Four years after a broken left ankle caused him to miss the Vancouver Olympics, Australian halfpipe snowboarder Nathan Johnstone goes into February's Sochi Games as one of the podium favorites along with "The Flying Tomato" — American Shaun White, who has won the last two gold medals.
So how did Johnstone help improve his medal chances in the mountains of Sochi? In a more abstract case of sleeping with the enemy, the 2011 halfpipe world champion took a training session with White's coach, Bud Keene.
"It wasn't so much helping me out in particular," Johnstone told The Associated Press in an interview, putting the emphasis on the "me" part of his comment.
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Keene "ran a progression camp at Mammoth Mountain in California with a bunch of other athletes, a range of different skiers including halfpipe and skicrossers," Johnstone said. "It was a great chance to break up my normal training routine and train alongside some really strong competitors like Japanese Olympian Ryo Aono."
Still, Johnstone tried to extract as much as he could from the sessions.
"There was no private training involved, but it was great to have worked with him," he said. "He's one of the greatest coaches in this sport. I tried to pick his brain, to hear what he had to say. I'm still on a learning curve."
That curve was derailed just four weeks before the Vancouver Olympics when Johnstone broke his ankle in an air bag training session.
"It was a big disappointment for me back then, but I learned a lot from it and it gave me a lot of motivation and drive for the following season," he said. "It really put me in a good place."
Just 12 months later, Johnstone won the 2011 FIS World Cup Crystal Globe for leading the halfpipe season standings and the overall freestyle Crystal Globe. White did not compete in the finals that year.
"I had a great 2011 season and I'm still continuing that roll," Johnstone said. "Hopefully I'll stay fit and healthy for Russia and get a good result there."
Johnstone was in Sochi last February and finished eighth in a test event at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park's halfpipe.
"I learned that the weather can be very unpredictable," Johnstone said. "They had minimal snow when I was there and it was super warm, which made trying to hold speed in the pipe — as well as spinning the tricks around quickly — quite a challenge."
Johnstone's coach, Ben Alexander, says his athlete — quite the surfer, as well — has been working hard ahead of the Olympics in Sochi, where another Australian, Torah Bright, will be defending her gold medal in the women's halfpipe.
"He was very determined to make up for his missed opportunity in 2010," said Alexander, adding that Johnstone took inspiration from two Australian surfers — Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson — who recovered from serious injuries to become world champions.
"He is incredibly strong, yet smooth and stylish," he added, "which is unique."
Johnstone — who will turn 24 on Feb. 9 in Sochi — had a minor injury scare that prevented him from competing in December's freestyle Dew Tour in Colorado. It's a common one affecting snowboarders — bruised heels from landing so hard on the back of their feet.
"It was only minor, but it set me back a bit," Johnstone said. "On the positive side, I was able to get a lot of good training in."
Rested and recovered after the holidays, Johnstone will travel back to Colorado for next week's freestyle World Cup at Breckenridge, where he expects to confirm his spot on the Australian Olympic team — to be announced later this month.
He knows he'll have to be at the top of his game to take the Olympic gold medal from White, the 27-year-old red-headed American who has dominated the sport. At Vancouver in 2010, White scored 46.8 points on his first run, which was all he needed to win gold.
He did a second run and thrilled the spectators on the hill with his Double McTwist, which he later named The Tomahawk. The trick is 540 degrees of sideways spin crammed into two upright flips — "the most technically advanced trick in the world," Keene said.
In December, White announced he's working on a new trick — a "front-side double-cork 1440" which adds half a twist to The Tomahawk.
"Shaun White is such a strong competitor and is very consistent with his runs," Johnstone said. "That is something that I definitely try to emulate."
The pair have a cordial relationship, but aren't particularly close.
"I wouldn't say I know him a great deal," Johnstone says. "We say g'day at the events. He kind of has his own stuff going on."
And Johnstone hopes he'll have some pretty special stuff of his own going in Sochi.
"I'm happy with where my riding is at right now," he said. "It's nearly perfect."