This interview featured in the 2008 Chillfactor issue
Interviewer: Reggae Elliss
Over the past two years Russell Henshaw has emerged as a leading talent in the Australian freeski scene. Although still only 17 years old and studying his HSC this year, Russell has three years of international competition under his belt - the past Northern Hemisphere winter being his most successful, winning the Slopestyle at the European Open and finishing second in the US Open. When I met up with Russell in Jindabyne in late April, he had only just returned from overseas, taking a break from schoolwork to do the interview. It was one of those perfect Autumn days in the mountains, a slight chill in the air and the lake was sparkling with diamonds.
“So, do you enjoy living here?”I asked, already knowing the answer.
“It’s awesome. Like when you are travelling and you come back here, it is just so quiet and relaxing. It’s a really good place to have downtime.”
Russell is happy with his results, more so as he started his Northern Hemisphere assault later than usual. A shattered kneecap suffered in New Zealand last August delayed his departure by six weeks.
Russell’s family moved to Jindabyne two and a half years ago, mainly so Russell could concentrate on his skiing. Before that the Henshaws lived in Camden, southwest of Sydney, and the move illustrates how much family support Russell enjoys. It was a big move, especially for his brothers leaving the friends, and to move away from the extended family. “I had been wanting to do it for ages,” said Russell. “I loved the snow, loved hanging out down here. We used to travel down here every weekend so I knew a lot of people through skiing. We almost moved a couple of years earlier but my mother and brother got cold feet - he wanted to hang out with his mates in Sydney or whatever. It’s a big thing but once you’ve done it you never go back. “My dad was keen, ‘cause he really likes snowboarding and knew a lot of people down here, but mum had all her family up there. She was five minutes around the corner from my grandmother, her mum, and her sister. It was pretty hard for her at first but she loves it here now.”
The interview continues…
CF: How bad was the knee injury?
RH: Pretty bad, I shattered the kneecap into about 30 pieces. I whacked it on the end of a down rail. I fell forward after I aired up and all my weight went down onto my knee.
CF: How was the recovery? Did you have to let it heal itself?
RH: Well, at first they were going to operate and put a rubber replacement kneecap in there but that would not have allowed as much movement as a natural kneecap so they decided to leave it. They just put it into a splint and left it. I just did a lot of physio here in Jindabyne, getting my knee stronger in the gym.
CF: Were you back to 100 percent when you left?
RH: No but originally they didn’t think I’d ski until July, almost a year-long recovery. But it healed really quickly and I got my muscles back to 60 or 70 percent of what it was and the doctors gave me the all clear. I went to Breckenridge in Colorado, trained there and slowly got back into it.
CF: What was your first event?
RH: My first event was the Austrian Open and I finished second in the that, so I was pretty stoked. From there I went back to Colorado to prepare for the US Open.
CF: That’s one of the biggest events in freeskiing and you got another good result there.
RH: Yeah, I got second in the Slopestyle. That place got me an invite to the Big Air and I ended up getting forth in that. From there I went back to Austria for the Red Bull Play Street and got second for the second time.
CF: Then the European Open was another good result…
RH: Yeah, I got an invite to the based on last year’s results and ended up winning the Slopestyle.
CF: Being away for five months and trying to keep up with your schoolwork via correspondence, that's pretty heavy.
RH: I even had to do an exam today. I’ve got to do exams all this week so all I have been doing since I’ve been back is schoolwork, trying to catch up. It’s pretty hard. I took some schoolwork to do...but it didn’t end up happening. I only took one subject, a couple of weeks’ work, but only ended up doing a week.
CF: Well, it’d be pretty hard when you are training and competing each week.
RH: And travelling all the time, you’re always tired. It is hard to get motivated.
CF: Then school will be finished and you’ll be free before the start of the Northern Hemisphere season.
RH: Luckily...I can’t wait until it’s done.
CF: How did it all start? Are you parents keen skiers?
RH: Not really. The first time they saw snow was the first time I saw snow. We came down on a holiday when I was about three and they put me in Thredboland. The instructor said “Your son is a good little skier. You should put him in the race club.” Mum and dad thought, sure. You just want the money, but the next season we came down and I had a different instructor and he said the same thing. So dad took me over to the race club, signed me up and I started racing, that's when it all too off.
CF: So did you do the race club thing until you were 12 or 13?
RH: Yeah, but when we were in the race club our coach Nick Draxyl would take us freeskiing all over Thredbo after training. Into the terrain park.
CF: I didn’t know Nick was your race coach.
RH: Yeah, since I was seven. Then, when I was 12, Nick moved over to Perisher to do the freestyle coaching, so I decided to follow him and that how my freeriding career started.
CF: The race training as a kid gives you a solid platform.
RH: Yeah, it gives you a really good background. You see some guys on the circuit who can do the rails, jumps or whatever, but who can’t ski. Some of the tricks you have to carve off the jump but they can’t do that, they can’t hold an edge, it is a good thing to have plus you need to know how to ski pow. These guys claim they know how to ski pow but they always backseat, always falling.
CF: When did you really start focusing on the freeskiing and competition?
RH: When I was 14 my dad said if I had a good season he’d think about sending me overseas. So I started skiing all the time, got right into it and had a pretty good season with some good results and got some sponsors. So he took a gamble and sent me overseas with Nick, to live with Nick and train with Nick. It paid off, I took it really seriously, traveled to every competition I could. We were there for three months and did 11,000 kilometers in a car without a radio. It was horrible. But that was the first season and I got some good results and that’s where it kicked off.
CF: What’s your favourite discipline in the park?
RH: Slopestyle and Big Air. I probably like Slopestyle the most because you can link your tricks together and it’s really flowing and fun.
CF: Do you do much in the Pipe?
RH: I used to do a lot in the pipe but then I kind of slackened off to concentrate on Slopestyle and get a bit of a name happening. This season I want to start getting back into it, building up that.
CF: I suppose you came into it at a good time. The big events started eight or nine years ago and guys like Chris Booth, Andrea Berchtold started doing things.
RH: Yeah, I used to watch the Red Bull Big Air raids and stuff like that, and go, “Oh dad, I want to do that trick.” It’s cool now, I get to ski with them, hang out with them a bit.
CF: Have those guys been helpful over the years?
RH: Yeah, yeah, they helped me out, back when I was learning tricks, they’d give me tips. But most of the time I was skiing with Nick, so he helped me out a lot.
CF: Nick’s been coaching you for a long time - 10 years. It’s obviously working.
RH: Yeah, it’s paying off. When he first started as my coach/manager it was kind of frowned upon. People overseas were doing a lot of that themselves, it was seen as an individual sport. Some people were getting a bit funny about it ‘cause they didn’t want the sport going too official.
CF: If Nick is also looking after the commercial side of things that is one major thing you don’t have to worry about, that your parents don’t have to worry about.
RH: Exactly. I just have to focus on my skiing and Nick helps me with everything else. For me it seems like I just have to ski a everything else just comes ‘cause Nick is doing it.
CF: Who are you sponsors?
RH: Volkl skis, Marker bindings, helmets and goggles, Technica boots, Volkl outerwear, Red Bull and Thredbo.
CF: When your parents decided to move to Jindabyne so you could pursue your skiing, that’s indicative of strong support from your family.
RH: Yeah, it is a big part of becoming a professional skier. You can have the talent, sponsors and do the trips or whatever, but unless you have the support of your parents it is not going to pay off. You really need that support to get through the tough times.
CF: I know you are still at school now but your plan is to make a life as a pro skier. Was there a specific time when you made that decision?
RH: I always wanted to achieve in skiing. Like when I was racing I’d said to dad, “I want to go to the Olympics,” ‘cause that was what I was focusing on. So when started doing freeride skiing, I knew I wanted to become a professional, I want to make this my living...I just love doing it. I suppose it started to become a bit of a reality when I first went to Europe and got signed up on the Volkl international team. That was the start.
CF: It’s not easy for Australians to make a living as a skier…
RH: No, it is pretty expensive ‘cause we have so far to travel, then it is so far to come home. The getting to all the events is pretty expensive. Once you get that support from you sponsors and your parents don’t have to help anymore - that’s a pretty good thing.
CF: Do you think you’ll be able to stay here as your career develops? I suppose it is always going to be half a year here, half overseas?
RH: Yeah, pretty much. I think that’s the way my life will be until I am 25 or 26. I don’t see myself ever moving overseas permanently. I love Australia too much. I love Jindabyne, I want to hang out here as much as possible.
CF: Competition is such a big part of your life, do you ever think there’s a danger of it overwhelming you skiing? That it becomes too much like work?
RH: Not really. I enjoy doing competitions. When I do comps I zone out, I don’t think of anything but I get really motivated. If someone does a good trick then I want to try and do better. That is where a lot of my progression comes from. I learn more tricks and there are other people pushing me. If you are just skiing around you are going to keep doing the same tricks, having fun. In a competition you are pushed to do harder tricks and I think it is an important part of skiing. It is where all the progression comes from.
CF: You are starting to gain success on an international level, medals at the US Open, winning the European Open. Are you looking at the X Games in Aspen and things like that?
RH: Hopefully I get an invite to the X Games next year after the results this year.
CF: Looking at guys like Simon Dumont, Tanner Hall etc, is that where you draw a lot of influence and motivation?
RH: Definitely. They are always coming up with new tricks, different ways to grab - all kinds of stuff. Double flips, double corks… You definitely do take notice of what they are doing and try to stay on the same level as them.
CF: I suppose the next extension for you as a pro skier is film segments and working with pro photographers?
RH: Yeah, I have been doing a bit with a production company called Regime. I’ve been speaking to Matchstick and will hopefully be doing something with them in July in Snow Park. I’m still getting that organised.
CF: That stuff all flows on from doing more event, then once you get in a segment it rolls on from there.
RH: You can’t expect to just get a segment in the movies. You have to get good results in events, become known from there… then they film you.
CF: And that increases your value to your sponsors. OK, you’ll finish school this year, see how you go and what opportunities that may open in the future. You said before 25, 26 - is that your timeline with skiing?
RH: That’s what I want to do with the competition side of it. After that I always want to stay in the industry, maybe event management, working for one of my sponsors...whatever. I just want to stay in the industry ‘cause I love it so much. Skiing is always going to be in my life.