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Ski techs hope their secret wax recipes will be liquid ‘gold’ for Canada’s Olympians

Anyone who has watched ski cross athlete Brady Leman barrel down a mountain slope alongside his competitors can tell he’s powered by immense strength and skill. Ski cross is a dangerous sport, and the Albertan had to overcome previous injuries in order to win gold at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. But beyond athleticism, Leman is keenly aware of the importance of his skis — and crucially, what’s under them — when it comes to skiing fast.

“Good wax makes my job way easier,” he said, referring to the compounds applied to the undersides of skis to help them glide over snow.

“I mean, we’re dealing with tenths, hundredths of a second,” Leman added, and ski wax “can be the difference-maker.”

Like the high-tech shoes developed for runners in the Summer Olympics, good ski wax is a highly prized technology in snow sports, fuelling another more secretive competition beyond the slopes.

The behind-the-scenes chemistry of wax development and ski preparation is carried out by ski technicians who work with various alpine and nordic sports teams. With new research and technology playing a key role in their plans for Beijing 2022, the ski techs with Canada’s ski cross team are the keepers of some of the most highly coveted trade secrets of the Olympic Winter Games.

“If we ask them, [the ski techs] will always tell us what’s on the skis,” Leman said. “But every once in a while, if it’s something a little ‘out there,’ the message will be conveyed that this is not for ears outside of Canada Ski Cross.”

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Canada’s Brady Leman, foreground, leads Sweden’s Erik Mobaerg during the men’s quarter-final at the World Cup ski cross event at Nakiska Ski Resort in Kananaskis, Alta., on Jan. 15. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

To guard that knowledge, most of the tuning and waxing is done long before athletes put on their skis for a competition, in rooms tucked away in hotel basements or garages.

During the Ski Cross World Cup at Nakiska ski resort in Alberta last month, James Perks and three other Canadian ski techs were based out of two nondescript rooms in a parking lot beneath a nearby resort. Here, with a classic rock station blaring on the radio, the four-man team worked their magic.

Perks described their job like that of a chef, choosing and mixing spices for different recipes. The “spices” in this case are different kinds of waxes – all legal – which could be solids melted onto the base of skis using an iron, for example, or liquids sprayed from a bottle.

Different waxes are applied to the underside of athletes’ skis in advance, “based upon the weather that we think is going to happen,” he said.

Those decisions are informed by early prep work, including temperature readings of the snow and detailed forecasts about wind and cloud cover.

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James Perks, ski technician for Canada’s national Ski Cross team, says he and his co-workers go to great lengths to protect the secret recipes for their ski waxes. (Dave Rae/CBC)

On race day, the ski techs will carry along full knapsacks and tool cases for any last-minute fixes on the hill, Perks added. There, he and his teammates take steps to throw off any prying eyes from other countries.

“All of our waxes and any of our additives are put in nondescript bottles or taped over,” he said.

Some will be transferred into Ziplock bags, and he and the team will label them with unconventional nicknames – often based on Canadian pop culture references.

But the secrecy doesn’t end there.

According to Andy Van Neutegem with Canada’s Own the Podium, which has been investing in Canada’s ski wax research and infrastructure, extra precautions include legal non-disclosure agreements for those working with the technology.

“We do engage in intellectual property protection,” he said.

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James Perks applies wax to a set of Team Canada skis using a heated iron. (Dave Rae/CBC)

Over the past three years, with Beijing approaching, Own the Podium has sharpened Canada’s ski-tuning game, trying to keep the country one step ahead of other nations.

As part of a new co-ordinated effort, the ski techs for ski cross have for the first time been working with those from Canada’s snowboarding and nordic ski teams, sharing their learnings about snow makeup and climate from their competitions around the world.

That research included a trip to Beijing last year, where the team tested its waxes on the Chinese slopes and ski techs gathered samples of the artificial snow there to study. According to Perks, some of what they learned surprised them.

The snowmaking was high quality – “probably one of the best in the world,” he said. But the snow itself appeared to be made from water polluted with “various chemicals.”

“You would never want to think about licking a snowball,” he said. “It’s filled with things that you do not want to ingest.”

Puzzlingly, some of the properties in the water used to make the snow appeared to be from far away – perhaps piped in from elsewhere, they reasoned. The snow also had a lot of sand in it, likely blown in from the Gobi Desert, he added, which can be harder on skis.

For Perks and the rest of the ski technicians, all this information will inform how they prepare the athletes’ skis for the Beijing Olympics.

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Perks works on skis for the Canadian ski cross team at Nakiska resort in Alberta in January. The choice of wax is based on a number of factors, including temperature readings of the snow and detailed weather forecasts. (Dave Rae/CBC)

Canada will be “taking along some things that have never really been seen or used in our sport,” said Perks, who hinted that the new ski-tuning tools are “mechanical” in nature.

To keep it all safe, it will be stored in carry-on luggage during travel, and cellphones will be kept away when it’s in use for privacy and security reasons.

While Perks said the new strategies have had some success under certain weather conditions in tests prior to the Olympic Winter Games, he is quick to add that it’s the athletes who will make the difference on the hill.

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Britt Phelan won a silver medal for Canada at the 2018 Winter Olympics. (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images/File)

Canadian ski cross athlete Britt Phelan said she often knows little about what Perks and the other techs are up to, but added that she’s happy to keep what secrets she does know safe.

“We’re pretty lips-sealed and we don’t share our secrets because, yeah, it’s definitely something that’s been super helpful in my success and [for] a lot of the team,” she said.

For Phelan, success at the last Olympic Winter Games in 2018 came in the form of a silver medal. As the team vies for more hardware in Beijing, they’re confident they have liquid “gold” on their side.

Watch full episodes of The National on CBC Gem, the CBC’s streaming service.

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