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Australia isn't renowned for its prowess at the Winter Olympic Games, but the sun-baked nation has a growing reputation on ski hills and ice runs.
Former Winnipegger Tom Hammond will be in the middle of it. He's among the members of a dedicated Aussie support staff that will be helping athletes from Down Under push themselves to peak performance levels when the Winter Games open Thursday in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Hammond, a 33-year-old clinical and performance psychologist, has wide-ranging responsibilities, but he will be focused primarily on his adopted country's moguls and aerials skiers. He also has close ties with short-track speedskaters and figure skaters.
"We've got 51 (athletes) here or on the way and it's a lot of freestyle skiers, moguls ski cross, snowboard cross, halfpipe and we also have athletes in alpine (skiing), short track (speedskating) and figure skating, luge, skeleton and bobsled and cross-country skiing," Hammond said via telephone from Seoul last week.
"I'm focused on developing mental skills to help people focus better, be confident and adapt to situations. We're also making sure people are feeling well — more of a holistic approach, I guess. We take care of the performance side and make sure everyone is doing as well as they can."
Make no mistake, some of the athletes working with Hammond are serious medal threats.
The Aussies, who won two silver and a bronze at the 2014 Olympics, hope to improve on those totals with the help of superstar snowboarder Scotty James and moguls ace Britt Cox.
To be a winter sport athlete from Down Under takes a special kind of dedication. Hammond himself is on the road for many months during the winter competitive season in the Northern Hemisphere.
"Very few can actually train at home," said Hammond. "We have probably two, 2 1/2 months where we can be on snow domestically for our freestyle programs. We train out of a place called Mount Buller and then Perisher Ski Resort. We do have domestic snow and we're pretty fortunate we can train out there.
"Outside of those two months, we're on the road pretty much all the time. We train a lot in Utah at the Olympic Park there. We do the water ramping in Park City (Utah). There's other places in the U.S., in Colorado. Most of the year is spent on the road."
Hammond moved to Australia to attend Deakin University with his wife Jill Hnatiuk in 2011. Hnatiuk and Hammond, who met at grad school while attending the University of Manitoba, live in Melbourne where she is a lecturer at Deakin. Hammond, meanwhile, has been working full time for the past three years with the winter sport program at Olympic Winter Institute of Australia.
In South Korea, Hammond will be at his perch at the top of the course with the freestyle coaches, tending mainly to the needs of athletes in moguls, snowcross, halfpipe and big air.
The growing Australian interest in winter sports will be aided by favourable geography, since the Games will be staged in time zones favourable to an Australian television audience.
Moguls got early exposure when ex-pat Canadian Dale Begg-Smith moved to Australia in his teens and eventually competed for his adopted country, winning gold at the 2006 Games in Turin and silver at the 2010 Games in Vancouver.
"It's kind of a combination of things and now that people are doing well, they'll continue to inspire kids to get involved," said Hammond. "It's also a lot of fun. You look at snowboard cross. Barrelling down the mountain with jumps, turns, going head to head against other athletes. It's dangerous, but fun...
"Australia's a pretty sporting nation and they take sports pretty seriously, especially if they do well. Hopefully they'll do well."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
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