Article taken from the Weekend Australian by NICOLE JEFFERY Sports Reporter
Snowboard cross world champion Alex “Chumpy’’ Pullin is out of air. He’s lying on the bottom of a swimming pool, there’s a man standing on his chest, his lungs are screaming but he’s trying to stay calm.
He’s there voluntarily, after all. This is a training drill, one that he hopes will teach him how to keep his cool in the cauldron of Olympic competition in South Korea next month, and emerge with the gold medal that was denied him at the Sochi Games four years ago.
Pullin was the reigning world champion, world No 1, Olympic gold medal favourite and Australian flag-bearer in Sochi, but his campaign unravelled, picked apart by internal and external factors.
Aside from competing in one of the most unpredictable events on the Olympic program, Pullin was wrestling with physical and mental demons in Sochi. His confidence was dented by a less-than-perfect preparation. Some of his lead-up events were cancelled; he picked up an injury; and there were distractions of dissent and jealousies in the Australian team.
Then warm conditions in the Caucasus mountains reduced the snow on the Olympic course to Mr Whippy consistency rather than the hard, fast, technical conditions in which Pullin usually thrived.
The event became a lottery and Pullin picked out No 13.
A lot of soul-searching followed.
The consensus was that although Pullin was the fastest, fittest, strongest rider in the field, he had not been the most adaptable to circumstance, and that had brought him undone.
In the past four years he has embraced far less regimented training. He’s still fast, fit and strong but he’s more resilient when things aren’t going his way.
“We talk and discuss each training session as if it’s a competition event and we look for those one percenters in every session.
“With Nam I am really challenged. I am always a little nervous before a session because I don’t know what he will throw at me.
“The pool stuff is really different, the empty lung breath holds and doing wrestling under water. It’s always really difficult to get that exact feeling of race day, to get those nerves, but that’s what Nam tries to do. He brings the physical and mental side into play.
“If I exhale and then he pushes me to the bottom of the pool and stands on my chest, it means I have to stay calm and if I do, I gain confidence.’’
Pullin showed all of that confidence at the start of the season in Argentina. He dominated the first two World Cup events there in the hard, fast conditions he loves, riding at a level above all of his rivals.
But when the circuit reached Europe last month, the conditions didn’t suit him at the next race in France, where he finished sixth, and then he crashed in training in Austria, injuring his shoulder, which forced him out of the next World Cup at Montafon. He returned at Cervinia, in Italy the week before Christmas and bounced back to the podium, finishing third.
Wordsworth says things that once would have shaken Pullin no longer do.
“Nam has been really effective in making him aware that you have to be good in every situation, not just the ones that suit you,’’ he said. “The training they have done has really calmed him down. Now he can take in any situation, bad weather or conditions or something happening off the course, and think his way through it.
And most of that is down to Nam Baldwin, the Gold Coast strength and conditioning expert who trained surfing world champion Mick Fanning.
When snowboard cross head coach Ben Wordsworth brought Baldwin in to do some group training with his riders, Pullin and Baldwin clicked immediately.
“Chumpy took an instant liking to him,’’ Wordsworth said.
Pullin began making pilgrimages to the Gold Coast to work with Baldwin, who employs some unusual methods to improve the strength and agility of his athletes, in both body and mind.
His signature is the breath-hold exercises he has athletes do under water. His sessions also include obstacle courses of hurdles and balance boards that Pullin has to complete while dodging the balls Baldwin is throwing at his head.
“Nam has been unreal,’’ Pullin said. “We moved up to the Gold Coast for two months after Argentina (the first two World Cup events in September) to be closer to him and it was a really great thing. I have been training since I was really young and it’s refreshing to see a new challenge like that.
“When we did the test event in South Korea (two years ago), we had a bad event. There was a lot of wind and other variables and that was unsettling for Chumpy, but now he’s a very different athlete.’’
Pullin said the entire aim of this Olympic cycle had been to prepare him “for what you don’t see coming’’.
He now regards his Olympic flop in Sochi as “an opportunity to grow as a human being’’ and he wants to show that he has.
“If I can be there feeling 100 per cent ready and I have enjoyed getting myself there, if I can enjoy it all, I think that’s the best way to bring out my best performance,’’ he said.
“I was ranked No 1 before the last Games and I’m currently the World Cup leader and that’s where I want to be, on top.
“(Olympic gold) is the one I would love to have in my career and I am pushing as hard as I can to be as ready as I can be for the Games.’’