Bray working hard towards 2010 Winter Olympics

Juliane Bray
Juliane Bray
Summer Olympic Games fever is over for another four years. But Wanaka snowboarder Juliane Bray has less than two years to prepare for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Snowboarder Juliane Bray is a stayer, not a player.

She burst into the snowsports limelight in 2001 when she won a World Cup boardercross race in Japan and has been committed to international competition since 1998.

In 2006, she represented New Zealand at the Winter Olympics in Turin, finishing 16th in a field of 34 in the half-pipe, and 22nd in boardercross.

A mentor to many young female snowboarders, Bray (32) has been at the top of her game for so long now it is hard to imagine the sport of snowboarding without her.

After a long injury break and surgery to repair cartilage damage in her knees last year, Bray is on a comeback and determined to take her place in the team for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

"It's going exactly to plan. I am actually riding better than before. I am able to train.

"I am really happy," Bray said last week.

Bray's Olympic "trials" started this time last year after the Australian Snowboarding Open, where she was placed third.

A week later, she had surgery on her knees and spent a frustrating eight weeks on crutches.

That was just the beginning of a long, slow recovery.

The surgery was needed because years of landing complicated aerial tricks on hard snow had caused friction damage to cartilage under her kneecaps.

The pain was niggly and annoying - Bray described it at "80%" - and snowboarding was not enjoyable any more.

Her mood was vastly different from those uplifting and emotional moments in 2006, when she walked into the Olympic stadium in Turin to the roar of a massive crowd and was lifted by the music of Pavarotti during the opening ceremony.

Her doctors and physiotherapist recommended surgery sooner rather than later if she wanted to go to Vancouver.

That meant pulling out of the inaugural World Cup snowboarding event at Cardrona Alpine Resort last year and the disappointment of not being able to shine in front of a home crowd.

Bray put all that behind her at the New Zealand Snowboard Open at the Snow Park earlier this month in her first top-level turnout since surgery.

She enjoyed a pain-free performance to win the quarter-pipe invitational air competition from some of the top women snowboarders in the world and was fifth in the half-pipe.

Since then, she has been training for the second FIS World Cup Snowboard event at Cardrona next Saturday and Sunday.

The Cardrona world cup is the first of 20 to be held in 15 countries, with more than 450 registered athletes.

About 100 athletes are expected to compete at the Cardrona world cup, whereas the New Zealand Snowboarding Open, part of Burton's global six-venue series, attracted 200 athletes to the Snow Park.

But fewer athletes does not mean Bray's job at the world cup will to be any easier.

Nor is it less important.

To qualify for the Olympics, snowboarders must compete on the world cup circuit.

Many do both world cup and Burton circuits, plus plenty of other international competitions such as the Ticket To Ride series, although Bray advocates focusing on events that are most important in reaching a goal.

Many of Bray's competitors, even at top level, seem no bigger than children and the petite brunette has no problems fitting in at the half-pipe drop-in.

But in New Zealand there is no doubt Bray is the elder stateswoman.

Her closest rival, Mount Maunganui's Kendall Brown, who spends her winters in Wanaka and was 24th at Turino, is still a teenager.

However, Bray says she has yet to find herself tagged as the oldest qualifier at top-level competition, with some women still riding competitively into their late 30s.

The age issue makes Bray laugh.

She points to Romanian marathoner Constantina Tomescu (38) and swimmer Dara Torres (41) as Olympians who demonstrate seniority is no barrier to excellence.

Bray has studied sports science and sports medicine as part of a diploma in fitness management and believes individualised programmes are the key to success, no matter what age.

The more research is done, the more athletes learn about becoming better at what they do, including avoiding and managing injuries, she said.

"I feel more than ever I have a career I am proud of.

"People say "When are you going to get a real job?" My boyfriend says - and I agree - "Tell them you've got an unreal job."

Friends and family have been key factors behind Bray's return to form.

Snowboard coach Rachel Newton, of Wanaka, is a close friend and mentor who has shared many of Bray's highs and lows.

Recently, martial art expert Glenn High, of Wanaka, began working with Bray on improving her balance, posture and control, which Bray attributes to her improvement this season.

Bray also receives support from the Dunedin Academy of Sport's Winter Olympics Programme and is coached by Tom Willmott of Wanaka, the national snowboard coach.

Next weekend, Bray will again face tough competition in the world, in the form of X-Game double medallist Jamie Anderson and 2002 Olympic gold medallist Kelly Clark, both of the United States.

The US athletes are ranked among the top in the world and were first and third respectively at the New Zealand Open.

Like many other international athletes, they have been using Wanaka as their off-season training base.

Bray is nervous.

But she's happy, as that tells her she is feeling energetic and having energy is positive.

A good performance at home is important to her, not just because she hopes to earn valuable Olympic qualifying points and show off in front of her friends.

Cardrona Alpine Resort has been a loyal sponsor for many years and has provided her with money, practice space, jobs, mentors and advisers.

And it's given her a slight advantage.

She's had a few sneak peeks at the Olympic-sized half-pipe being created by terrain park manager John Melville.

"I'll go up at night and he'll shape it and I will ride it and then we will talk about it.

I will go back to the cafe while he shapes it again, and then I will ride it again," she said.

All is progressing to her satisfaction.

" I find the facilities in New Zealand are as good, if not better, than the rest of the world. That's why the whole world is training here right now."

The FIS World Cup Snowboarding is at Cardrona Alpine Resort next Saturday and Sunday. Qualifying rounds start at 9.55am on Saturday, with semifinals at 10am on Sunday. Finals are scheduled to begin at noon on Sunday.


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