The sweet science of ski wax

Each athlete can have between 30 and 50 skis on hand to pick from for competition, depending on conditions and technique. –Rachel G. Bowers/Globe Staff

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DAEGWALLYEONG-MYEON, South Korea — In a cabin tucked behind two access checkpoints and wedged between the Alpensia Cross Country Ski and Biathlon Centers here, Jason Cork is unsuccessfully trying to complete a crossword puzzle. It is an off-day for Cork, an assistant US cross country ski coach and wax technician. Well, not really an day off – there are just no races on this particular day in the final week of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

But in between puzzle clues, there is plenty to do with more races over the final days of these Games. Cork, who has been with Team USA for six seasons, and three fellow wax technicians — Jean-Pascal Laurin, Tim Baucom, and Andrew Morehouse — are getting skis ready for training.

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“It’s a pretty mellow day compared to race day for sure,’’ Cork says the day before Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall win gold in the team sprint, the first cross country medal ever for the US women’s team. .

The cabin smells like melted crayons, but more chemical-like. (It has a small ventilation system to clear out the air as needed.) Skis line the walls in all four corners of this particular cabin, one of a handful the US crew is working in during the Games. Two tall shelves house 200 to 300 types of waxes, resembling the shelves of a pharmacy cluttered with medicine bottles. It is a collection of powders, paraffins, klisters, glide wax, and kick wax, among other products, that the crew layers on to test skis and eventually on to athlete skis, all used in different conditions depending on the day and what an athlete prefers. Two workbenches sit in the middle of the cabin, each of the four techs with their own workstation. Both workbenches are covered in the debris from the extensive preparation process. Scattered on top are the various tools — brushes, wax corks, irons, groove scrapers, putty knives — needed in the scientific pursuit of an optimally waxed pair of skis.

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“A mess,’’ Laurin says to the agreement and laughter of all in the cabin.

It took about two days to set up everything needed to treat skis for the Americans throughout the Games. Lugging boxes inside, hanging skis on the wall, setting up the work stations, organizing tools and waxes.

The crew has been clocking in about five hours before the start of races during these Games, earlier if it’s an evening or night race.

“Just out of sheer boredom, you come out and start monkeying around,’’ Cork says.

They begin by testing product, their catch-all phrase that includes accounting for snow conditions, temperature, athlete preference, and other factors, before deciding the best products for the day. They get training skis ready first before doing initial prep work on race skis. Then they run test skis. The techs and coaches take about eight sets outside and ride each of them in knockout-round fashion until there is one set left that has weathered the conditions better than the rest based on what a particular athlete wants. That can take about 30 minutes, with whoever is out testing the skis radioing back the results to the cabin. They then consult with athletes before getting those skis ready to roll.

“We just ski a lot and figure out what’s working, what’s not working, and take your best stab at which one to go with,’’ Corks says.

Beyond even the waxing, ski selection is most important and crucial for an athlete. Each skier can have between 30 and 50 different pairs of skis on hand to choose from, again depending on conditions on a given day and the skiing technique used in a race – classical or skate. All of the skis are made of the same basic materials — carbon, plastic, epoxy, with a honeycomb-like center — but serve different purposes. Two-time Olympian Sadie Bjornsen, who helped the US to a fifth-place finish in the ladies’ 4×5 kilometer relay here, equated ski selection to a similar mental battle as fitness.

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“I think that in order to show up and have your best race, you need to believe in your skis equally and as much as you believe in your body and your preparation because if you don’t believe in what’s under your feet, then a lot of times you don’t race to your full capacity,’’ said Bjornsen, who works on her skis with Laurin, in an interview last fall.

That skier-technician relationship is paramount to performance because the technician is often the last person an athlete talks to before a race. The role of technician can also include playing sports psychologist.

“It’s really important that the service person knows what the athlete is really looking for,’’ said Chris Grover, head coach of the US cross country ski team, in an interview last fall. “Maybe they need some confidence in their ability. Maybe they need a confidence boost in terms of how they need to ski technically. Maybe they need a confidence boost that their skis are going to work the right way for them in terms of, ‘Yeah, I’m going to have enough kick or I’m going to have good glide,’ or ‘Hey, we are making the right choice in this ski selection.’ ’’

The athletes are the outward-facing manifestation of loads of work and preparation on many fronts, their competitions viewed widely across Europe throughout the World Cup season and on the worldwide stage during the Olympics. But the wax techs are in competitions of their own. Grover, who out of a manpower necessity is quite involved in the ski preparation process, said the effect of ski wax on competition has grown to be “pretty massive.’’

“You would really hope that it was primarily the athletes preparation, all the hard work, all the training over the years, all the work on technique, the strength work, the endurance work that really contribute to the results and of course, for the most part that’s true,’’ he said. “However, the ski preparation has become more and more important over the last few years.’’

New technologies in ski waxing, like fluorocarbon waxes — “which kind of have an ability to shed moisture,’’ Grover said — and a flooded market have technicians on the hunt for any possible advantage that could help improve an athlete’s time.

“So small differences, like what can be created through waxing and ski preparation, make a big difference,’’ Grover said.

Representatives for wax and equipment companies will frequent competitions, peddling their latest offerings, hoping to hook teams on something new.

“Occasionally they give you a sample and you’re like, ‘Oh, that is pretty good, we should buy some of that,’ ’’ Cork says. “But usually you’re like, ‘Oh OK, how much is it?’ That’s where you get into it.’’ (Each bottle can retail up to 140 Euro or wholesale up to 80 Euro.)

Then there’s the manpower battle. Some of the world’s powerhouses, like Norway, which has five gold medals and 11 total in cross country skiing alone so far at PyeongChang, enjoy a big advantage. The Americans have nine techs and two coaches at these Games who can help test product, make skis, run glideout tests, and kick tests. The Norwegians have upward of 30.

“While we’re doing glide outs, we’re not inside making skis,’’ Cork says. “Theoretically, those guys could have 10 guys out there constantly running glide while the other guys are inside making new skis to test and 10 other guys who are taking their coffee or whatever.’’

But Grover and Cork said their smaller staff creates a strong camaraderie and a greater feeling of reward when they produce a good result on the course.

“On days when we have great skis where you see on the downhills they’re just blowing past people, you’re like, ‘OK, we did something good today,’ ’’ Cork says.

Of course, there is a risk-reward to the scientific process, trying to determine where a pair of skis could gain an athlete a few seconds here or there while trying to avoid a negative impact on the athlete’s performance, which happens. But the blame game is not one three-time Olympian Liz Stephen, who is from East Montpelier, Vt., is keen on playing. After 10 years on the World Cup circuit, Stephen understands that the US is still catching up to the European stalwarts that have more resources and far bigger budgets than the Americans, who in December just got their first wax truck, a major step toward being level with the competition.

It took two days to set up the US cabins here, but the truck, which is back in Europe, can be ready to work in 20 minutes with the push of a couple buttons.

“That’s still something I think that our team doesn’t take for granted and maybe that’s part of the reason we are less apt to constantly jump to the ski, which is the easy thing to blame, right?’’ Stephen said in an interview in the fall. “Then you don’t have to take the blame for yourself. I didn’t ski well, or we didn’t ski well or whatever.’’

This is not a full-time job for Baucom and Morehouse, who work on six-month contracts. After the World Cup season, the roommates return to their home in Bozeman, Mont., working as carpenters and playing summer wedding gigs together in a band. Laurin, who is French, is a farmer in the south of France in the offseason.

“They deserve a lot of credit too because it’s easy to come in and just kind of show up, wax a few skis,’’ Cork says, “but they’re on the road a lot and work long hours and making really good skis. Knowing that you’re kind of on paper the underdog, but every once and a while just smoke people.’’