Torah Bright – it’s about the snowboarding, stupid!
Torah Bright talks … snowboarding. Want something else, go somewhere else!
Remove the sponsors, the looks, the ex-husband, the current fiance, talk about religion, funding feuds and approximately 1,211 other peripheral issues to snowboarding and what do you have left with Torah Bright?
Australia’s greatest winter athlete.
Sport loves a side story, a back story and a colour story. It gives context and meaning. But sometimes in the search for something else the real story of just how good an athlete is gets missed.
Bright isn’t making the case for that standing but it’s one worth exploring.
If you judge these things on Olympics results, as some do, she shares the baton with moguls skier Dale Begg-Smith who also picked up a gold and silver, in 2006 and 2010.
Begg-Smith’s indifferent standing with the Australian public is irrelevant but perhaps the 15 years fine-tuning his craft as a Canadian isn’t.
Steven Bradbury, Lydia Lassila and Alisa Camplin also have dual Games medals. Suggesting Bradbury had a little luck is like saying Lyndsey Vonn can ski a bit. And while the skills and commitment of Lassila and Camplin can’t be denied, neither can the fact that aerial skiing is an esoteric sport with competitors numbering in the hundreds. Granted, the fact kids aren’t hand-fashioning kickers on the slopes to do double-twisting double somersaults is probably a good thing.
I’d actually plump for Zali Steggall, who won a slalom bronze medal at the 1998 Games and a world championship the year after in a sport that had more than 10,000 registered competitors, above them all – except for Bright (a two-time X Games gold medallist as well).
Yet if there is any doubt about Bright’s place in the pantheon of winter sports, her fourth and final Winter Olympics in 2018 will give her an opportunity to put that to bed too.
“Let’s just say I will not be doing three events again,” she tells me with a typical laugh at the Thredbo Alpine Hotel.
“Maybe two. Halfpipe and slopestyle are essentially the same thing if you are riding. They help each other.”
Bright became the first woman to take on three snowboarding events at a Games when she also tackled boardercross in Sochi. It was, to put it mildly, a tough assignment where the tricks for slope and pipe had to combine with a race face for boardercross. After finishing seventh in slope, then taking out silver in the pipe, she made one head-to-head round of boardercross before being eliminated. But she was happy to give it a crack.
“Boardercross because it is a completely different tour, it was so hard. But it worked for me. It gave me the drive and excitement to do it again whereas if I was just going back for halfpipe there was no real excitement.”
While the athletes are cocooned in the weird, sterile and often fraught world of the Olympics, Bright still caused a buzz on a couple of levels. First, it was siding with #teamoutcast in the funding feud that divided the Australian snowboard team. Then it was when she, and somewhat more colourfully her brother Ben, slated the state of the halfpipe in Sochi.
“I got thrashed for commenting on the state of the park and pipe. I wasn’t commenting on something I didn’t know about,” said Bright who wasn’t too happy with the Vancouver halfpipe four years earlier either.
“It comes down to the IOC paying the right people, the right amount to put a world class event on. I think they (Korea) would have to get it right now. Korea has a test event two years out instead of one so that will help.”
“We just have to fit in and do what is best for the sport and us in the long term. It was him (Haakonsen) and his generation that could have changed it then and they didn’t.”
In snowboarding it’s hard to know if, when or how the elite end of the sport could ever be run under the one banner with FIS and the TTR tours operating completely separately. Outsiders probably don’t know much better but a World Cup or world championship win is effectively devalued because the best of the best all rarely turn up, save for when it helps them qualify for the Olympics.
There’s no question Bright herself has demurred on the issue in the past. Speaking to her a couple of months before the Games she questioned even going to Sochi because of potential security problems and the excesses of the Olympics. She even admits she can sound contradictory and concludes her relationship with the Olympics “is what it is”.
“Coming into Russia I got an email from (snowboard legend) Terje Haakonsen. He sent me an email saying ‘more or less it is people like you’ who are the problem’. I agreed with him too in a way,” she said of her choice to participate at the Olympics, pretty much like every other snowboarder since Haakonsen said no thanks to the Games in ’98. “But we’ve got to play the game. It’s a different world now . It’s not our problem. We just have to fit in and do what is best for the sport and us in the long term. It was him and his generation that could have changed it then and they didn’t.”
“It’s true, if we all grew some and we were more united and on the same page and without personal interest we could make change straight away. If Shaun White was interested in really joining with everybody we could make change even quicker. Me alone no. Shaun White alone maybe, just maybe.”
On the positive side of the ledger she feels there have been improvements in the Australian system since Sochi, and Bright is hopeful that the best riders can get the best results regardless of whether they align themselves completely to a government-funded system or not.
So for now Bright will chill. You might reasonably question her move from a place with a superpipe (Perisher) to be the face of Thredbo (a place without one) – but over the past two years she hasn’t been riding the ‘pipe in domestic winters anyway. For now there’s kids’ camps, racing the Top to Bottom next weekend (in skis no less) and of course the various photo shoots, sponsor gigs, looming marriage and the 1,211 other things which I mentioned earlier and you can read about elsewhere.
Then there’s the matter of the 2018 Winter Olympics where a place in Australian Games history beckons.
“Like any other event I go into I am going in to put on a show. So if that’s a medal, sweet. I don’t have a bronze so maybe I can complete the set,” she said.
“But if you are going in you are always aiming to be your best. I know my best can be the best. It’s three years out so I am going to keep working away.”