The Flying Skier: WeTalk with Swiss Olympic Medalist Freestyle Skier Mathilde Gremaud
WeTalk. Pop Culture. Swiss-Made is a social media campaign of the Embassy of Switzerland in the United States. WeTalk promotes the diversity of Swiss culture and innovation by featuring prominent Swiss stakeholders from these fields. Sharing perspectives from artists, athletes, and entrepreneurs, WeTalk provides its audience with fascinating insights into the diversity of contemporary Swiss culture. Watch Mathilde’s 1-min WeTalk interview here!
With the end of the year comes the final edition of our WeTalk campaign. We’re wrapping things up on a (seasonally-appropriate) high note by getting to know Swiss freestyle skier Mathilde Gremaud. What attracted Mathilde to her sport? Freedom, and the sensation of flying. The 21-year-old Fribourg native started skiing when she was just two and since then has achieved great success on the international stage. Perhaps most notably, she won a silver medal in slopestyle at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games (her Swiss teammate, Sarah Höfflin, took gold) and recently won a gold medal at the Winter X Games XXV in Aspen, Colorado. Mathilde grew up in the small municipality of La Roche, in the Swiss region of Gruyère (the origin of one of the most famous Swiss cheeses!).
What exactly is slopestyle? Mathilde’s unique skiing discipline is broadly part of freestyle, a sport first recognized by the International Ski Federation in 1979. It has since evolved into several distinct categories, including aerial skiing, ski cross, halfpipe skiing, and slopestyle. In slopestyle, athletes ski or snowboard down a course with a variety of obstacles such as rails, jumps, and other terrain park features. Points are awarded for amplitude, originality, and quality of the tricks, or “jumps.” Athletes are thus free to decide what tricks they want to try out during the competition, something that really appealed to Mathilde, who started freestyle when she was around 12 years old. The originality and dynamic nature of the sport were not the only elements that attracted her to it: it was also about being in the air and, as she puts it, “having the sensation of flying.” Mathilde began competing internationally during the 2015–2016 season, and (only two seasons later) joined Switzerland’s ski team for the 2016–2017 season, marking the beginning of her professional skiing career.
Mathilde is very attached to her home skiing resort of La Berra, in Fribourg — in fact, she was recently appointed an “ambassador” by Gruyère Tourisme — but she confesses that her second-favorite place to freestyle is Keystone, Colorado. How does the professional skier occupy her time in the summer? Mathilde, who still lives in La Berra, often goes kayaking on Lake Gruyère or biking in the neighboring mountains, which is similar to freestyle, with a lot of jumps and plenty of adrenaline.
Adrenaline does have its costs, however, and Mathilde has not been spared common skiing injuries from falls and strain, including a knee ligament rupture in 2017 that almost ended her chances of being able to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Five-and-a-half months later, with a lot of patience and solid medical support from her team, Mathilde was finally able to put her skis back on and start training again. Just 289 days after her injury, Mathilde stood on the Olympic podium, proof of her determination, perseverance, and hard work. The Embassy recently sat down with Mathilde over video chat to talk about her incredible journey, what attracted her to the sport, and what it felt like to bring home an Olympic medal.
Swiss Embassy: What attracted you to slopestyle?
Mathilde Gremaud: I always loved skiing, jumping around, and doing fun stuff, so when I learned about slopestyle it was the perfect combination of fun and challenge. It allows you to be extremely free as an athlete because you decide how you put your own run together and for me it was important to have as few technical requirements as possible. Of course, I need to show everything I can and have to spin left and right to get better scores, but that is really the only obligation; the rest is up to me, so it gives me the space to express my creativity.
Swiss Embassy: How do you select and work on the jumps you want to do?
Mathilde Gremaud: I work a lot with my instinct; but I also try to influence and direct my instincts. So I have an idea of the tricks I want to do and try to make sure I will feel good when it’s time to do them. It’s important to me to “feel it” when I want to do a bigger trick. For example, no other female freestyle skier had ever landed the “Switch 14” before I did in 2020 in Saas Fee, Switzerland. It’s something I had wanted to try for a long time. The jump consists of four spins (horizontal axis) and two flips (nearly vertical axis), with the skier skiing backwards until they take off from the ramp before the jump. The same goes for the landing, which is also done “switch,” or “backward.” I did it as many times as possible in my head to make sure I had a good memory of it. I also trained the trick that I do right before the “Switch 14” a bunch of times to make sure I felt comfortable with the jump without the risk of doing it before the day of the competition. Long story short: I make sure I feel safe and confident to go for a trick when I need and want to show it.
Swiss Embassy: Which one of your jumps are you most proud of and why?
Mathilde Gremaud: Probably my “Switch Double 10,” because it’s the first double I learned and the first time I tried it was at the 2017 X Games in Norway where I landed it right away. The “Switch Double 10” is a smaller rotation than the “Switch 14,” so I had to learn the “10” before I tried the “Switch 14.” For the “Switch Double 10,” I ski “switch,” which means I approach the jump skiing backward and while in the air, I do two summersaults as I rotate 3 times around to land “switch” again. The first time I landed that trick was a big moment and it made me proud because no one was expecting it since no one, not even me, knew that I could do it. Ever since then, the “Switch Double 10” has always brought me a certain confidence. It was the trick that made the difference at the last Olympics and it’s a trick I still do regularly and can include in my runs.
Swiss Embassy: What was it like to represent Switzerland at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games?
Mathilde Gremaud: Competing for the first time in the Olympics felt like a reward, especially after a big injury. It was an emotional and complex journey, with three main phases: the first three weeks were super hard because I thought my Olympic dream was over for good; then it turned into a new challenge because I realized participating might still be possible; and finally it turned into my best sporting performance yet. That challenge really helped me to learn about myself and how my body works. I was eager to ski again as quickly as possible but soon realized that returning to the slopes too quickly and not listening to my body would have been a mistake. I needed to feel safe again in the gym first, and that’s what I worked on.
Swiss Embassy: How did it feel to come back to your hometown of La Berra with an Olympic Silver Medal?
Mathilde Gremaud: I know it’s cliché to say, but it was kind of surreal. Everyone was so happy and proud of me…a very emotional moment…the coolest thing was to see everyone’s support and how we could share that moment together. It felt as if it was not only my medal, but everyone’s and that was amazing. It really brought the people in my community together. Such fun!
Swiss Embassy: How do you prepare mentally for important competitions? How do you deal with injuries and setbacks?
Mathilde Gremaud: I prepare by reminding myself why I do this, why I chose this sport. And the competitive part is always there. So when I remind myself to have fun first, enjoy everything, be in the moment, then I feel ready and can’t stop smiling. It also makes me feel good that I want to do my best and ski well and that’s when the competitive spirit works for me. My family, manager, coaches, physiotherapist all play a big part in supporting me and encouraging me whenever I need some extra motivation and to push my limits. My whole team is a big part of both my mental and physical preparation and learning how to deal with setbacks and injuries.
Swiss Embassy: What kind of music do you listen to when you are riding the slopes?
Mathilde Gremaud: It depends on the mood of the day: it can go from classical music all the way to metal! My top artist is probably Miley Cyrus, and my top song is by The Weeknd, which I actually only listen to when skiing. Third place would go to the song “Words,” by FR David.
Swiss Embassy: What similarities and differences have you noticed between the Swiss and U.S. slopestyle scenes?
Mathilde Gremaud: I would say the main difference is that the sport is bigger in the U.S. than in Switzerland so it’s a very different atmosphere at competitions. In the U.S., the crowd is bigger and I personally find it more exciting to ride in those kinds of settings. It was interesting for me to come to the States and see how it was done here, even if, on the competition circuit itself, there are not that many differences apart from the public.
Swiss Embassy: What do you do when you are not skiing or biking in the mountains?
Mathilde Gremaud: I spend time at home with my family relaxing, cooking, playing card games, and things like that. I try to see many friends whom I haven’t seen in a while because I’m always away during the winter. It can be challenging to keep in touch with them during the competition season.
Swiss Embassy: What is your biggest dream for 2022? How are you preparing for your second Olympics?
Mathilde Gremaud: Good question…I always have lots of dreams and projects, but getting ready for the Olympics is definitely a big one! However, I try not to make the biggest thing out of the Olympics, as it was nice that no one had expectations for me last time. Obviously pressure and expectation are part of every athlete’s life, but for me it’s important to not constantly think about it and stay in my little bubble. So, I know the pressure is there and people talk about it, but I try to quickly acknowledge it and then go back to thinking the Olympics are still my childhood dream and that helps me to focus less on the pressure and concentrate on the fun and enjoyment! On the more practical side of things, we have adapted our planning a bit by skipping some competitions in January 2022 so we can ski and train at home in Switzerland and do exactly what we want to: work on things we may need to for a good two weeks before heading to the X Games and then to the Olympic Games.
Curious about slopestyle? Check out Mathilde’s Instagram page here.