Cattle rancher Tom Johnston is a Wyoming cowboy gone global who's the master of snow for Alpine skiing events at the Pyeongchang Olympics.
Johnston, the chief of race for ski events at the 2018 Olympics, is responsible for preparing the snow to world-class conditions at the next Winter Games.
Having honed his craft at annual World Cup races and last season's world championships in Beaver Creek, Colorado, the snow maestro prepared courses for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games and 2014 Sochi Games. Skiers got another taste of Johnston's skills over the weekend at the Alpine test event for the 2018 Games.
There was a chorus of approval for the "hard, aggressive and grippy" snow, which is just the way racers like it whether on European or U.S. slopes. "It's nearly identical," said Italian racer Dominik Paris, who finished second in Saturday's World Cup downhill. "It's like cooking. If you've got a good chef, the food is always good."
From Boulder, Wyoming, a town Johnston describes as essentially a single gas station, he learned how to prepare ski courses in nearby Jackson Hole. When the U.S. nationals were held in the Wyoming resort in 1998, the U.S. Ski Team hired him as a technical adviser — a role he's held ever since.
"This job was always just to support my cow and my tractor habit. That's all," Johnston said in an interview at the finish area of Sunday's race. "And they just kept asking me to move to the next level and the next level so this is my third Olympic venue. I did Salt Lake, I did Snowbasin for the women and Sochi for the women and then this new one."
For months, Johnston has been directing a crew of Koreans on the intricacies of laying down the 2.8-kilometer (1.8-mile) track with artificial snow, grooming the surface to perfection with huge snowcats, then shaping the terrain and jumps according to World Cup standards.
"It's similar conditions (to Colorado) — pretty cold weather and dry," Johnston said. "We have about a meter (3 feet) everywhere. Some places with the terrain we had to put in 3-4 meters (9-12 feet). Some places were down to 2/3 of a meter (2 feet).
"With a new track you have to think a lot about what's going to happen with the racers so we had to put a lot of extra snow in some places — a lot," he said.
A sign of success came when not a single racer fell or crashed in Saturday's downhill. After an overnight dusting, things got a little more complicated for Sunday's super-G, when most of the favorites struggled.
With such a perfect surface, skiers have to be careful not to dig their edges in too hard.
"It's really aggressive so if you overdo it, then you're slow. So there's a lot of tactics involved," said Canadian downhiller Erik Guay, the 2011 world champion. "The snow is amazing. It's just so much fun to lay it over."
Unlike previous Olympics, Johnston will be preparing the course for both men and women as there is only one track at the newly developed course in Jeongseon, which was designed by Bernhard Russi, the 1972 Olympic champion.
"He has an amazing knowledge of prepping snow and working with people," U.S. men's head coach Sasha Rearick said. "There's no better guy to do the job and there's a reason why Gunter (Hujara, the International Ski Federation's technical specialist) wanted him and he only wanted him."
While the snow conditions are Colorado-style, that doesn't necessarily mean that U.S. skiers have a home advantage.
"It's not like he's preparing it in a specific way for our guys," said Luke Bodensteiner, the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association's executive vice president for athletics. "He's just made it a good, reliable surface. He's definitely known as the expert worldwide."
Still, it helps having a friendly face in a faraway place.
"He's been sending us pictures and telling us, 'It's good, guys. This is your hill and let's see it,'" U.S. racer Steven Nyman said before finishing third in the downhill test. "They have that cold Siberian air that moves in here and it's that Colorado, very aggressive, very responsive snow and it's a joy to ski."
Johnston credits Tim "Swampy" LaMarche, his predecessor at the USSA, for teaching him the job. He never studied it.
"I just do it. Just experience," he said. "A lot of atmospheric stuff whether it's high pressure, low pressure, high or low humidity. I know there's guys that try to put science to it but I'm not one of them. I just do my thing."
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