Carbondale native Peter Olenick is a freestyle skiing pioneer and an 11-time X-Games competitor who won four medals in three different events. This winter, he’ll be at the 2018 Winter Olympics, representing the home team. Olenick is the coach of the South Korean freestyle ski team. Elizabeth Stewart-Severy caught up with him on a quick trip home before he took off for Pyeongchang and brings us this report.
Peter Olenick doesn’t speak much Korean, but he knows what he’ll be yelling at top of the halfpipe this weekend.
“'Gaja gaja gaja gaja,' which is 'let's go, let's go, let's go, let's go,'" Olenick said. "I just yell it as fast as I can and I think they all blush when I do it.”
Just before taking off for Pyeongchung, Olenick was home for one ski day with his family — his mom, Molly, his brother and his first student, his sister Meg, who was a top-level slopestyle skier. He coached her through her entire career.
“From when I learned my first 360 when I was 13 years old, 'til the last Olympic qualifier in 2014," Meg Olenick said. "He always just reminded me, 'you’re out here to have fun. This run is just like any other run in the park.'”
Meg said he’s like a big brother to all of his athletes. Peter Olenick has been coaching the Korean ski team for three years to prepare for their home Olympics. It’s paid off. South Korea is sending its biggest team to the 2018 Games, and their training has been particularly intense in the last couple of months.
"We've been pushing them pretty hard and they're trying to learn a bunch of new tricks,” Olenick said.
The three-member team is young; Yujin Yang and Kangbok Lee, who compete in halfpipe are 16 and 17, and Meehyun Lee, who competes in slopestyle, is 23. Olenick said this competition will be a learning experience — just like the past three years have been for them all.
The South Korean ski team started looking for a coach with top-level competition experience after the Sochi Olympics. Olenick fit the bill and jumped right in, despite the cultural gaps. Like, he’s a picky eater and speaks very little Korean.
His athletes have taken English classes at school, so they communicate in English, which Olenick said was stilted at first. It’s also taken him some time to get used to other elements of Korean culture.
"They have lots of rules, and everything is like perfect on time, schedule and I’m not so good at the rules or the schedule," he said.
Olenick comes from the first generation of park skiers, which was a little more on the counterculture side. But there are some definite upsides to being a coach in Korean ski culture.
“They're a lot more respectful of authority and everyone above them," Olenick said. "And they do everything I tell them, which is nice.”
Plus, they’ve spent a lot of time together. Olenick and the team spend most of the summer in South Korea, training in the gym and on the air bag. The winter months are spent competing and traveling.
“You can pretty much just point to a country on the map and if there's snow there I go there at some point of the year,” he said.
It’s a lifestyle that Olenick is used to from his own competitive days. But when he was a top-ranked freeskier, Olympic years were always bittersweet.
"Every year that the Olympic cycle would come around, it would be like, I wish we could do it," he said.
Olenick competed in slopestyle and halfpipe, which have been Olympic events for snowboarders since 1998. Skiers, though, had to wait much longer.
“2010 was really close and everyone thought we were going to get in,” he said.
If that had happened, it’s likely Olenick would have been there. He was healthy and strong and putting down solid runs at competitions across the world. But park skiing didn’t make the Olympic lineup until 2014, after Olenick had retired.
“I tried coming back from some other injuries to make it to 2014, and I couldn’t,” he said.
He’s recaptured a bit of that competitive spirit through coaching, and Olenick says he hasn’t lost the feeling of what it’s like to be the one dropping into the pipe.
“Before their runs, I'm actually nervous, like I used to be when I was competing,” he said.
And while he’s working on following the rules, he still isn’t afraid to bend them.
“I'm definitely going to poach a few runs in the pipe, and at least post a couple pictures of me skiing the Olympic pipe," Olenick said.
This Olympic reality looks a little different than Olenick’s dreams, but he still gets that view from the top of the halfpipe, watching the skiers he’s nurtured for years have their moment on the world stage.