Two summers ago, Scott Rawles’s career hung in limbo. The longtime Breckenridge skier and World Cup moguls coach had been let go by the U.S. Ski Team after the Sochi Olympic Winter Games. He was recovering from an ankle fusion that repaired a four-year-old injury and hobbled him on crutches for more than two months.
Rawles knew he still wanted to coach, and he had offers from ski clubs in Summit County, Telluride, and Aspen. Then one day his former boss at the U.S. team, Jeff Wintersteen, who had been consulting for the Chinese Ski Federation, called to ask whether Rawles might know anyone interested in coaching China’s moguls skiers. Turns out, Rawles did: himself.
The Chinese made him a one-year offer the next day, and a week later he took the job. Why? “It was completely different from anything I had done before,” he says.
Rawles spent five of the next 12 months in China, sleeping in dorm rooms, relying on a translator to communicate with his athletes, and skiing at obscure resorts where he was often the only non-Asian. This past fall, he re-signed through the 2018 Olympics, which will be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The gig marks the latest turn in Rawles’s long, strange trip of a ski career, which has included stints on the Pro Mogul Tour, performing in Greg Stump’s seminal film Blizzard of Aahhh’s, and, of course, his run as “Banana Man” on the slopes of Breckenridge, an ode to the denim trench coat adorned with tiny yellow bananas that he used to schuss and party in during the 1980s and ’90s. Coaching the Chinese has returned Rawles, who is 56, to his coaching roots.
“China has only had a moguls program since 2007,” he says over lunch at Fatty’s in late October. “Some of the athletes I’m coaching have only been skiing for two to three years, and they’re in their late teens and early 20s. I’m teaching them how to do stuff that kids who grow up in the U.S. or Europe learn when they’re five years old.”
Rawles had just returned from a two-week training camp in Zermatt, Switzerland. In a few days he was to fly back to Beijing, then head to a 300-vertical-foot, government-owned ski area in Jiagedaqi, Inner Mongolia—just south of the Siberian border—for more training. The athletes’ lack of experience is Rawles’s biggest challenge in preparing them to be competitive outside their homeland.
“A lot of my guys, they’re pretty happy being the best skiers in China,” Rawles says with a chuckle. “I flat-out told them: ‘I don’t care about that.’”
Whereas Rawles focused on tactical planning in advance of competitions with the mighty U.S. team—American skiers won seven Olympic medals during his tenure, including Hannah Kearney’s gold in 2010—his role is drastically different now. “I’ve had to step up my level of coaching and really become a teacher again,” he says. “But I’ve also had to get an incredible amount of patience with the whole process.”
He learned early on to chalk up certain customs to culture. For instance: the notion of sleep breaking up training sessions. “Almost every day, we go train and then we have ‘rest’ in the middle of the day. Then we’ll do another workout later,” Rawles says. “Initially I was like, ‘What do you mean we’re resting? We got shit to do.’ And they’re like, ‘No, no, we’re going to take a rest.’ I’m like, ‘OK, I’m down!’”
Rawles’s open approach, not to mention his credentials, won over his athletes early on, says Chen Kang, one of the few Chinese athletes who speaks English.
“We knew that he had coached for a long time with the U.S. Ski Team and had a lot of experience and success in coaching,” Chen says. “But he has also brought a lot of enthusiasm and fun to a team that he really didn’t know anything about.”
The Chinese athletes, who had never freeskied before last spring, spent 37 days in April and May skiing the steeps and training at Arapahoe Basin, a camp Rawles hopes to repeat this season. He also introduced them to mountain-town culture, which doesn’t exist in China.
Beyond the technical expertise he shares, Rawles views his role as that of an ambassador. “It’s not like I’m curing cancer or anything,” he says, “but I feel like I’m spreading the word of skiing.”