U.S. Olympic team member Morse skis best under pressure, and it doesn’t get any bigger than the Winter Games in Vancouver
Three weeks ago, Michael Morse stood in a familiar place, the starting gate of the moguls course at Lake Placid, N.Y. He looked down over the bumps and jumps between him and the finish line and knew what he had to do.
A good run just about guaranteed a spot at the Vancouver Olympics. If he failed to finish, the 28-year-old freestyle moguls skier from Duxbury would likely have seen his Olympic dreams end right there.
Morse is still dreaming. He aced his run and finished fifth as the top American in the World Cup event.
Sunday, he’ll be in another starting gate. This time in Vancouver, British Columbia. This time as a member of the U.S. Olympic Team. He knows what he has to do to impress the judges.
“I think they like to see us on the verge of exploding,” he said. “That’s something I need to work on.
“It’s more of a mindset for me to do things pretty consistently,” he said. “And I can do reasonable well skiing, but I need to let it go.”
He has done more than reasonably well in his competitive career. Morse, who started skiing on weekend family trips to Killington, Vt., eventually committed to competing in freestyle by joining the Killington Mountain School (KMS) when he was 14.
The shift to the five-month academic and athletic program gave him more than just an opportunity to spend more time on the mountain.
“It helped me to learn to be independent,” he recalled.
It also helped him to perfect his technique in moguls, which distributes only a quarter of its points for speed, with the rest awarded by judges looking for technical proficiency and style.
One of his first coaches, Matt Gnoza, remembers that Morse had a feel for freestyle moguls from the beginning but it may have been his determination that let him rise above so many others.
“I recall him very well,” said Gnoza, who is now the competition program director and moguls coach at KMS. “He was a wide-eyed kid who had an eagerness to learn, a first chair to last chair kid who couldn’t get enough runs.” Once Morse moved from local to regional races, Gnoza noticed something else that made Morse special.
“Michael has always performed well when pressure was the greatest,” he said. “I remember in a regional competition, he might have been 15, one kid had laid down an unbelievable run. Everyone thought that was it. The competition was over. I looked over at Michael and he was quiet, like a stone. He went out and blew that run out of the water. The better the competition, the better he skis.”
That trait bodes well for him as he enters the Olympic moguls men’s event scheduled for Sunday.
His parents, Dick and Sheila, and brother Richard hope to be in Vancouver to see him chase an Olympic medal. They know how long and hard he has worked for this.
“Needless to say we’re incredibly excited and proud,” said his father. “He has suffered through a lot to get to this point and he’s earned every bit of it.”
Years ago he gave up the comfort of staying with his classmates in Duxbury schools to join KMS. After some time in college, he moved again, this time to Steamboat Springs, Colo., where he felt he could further improve his skills and someday compete in the Olympics.
Four years ago, Morse had watched his Olympic dream get deferred when the last skier of the day bumped him from the podium and a chance to compete at Torino. Following that disappointment, he faced three surgeries in a year to take care of injuries suffered in relentless training.
It took him two years to recuperate fully from the back and knee operations but when he did, he was even better than before. In March 2008 at the U.S. Nationals, he won both the single and dual moguls competition at Deer Valley in in Park City, Utah, rekindling his hopes of another Olympic bid.
Gnoza feels Morse can do well at Vancouver. The two spent time last summer on the snow in Australia where Gnoza took KMS students for a three-week training session.
“It was a good time to be together on the hill, but it was rewarding for both of us,” recalled Gnoza. “He’s worked hard and is peaking at the right time.
“Michael as a skier is textbook. I could take a film of him any day and show it to kids and say this is where your boots and poles should be. This is where you should be on your skis.”
When he was a student with KMS, Morse spent hours watching film of former Olympic skiers to improve his skills. Now, Gnoza enjoys seeing the next generation watching film of Morse and he agrees with Morse that “letting it go” is a good key for this race.
“You just need to trust your technique.” Gnoza said. “You don’t need to change. You just need to totally believe it. For Michael, his technique is so solid that he can ski at high risk and be OK.”
When Morse’s family, friends, coaches and fellow teammates see him in the starting gate on on Cypress Mountain in West Vancouver, they’ll all be channeling that thought, all believing that Morse can bring back the kind of mastery he showed less than two years ago at Deer Valley and the success he enjoyed just weeks ago at Lake Placid.
If he does, they all believe he could bring back more from Vancouver than memories.
The Patriot Ledger