How Shaun White and other Olympians are going for gold with GoPros

ShaunWhite_GoPro_Air

It’s impossible to find a pair of Olympic sports with deeper cultural ties to film and video than snowboarding and skiing. As with skate culture on dry land, both sports have a history of epic recordings, from Warren Miller big-mountain videos to amateur YouTube videos of killer tricks in the local park. 

Mountable cameras, specifically the now ubiquitous GoPro editions, have been part of the video-making arsenal in ski and snowboarding for years, but their utility has evolved well-beyond sticky-sweet eye candy. 

Shaun White would know. The two-time Olympic gold medalist in halfpipe has gone all-in on hauling home gold in Sochi, and GoPro (a sponsor of White’s) has gone all-in with him, helping construct a private, custom half-pipe in Australia’s Perisher ski area for training. Cameras have played a major role in White’s preparation, mounted on his helmet and board, or at different points on the halfpipe to provide a tight view of body position. Footage is instantly uploadable via GoPro’s app for on-mountain analysis.

GoPros have evolved from toys to serious tools.

It’s common practice for snowboarders to use giant airbags, laid down at the end of the pipe, to cushion landings until an athlete is comfortable working without a proverbial net. By using cameras – the GoPro HERO3+, for those looking to try this at home – lined up with the edge of the pipe, White is able to extrapolate exactly where he would land – either on the lip or somewhere down the wall – were the airbag not there. 

“Particularly working on the cutting-edge level, Shaun wants to have the peace of the mind and the confidence knowing he’s that consistently coming down into the bag,” says his coach, Bud Keene. “And with the use of the GoPro camera mounted on the edge of the pipe, we can visually confirm that on an iPad immediately, right at the bottom of the pipe. When we’re gearing up and kind of getting ready to pull a big trick in training, something that perhaps has never been done before, we want to know that we’re coming down into the pipe and that it’s not going to be the end of the season. That he’s not going to crash.” 

Lowering the number of reps lowers the wear and tear on White’s body. It’s a lot of effort and expense, but for White, the results were tangible and impressive. He was able to perfect the double corked 1440, a trick he hopes will bring a third straight gold in Sochi. 

While mountable cameras have grown fairly ubiquitous in the snowboarding world, they’re less common in the world of alpine ski racing. At least for now.  

“Originally, I guess we started using the GoPros more just to catch cool-looking fun footage. We didn’t really see a way to integrate them into our training,” says Ted Ligety, who won giant slalom gold at the 2006 Turin Olympics and heads to Sochi as one of America’s strongest medal contenders, skiing multiple disciplines.

ShaunWhite_GoProBoxes

“It just kind of evolved into being, and realizing I was actually capturing footage that was very usable for analysis and training,” he says. 

Once the cat left the bag, Ligety tapped into latent skills in both carpentry and cinematography to capitalize on the opportunities for improvement, going beyond the traditional POV shots “you’ve seen a million times.” 

“I’ve made a couple mounts that are aluminum poles I attach to the helmet mount, and then it goes off the back of my head,” he says. “So it’s a behind-the-body view. You can see from the skis to my whole body, and you can see me skiing down the course. It’s kind of like a video-game perspective.” 

To get a view from the front, he’ll reverse the mount so it goes off the front of his helmet, nicknamed the “narwhal mount.” Ligety also utilizes a sort of “follow cam,” where a coach or tech follows him down a run with the GoPro attached to a long pole. 

“It almost looks like an RC helicopter is following you down,” Ligety says.  

The angles reveal a treasure trove of detail, which he can access at end of a training run, whether at the bottom of the hill or on the lift back up. 

“Going straight doesn’t necessarily always mean you’re going the fastest.”

“There’s no hiding when your body takes up the entire frame the whole way down. It helps seeing where your body is aligned in different parts of the turn,” he says. Ligety can see if he’s pressuring his skis properly through turns, if his arms drop an inch or two, and so on. Individually, each of these little mistakes might not cost him much time on a run, but collectively they can mean tenths of seconds, and possibly the difference between a spot on the podium and going home empty handed.  

Heading into Sochi, Ligety and his teammates have another time-shaving instructional tool in the box: GPS. 

By attaching a unit to a skier’s back protector, measurements of speed and distance traveled provide an accounting of every run. Was acceleration consistent, or did it come and go? What was the best line?

“You can break the course down into sections, and you can see distance traveled and speed, and time. So you can see I might have traveled 20 meters further in that section, but was actually two-tenths faster. And another guy on the team traveled 10 meters shorter than you, but was one-tenth faster. You can compare all of these smaller sections of the course and try to correlate distance and time,” Ligety says. “Going straight doesn’t necessarily always mean you’re going the fastest.” 

Put side by side with video, GPS data can then be correlated to any technical mistakes made during training, as well, providing a multi-dimensional view of every run. 

For America’s ski and snowboard athletes, the hope is one enduring view of Sochi: Something shot from the top of the podium.

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