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PRINT DIGITAL

Getting Wired

Features
posted: 10/21/2002

I felt like a half-naked cyborg. My ski pants were around my ankles, elastic Velcro bands were strapped around my calves and waist, and a slim, lightweight data recorder was hitched to my belt. There were wires running down my legs to pressure-sensing footbeds called Pedars, which had been carefully inserted into my ski boots.

I was about to be hooked up, jacked in, videotaped, and, of course, critiqued, all in the name of better turns.

The web of wires I was mired in is the latest in instruction from the Synergy Sports Performance team in Whistler-Blackcomb, British Columbia. During the last decade, the program has been refined to balance the newest in biomechanical technology with the best in on-hill instruction. These 21st-century coaches claim to replace the guesswork of ski instruction with the hard truth of science. A former racer, I'd been skiing for more than 20 years, but I'd always kept my electronics limited to CD players and disposable cameras.

The first of my three recording sessions began on a smooth, mellow slope on the lower mountain at Whistler-Blackcomb. Joanne Younker, president of Synergy, videotaped my runs, while Sophie Cox, Younker's podiatrist assistant, operated my data recorder.

"Just make your best turns," Younker said. To allay my fear that I wouldn't make perfect arcs, she quickly added, "We've found that the patterns are fairly consistent whether a skier thinks that she's had a good run or a terrible one."

But before I took off, the technology had to come on-line. Cox synchronized her video camera with my data-recording box so that the two sources could be played back later and analyzed simultaneously. Sophie began recording data, bringing to life each Pedar's 80 capacitor sensors beneath the footbeds in my boots. These cells would register the pressure throughout my feet as I turned my skis. Next she asked me to lift my left foot and then my right.

This strange dance set a baseline pressure for each recording device, discounting the pressure exerted on my foot by the boot's liner and shell and even the footbed itself. Cleared to ski, I carved ten of my "best" turns before Joanne shut me off at the bottom. We repeated this film-record-ski process twice more before heading down.

In the Blackcomb base lodge, I was de-rigged, and Sophie took the memory card from my data recorder and inserted it into one laptop while Joanne downloaded my digital video into another. In less than 10 minutes, a split screen displayed a colorful map illustrating foot pressure on the left and a view of my videotaped run on the right. During a turn, my downhill foot morphed into a rainbow of color as my uphill one went dark. As I initiated the next arc and put weight on the other foot, I watched the pressure shift from the middle of the foot toward the ball and big toe.

"Your mechanics are good," Joanne assured me after the first segment. "It looks like you have full functionality in your feet." (I'd always thought my feet worked just fine.) Sophie nodded as she studied the readings and confirmed that my pressure patterns were normal.

To corroborate the on-hill readings, Sophie made ink notations and markings all over my bare feet and legs and examined my gait and stance. She brought out the Pedars and the laptop again and had me stand barefoot on the sensors with one foot and then the other. This time the pressure data was shown live and we confirmed that my feet and stance were pretty darn pedestrian.

Next we put my footbeds to the test. The right one was okay, but the left one needed some minor modification. After Sophie ground down a small part of the cork, green and yellow lights (indicating good pressure) were firing on the screen version of my foot where they hadn't been a minute ago.

After reviewing the data from all three sessions, Joanne turned to me and said flat-out, "At this point, I would recommend lessons." My ego fought to recover om the blow. How could she know that the problem was in my technique? Sophie explained that if I had a physiological problem, she might see little to no pressure in the ball of the foot. In that case, Sophie would build orthotics to restore functionality. In my case, however, technique was at fault.

Fortunately, I was in good hands. In addition to her job as Synergy's president, Younker is a Canadian Ski Instructors' Alliance (CSIA) level IV instructor, one of the few women with that high level of certification. She's also a coach for the Canadian National Freestyle team. (1984 Olympian Karen Stemmle, who has worked extensively with Synergy's Pedar technology, considers her to be one of the best coaches in Canada.)

By looking at my video and the hot-pink flashes on the graph of my big toe, Younker could tell I was applying too much shin pressure to my boots and getting too far forward. Too far forward? I always thought there was no such thing. Since the beginning of time, coaches and instructors have taught that the backseat was death. Though it often felt unnatural, the more forward pressure and ankle flexion I applied, the better I skied. Or so I thought.

So it was back to the hill. Younker had me bending up and down in place to simulate the desired motion, and then I followed her, performing drills like dragging my poles on the snow to create resistance. After a few runs, I began to get the feel for the new technique. It seemed awkward, bordering on ridiculous, to change such an ingrained habit, but I could feel the added control and power that I got out of each turn when I applied pressure directly underfoot, beneath my center of mass, rather than forward of my natural balance point.

Younker reminded me that I also needed to compensate for my lower-body change in my upper body, rounding my back a bit to keep in balance.

And there it was. I could now carve the tails of my skis through a turn instead of trying to force the tips, causing the tails to slide out. The release of speed I got from channeling the energy trapped in my tails instantly improved my skiing.

At the end of the day, we returned to the shop where Younker made final tweaks to my boots (adjusting my canting and modifying the boot shell to accommodate my inflamed right pinky toe). She gave me colored printouts of my skiing and foot pressure. I folded them into my pocket and headed for the lift a changed skier.

The End of Sacred Skiing Myths

SKI BOOTS ARE UNCOMFORTABLE
Joanne Younker believes that skiers should find balance in their boots as easily as in sneakers. "Picture setting up for a tennis match," Joanne says. "You're not sitting back, nor are you too bent in the ankles. You're distributing your weight evenly over your feet. Sliding into a pair of stiff plastic ski boots makes this simple process much more difficult.

"Watch someone walk into a rental shop," Joanne continues. "They walk in normally and walk out like they pooped their pants." When the natural movement of your feet is compromised by hard plastic ski boots, she explains, your body needs to modify your system of balance to compensate. Coaching and a properly fitted boot and footbed are key to neutralizing this change.

YOU MUST MAINTAIN FORWARD PRESSURE
Despite what you may have heard, there is a limit to how much pressure should be applied to the front of the boot. The advanced or expert skier needs to learn to exert pressure directly underfoot, keeping the foot directly under the body during the belly of the turn. Joanne suggests imagining that there is a disc under your foot. As you start the turn, the disc is under the ball of your foot; in the middle of the turn, it is under your arch; and at the end, it is under the heel. Shocking as it may sound, you should feel weight on your heels as you slide your foot forward to finish the turn: This pressure is created by rocking back at the ankle, which makes the ski snap around and release its energy in the form of speed.

ALWAYS BUY BOOTS SMALLER THAN YOU'D LIKE
Entry-level skiers are often criticized for buying boots that are several sizes too big. It's true: Since liners pack out, the skiers' feet are soon sloshing around inside the boot. It's not exactly a recipe for direct and effective control. Expert and professional skiers, however, often overcompensate and create the opposite problem: boot shells and liners that are too cramped and squash the toes or the forefoot. This prevents the foot from functioning and the muscles in the legs from working properly. Ensure you get the proper fit ("They may have to do some punching," says Younker) to feel your feet throughout the turn.

h makes the ski snap around and release its energy in the form of speed.

ALWAYS BUY BOOTS SMALLER THAN YOU'D LIKE
Entry-level skiers are often criticized for buying boots that are several sizes too big. It's true: Since liners pack out, the skiers' feet are soon sloshing around inside the boot. It's not exactly a recipe for direct and effective control. Expert and professional skiers, however, often overcompensate and create the opposite problem: boot shells and liners that are too cramped and squash the toes or the forefoot. This prevents the foot from functioning and the muscles in the legs from working properly. Ensure you get the proper fit ("They may have to do some punching," says Younker) to feel your feet throughout the turn.

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