she plays a few piano riffs before heading on the hill for laps through Park Lane and Freeway. Then it’s bike up the road to the rec center for laps in the pool before pedaling back to Ridge Street for downtime with her adopted Breck parents, Lance Glaser and Pat McShane.
“She came into our living room, talked for maybe five minutes, and, within those five minutes, we said, ‘We love this girl,’” said Glaser, a championship angler who met us for the interview on the stormy Tuesday in late March. “She’s our German daughter now.”
How did the angler and his Breckenridge daughter come together? The old-fashioned, small-town way: a friend of a friend worked in the real estate office at One Ski Hill. The friend of a friend heard Mittermüller play movie soundtracks almost daily every winter, and she also heard that the struggling German rider needed a place to stay between the piano, park, pool and airplanes.
Today, after three seasons with Glaser and McShane, Mittermüller has her routine down to a science. But life on the women’s pro circuit has been as unpredictable as a spring bike ride to the rec. She debuted on the international scene in 2003 when she qualified for halfpipe finals at the now-defunct Vans Triple Crown and earned her first invite to X Games in Aspen. Slopestyle is her choice event — she even tried (and failed) to transfer that first halfpipe invite to slopestyle — but it’s taken a toll on her body over the years. Since placing second at the X Games slope in 2005, she’s blown both ACLs, broken her collarbone twice and, in a devastating turn, ruptured her Achilles tendon less than three months before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. It would have been her first trip to the sport’s biggest stage, and she has the scars to prove she missed out.
The Achilles injury came weeks after Mittermüller found that her national team coach was hardly qualified — that’s a whole other side to the pro snowboard game — and, together, those two hurdles were enough for the German Olympic Sports Confederation to pull its support, leaving one of the country’s best (and only) freestyle athletes almost entirely alone — without funding, without a home and without a national team.
“That crushed me,” she said. “I was in a short rental place with friends and I realized that I have no financial support to get anything, an apartment — anything. I was running into serious trouble.”
And where did she get injured? Right here in Breckenridge, training for Dew Tour before the holidays. Glaser thinks the resort could use its time and resources better so early in the season — before it was Dew Tour it was the Vans Triple Crown — and then backpedals generously when his Germerican daughter reminds him that the park’s perfect jumps are one big reason she returns to her Ridge Street apartment every December, season after season, to live above her adopted parents. And it’s where her career started, anyway, and she’d hate to abandon her stateside hometown.
“In Germany, what they sell is medals,” Mittermüller said, noting that the team’s funding is split evenly between boardercross and alpine, with only a fraction going to freestyle athletes younger than about 18 years old. “Thanks to the piano, I have a roof over my head and have found a second family halfway across the world from my real family.”
Late in 2014, at 30 years old, she returned from the Achilles injury hungry for more. So hungry and so strong, in fact, that she stuck around the states for a few weeks longer than usual to ride Arapahoe Basin late into May, when she hiked rails with late-season park rats before heading to New Zealand for southern hemisphere contests. She placed 8th down there in August 2015, and, now, she’s forcing the German national team to pay attention and reinvest in coaching. She took first place at the Snowjam slopestyle in the Czech Republic on March 20 — the first World Cup gold for a German female snowboarder, ever — and finished the season at third in the overall World Cup standings, just behind U.S. Olympians Jamie Anderson in first and Karly Shorr in second.
“Through everything — the roller coaster with financial setbacks, injuries, everything — I’ve had good reason to quit,” Mittermüller said. “But I didn’t. I’ve had the chance to keep going and I’m happy I did. The federation has been somewhat forced to take me back under their wing … Snowboarding is a tough industry, and, in the end, all I want to do is snowboard.”
About 24 hours after Mittermüller flew from Munich to Breck, the Summit Daily sports desk caught up with her to talk more about the World Cup win, her hopes for the 2018 Olympics and why piano — or even chess — is a perfect warm-up before charging the hill.
Summit Daily News: On Monday you were home in Munich. Now, by Tuesday afternoon, you’re back in Breck and back to the grind. Has the jetlag set in yet?
Silvia Mittermüller: Well, I have to stay awake. I can’t sleep, because if you sleep when you think you should you never get back into a normal schedule. But it’s different: You always get the nice jetlag when you’re traveling west. That’s why coming back from Europe is good and heading to South Korea (for Olympic test events) was good, but coming back from Korea was hard. One piece of advice: always travel west. One complete trip around the world west, just once, can be rejuvenating.
SDN: How does your gym routine help combat jetlag and weariness? You’re heading straight to the pool after this for an hour or two.
SM: The gym routine helps with a lot of things. That has kept me from insanity in so many ways. I was in the rec center four days after my injury on crutches, but that’s a challenge I enjoy. With all the injuries I’ve had, first I was forced to do the gym for rehab reasons, but I also found joy in just turning off and focusing. It gave my life quality so much more than before.
Women tend to do those s***** women workouts, with lots of reps and small weights. If you don’t really challenge yourself you won’t get better — you won’t get much out of it. Now, I’m about being more intensive than more extensive, where I’m pushing myself for 45 minutes instead of not really doing much for an hour and a half. It’s just advice for women: Don’t be scared of heavier weights and less reps.
SDN: And swimming? Where does that fit in?
SM: I swim quite a lot, and swimming is magic for recovery. I’m actually quite close to my 300 miles. Way back in the day, I saw that they did this 50-mile swim club. The lifeguards told me that they put your name down with the mileage when you complete 50 miles, and I saw someone on there from 2007, a time from 2007. I thought, “My name on this wall might outlast my snowboarding career!” That’s a sweet footprint to leave in this town. I started in 2012 writing down my swim miles. I’m just 8 miles away from 300 miles now.
SDN: Jetlag aside, I imagine that travel is worth it when you come away with a win like you did in the Czech Republic. Talk me through that contest: What went right, and how did you set yourself apart from the field?
SM: It was warm. Not so much in finals, but overall it was warm. It’s organized by a former professional snowboarder, Martin Cernik — a Czech snowboarder — and he gives us three days practice. That’s a luxury you really only get in the X Games and Dew Tour. It gives you time to get used to the course, figure out your run, not have stress on your shoulders. It was a little slushy, and usually the jump is long, with an icy, scary in-run. They fixed that this year and made it really fun, and when you’re having fun you ride well. Suddenly, you win a contest and you’re still having fun.
I was entirely by myself at the World Cup, standing by myself with my headphones sending emails to friends, saying, “Hey, here I am in finals, by myself.” But that’s what makes you feel at home in the world. You can feel alone, but it’s pretty cool that you have people who are paying attention.
SDN: What’s it take to make the podium in women’s slopestyle these days?
SM: It depends on the judging. They’re still playing with lots of formats, even with the major competitions. Some are made more for TV, others are made for the riders. In Czech, they were all about perfection and cleanliness. Katie Ormerod, the English girl who got second, did a cab 900, which is a good trick for girl’s snowboarding, but she barely had a grab. I had a 720 but I held the grab through the whole thing. It helps to know hat kind of judging you’ll be up against.
In the end, it’s also coming down to rail tricks, which I think is good. For so long, it was all about connecting big jumps and big jumps, going as fast as you can. This system they had in Czech gives more transparency to judging and that’s a good thing.
SDN: Looking ahead, what will it take to make the podium next season, or even two seasons from now when the Olympics come around?
SM: Over the course of all the years, to go through so many injuries, I’ve changed my perception of my snowboard day, of what makes me happy. The first is to have the most fun I can have, the second is to ride well and the third is to stay healthy. If those come together I have a good day, and don’t just have a good finish — I actually feel it. I leave the mountain with a big smile and carry it on to the next day. Those are my points to live by, my points to snowboard by.
SDN: How do you feel about the 2018 Olympics? The Sochi games were such a whirlwind for you.
SM: The Olympics are definitely a big reason I’m going the route I’m going now. It’s the only event I’ve never done in my career. I’ve been to X Games many times, and I’ve had everything from a silver medal to an ACL tear. I think I’ve taken that chapter the entire way. The only thing I’ve never done, and I happen to have a stitched together Achilles tendon because of it, is the Olympics. The only way to convince the Confederation that you’re worthy of national team support is to compete in the World Cups. It seems like that’s coming together, and for me, it’s really another event on the list. The Olympics — love it or hate it — if I go I can actually have an opinion because I actually went there. It would make for a round career.
SDN: I was recently talking with a U.S. parallel slalom snowboarder who said the World Cup is for the athletes, while the Olympics are for the public. It happens once, and if you have just one good day you can win gold. Do you agree?
SM: Honestly, I do agree with that, especially after being at the Olympic venue in Korea. Whatever happens, I’ve already been there, done that, and I’ve done a competitive event on a course that’s similar to the Olympic course. I’d never been to South Korea and I saw lots of features I’ve never seen in snowboarding, like tilted takeoffs. The Olympics, for you as a rider, is just another contest. But everybody across the world understands the Olympics. Even if they don’t know anything about snowboarding or slopestyle, if you say you went to the Olympics they know that this person is pretty damn good. To put a bigger goal above those personal goals is in some ways an excuse to recklessly stick to snowboarding for another two years. It’s a prestige thing.
SDN: From Olympics to travel to the national team problems, how do you deal with the pressures of modern snowboarding?
SM: Seriously, I try to stay true to myself, as cliché as that sounds. Instead of looking around and freaking out about everyone else, you put on your music, you stay in touch with the people who are your true friends — maybe you watch the runs before you, watch the speed — and just try to have fun on whatever they give you. If it’s gnarly, you try to find something, even if it’s just one down-bar. You make friends with the down-bar and just try to have fun, find something that feels right. You take that good vibe and use it for everything else.
Another thing that helps too is using your friends. If you have guys who are friends — I think men have a better sense of speed for a jump —you can get over the fear. Some of those guys can look at the jumps from the lift and know how to hit them. You follow them through the jumps and try to do what they do. You find your sneaky ways, but whatever way you pick you have to make friends with it. If you can’t find the fun, you might as well not compete.
That’s something a lot of people who don’t compete don’t get. They say, “I hate it, I hate it.” But competition gives you a chance to ride features that are made just for you, just for that event, the crazy stuff like the tilted takeoffs in Korea. To ride such a highly maintained course can make competing nice.
SDN: When things get crazy with travel and competitions do you still make time to play piano?
SM: Yes, I still play piano up at One Ski Hill Place. Some days are better than others, but if you’re there at 8 a.m. you’ll hear me. I play mostly movie soundtracks, but I improvise a little bit. Piano improvisation is a very open thing. You’re opening your heart to anyone who’s walking by in that lobby. Movie soundtracks are usually very emotional and that emotional stuff can open you up. I feel there’s something there with snowboarding. If you can accumulate 10 fingers on a piano, it helps with snowboarding.
One other thing: At Keystone there isn’t a piano, but another thing that works almost as good is playing chess. The thing is, though, you need to find good chess-playing partners. Some snowboarders out there are very good thinkers. When I can convince one of them to meet me at Inxpot at 8 a.m. for chess it’s a good thing.
SDN: Like dozens of pros, you’re been living and training in Breckenridge for the past few seasons. What do you like about the snowboard culture here in town?
SM: It’s a lot of stuff, but one special though about Breck — you might call it hippie stuff, but I believe this — is Breck is a place where most people aren’t born. Most people here are here because they want to be here. They make an effort to be here, and if they do that it means they’re usually happy to be here. There’s a better energy, a better vibe, from the tourists to the people who took the extra effort to make a life here. It’s not cheap and it’s not easy, but everyone is excited and happy to be here, happy and healthy. Maybe one more thing?
SM: Obviously, the park. It’s the best I’ve ever found. Over a 10-year international career, I’ve been everywhere and done everything. I’ve been in every park you think of, from New Zealand to Australia to Canada to Japan, but this here is the best (park atmosphere) I’ve found anywhere in the world between Keystone and Breckenridge. And one more thing?
SDN: Of course.
SM: Since the early days I’ve been trying to get on the Breckenridge team, but they told me, “Only Americans, only Americans. No Silvia, no, you’re German.” Then, maybe three or four years ago, they said, “OK Silvia, we’ll allow you on the team.” Germany doesn’t even have a park team. They have nothing, really, so I’m now on the Breckenridge team.
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