Josie Baff blazed a trail at Lausanne 2020 with Australia’s first-ever Winter Youth Olympic Games gold medal. Now, the snowboard cross racer is looking to make it onto the podium at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.
Snowboard cross is undoubtedly one of the most spectator-friendly events at any Olympic Winter Games. With four racers bombing down a twisting, turning course and attempting risky overtaking manoeuvres – often resulting in spectacular crashes – it is the piste’s equivalent of short track speed skating or BMX. Unlike skiing, in which athletes simply factor in the next couple of turns, snowboard cross presents numerous variables to deal with in the heat of the moment.
“Where you’re in the middle of a race, it’s pretty crazy,” said Josie Baff, who caused a sensation at Lausanne 2020 by winning Australia’s first-ever Winter Youth Olympic Games (YOG) gold medal. “No race is ever the same and anything can happen, the whole way down. During that Lausanne final, I learned a lot from the heats. I’d tried to overtake the same girl on the outside, but it hadn’t worked on that course. So coming into the same turn, I went on the inside and got ahead.
“After that, I could just feel myself ahead. I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is happening; hold it together’. And I felt them behind me. It’s crazy when you can sense people trying to catch you. They were getting closer and closer, but I remember my coach saying, ‘Stay right at the finish’. I did that, and I got across in first. It was such an overwhelming feeling. To get Australia’s first YOG gold at a Winter Games was such an honour – and hopefully it’ll open things up for more Australians to do something similar.”
Baff, who turned 17 five days after winning gold, now has Beijing 2022 in her sights and is considered one of Australia’s most promising young winter athletes. She was recently awarded a Sport Australia Hall of Fame scholarship, through which she will be mentored by eight-time Olympic swimming medallist Susie O’Neill. A lot of things are happening quickly for the youngster from Jindabyne, New South Wales, who is fairly new to the event.
“Jindabyne is the town closest to the bottom of two big mountains, so I started skiing when I was two, and snowboarding when I was five,” she said. “My dad is a snowboard instructor so it made sense. But, in terms of racing, I did think I’d become a ski racer. I only decided to totally focus on snowboard cross last year. And I’ve just finished school, so I’m only really concentrating on Beijing 2022 full time from now.
“You can’t really train just in Australia for this sport because our ski season is so short. I try to skateboard a little, I windsurf on the lake in the summer, and I mountain bike – so that all helps with the same muscles, and you don’t notice you’re getting fitter and stronger because you’re having fun with friends. But you have to go overseas to race – we only have one proper competition here. You need to get more experience.”
It was just three years ago that Baff realised she could be a potential medal contender. “I started travelling overseas for snowboarding a lot later than many other people, and I still haven’t done many competitions; only about ten in my life,” she said. “But I went to Canada and came third in a North American Cup. I thought that may be a fluke, but then I went to Europe and kept getting results. I kept proving that I was better than I expected myself to be. And there was no real pressure because I was there for fun.”
The good-time attitude rolled over into Lausanne 2020, where Baff won gold by a margin of just 0.05 seconds. “I loved every minute of the YOG,” she said. “The first minute you arrive, you get given a bag of stuff and you’re like, ‘Is this for me; is this seriously happening?’. I made loads of friends, and it was so relaxed.
“I didn’t really process winning the gold medal until I got back home. Going around town, there were photos of me in shop windows, which was crazy. People keep reminding me about it.”
Baff may be short on experience, but there is no reason to doubt she can be a podium threat in a discipline that is increasingly dominated by youthful athletes. “Snowboarding is getting younger and younger,” she said. “A lot of kids nowadays are really good, really young. I think there are more people being given the chance to try the sport, and it’s also cool that, as a fairly new sport, we have some idols to look up to now.
“To be a champion ski racer, you’ve got to be very strong and powerful. It takes a while to develop that, physically. But in snowboard, being young is an advantage because you’re very mobile and very fearless. When people want to try to do gnarly tricks at 14, they just go out and do it.
“You do need a foundation of skills – being comfy on the board, and being able to ride in a variety of ways. You need strong muscles, but you also need to be really comfortable on the board, so that when something comes at you, you can deal with it.
“But mostly, you have to really enjoy this sport to get good at it. If you love it, it makes the hard work of the gym and so on disappear. You can dedicate yourself to something, and it’s no effort. I live and breathe snowboarding without noticing it, really.”
It helps to be relaxed. Snowboard cross is notoriously one of the most dangerous Olympic events. “Sometimes I worry about it a little, but then I think, ‘It’s not going to make a difference if I worry about this or not’,” Baff said. “So I put it out my mind. You are more likely to injure yourself if you’re thinking about avoiding injury. I’ve had a few bashes. I’ve broken my humerus, which was painful, and [had] a few broken wrists. But you recover and move on. The positives outweigh the negatives.”
The snowboarding spirit helps, too. Australia has some excellent role models in the discipline – champions like Scotty James, Torah Bright and Belle Brockhoff – and Baff is friends with them all. “One thing I love about the boarder cross community is that everyone knows everyone,” she said. “We are tight, and that plays a big role in how we participate. They are great mentors and they have helped me learn how to train and how to compete. They also show you what is possible, so you want to keep getting better.”
Her father, Peter, who has coached the likes of Bright and Alex Pullin, the three-time Olympian and two-time snowboard world champion who tragically died in July, certainly thinks Josie has a chance to rise to such levels. “Previous to the YOG, she only snowboarded with me for three weeks every April in Mammoth [northern California], and in some inter-school races here in Australia,” he said. “Her time racing is very minimal, and for this sport, even less. So when she started getting results, I knew she had a very good chance of success.”
Next stop is China. “I’m really hopeful for Beijing 2022,” Baff said. “It is my first priority. And going to the YOG will have been really great preparation. It makes you realise how fun the Olympics are going to be.” Further Australian records may beckon.