PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – It’s a clear, crisp morning on the New Gold slope at YongPyong Resort, not far from where some of the Olympics ski races were held the past two weeks.
The rhythmic slapping of slalom gates being punched aside and smacking the packed snow as one young skier after another carves turns around them is the only sound that can be heard at this part of YongPyong, a name the resort says means “the peaceful valley where dragons reside.’’
It is here that you might encounter Matt Liebersbach, one of three coaches working with the ski racers on this day. Liebersbach has been here all winter, ever since he was hired to be an English-speaking coach for the Daegwallyeong Racing Ski Academy, and he was willing to share his insight on what he’s seeing from the developmental levels of ski racing in South Korea.
“It’s been pretty awesome. The Korean style of skiing is very much oriented toward ski racing. If you watch even all the tourists ski everywhere, they’re all really good skiers,’’ he said. “It’s very much a carving style of skiing. I come from North America, from the west coast, where we ski powder, so that’s not really most everyone’s style.’’
Yet as the Olympics came to a close, most of the host nation’s success has come in winter sports played on ice. Thirteen of South Korea’s 17 medals have come in speedskating, two in sliding sports (bobsled, skeleton), and its ice hockey teams have played to full arenas with engaged and enthusiastic fans.
The ones on snow, however, are another matter. South Korea’s delegation included just four Alpine skier racers – two men and two women.
“It just seems that unfortunately, at some of the younger ages, sport is not always pursued unless there’s full excellence, and ski racing tends to be a sport that there is a magical knack that people are born with or not,’’ said Liebersbach, who is from California and calls Mammoth Mountain his home mountain.
“Ted Ligety’s a spectacular example. He wasn’t all that good when he was younger, but the American culture tended to go ahead and keep him in the sport for longer than he might have in other countries, and so when he finally hit the physical needs that he had for the magic that he possessed, he remade the sport.’’
However in Korea, young athletes can be pushed toward specialization at an earlier age, Liebersbach said.
“If you don’t excel at a somewhat younger age and win then you don’t tend to get the backing to continue to pursue it. And I don’t know if that’s necessarily a resource issue in Korea or what really it is, but unfortunately sometimes, ski racers don’t hit their primes and find themselves until a little bit older age,’’ he said.
“It seems to have been my experience here in Korea that athletes need to be excelling before that particular age that is required for ski racing.’’
Still, what he has seen from the athletes he’s working with has been gratifying. They spend six days a week on the slopes – five running gates – and compete in FIS races and on a continental circuit called The Far East Cup.
He also thinks having the Olympics here has been some motivation.
“Having been on the race circuit, even just this month, and watching what some of the Korean skiers that I first got introduced to months ago, what they did then and kind of their approach to the sport, and how their skiing has changed even in just the couple months leading up to the games. It’s great to see, and I hope it continues,’’ he said.