Coach Matt Christensen Left A Lasting Impact On Athletes
It’s easy to measure a coach’s success by medals and globes. It’s harder to evaluate the impact a coach has on the lives of athletes. But one thing’s for sure: Longtime U.S. Freestyle Ski Team aerials coach Matt Christensen was a gold medalist in each category.
Christensen, who coached the U.S. aerials team from 1998 until 2010, passed away October 31 in Hawaii, where he lived. In the time since his passing, his athletes and fellow coaches have remembered him as a friend who always stayed in touch and as a coach who had a special way of helping his athletes achieve not only their athletic dreams but to find their pathway in life.
His career with the U.S. Ski Team was bookended with a 2002 Olympic silver from Joe Pack and a 2010 Olympic silver from Jeret “Speedy” Peterson. In 2009, he was at the helm when Ryan St. Onge won the World Championship in Japan. He left the U.S. Ski Team in 2010 for an opportunity with Red Bull where he used his knowledge of acrobatics to help global athletes across a wide range of sports.
A Canadian native, he grew up in Guelph, Ontario and later moved to nearby Toronto making his way to the Canadian Freestyle Team - a ski ballet national champion who turned aerialist. As an international athlete, he had 14 top-10 World Cup finishes in aerials and acro (ballet) and was 14th in aerials at the 1993 World Championships.
Traveling the world as a Canadian athlete, he was quick to pick up friends, building what would become one of the largest Rolodexes in the sport - a network of friends and colleagues that would serve him throughout his life.
What was unique about him as an athlete was his ability to translate his initial career in ballet into aerials. “How he transformed his acrobatic awareness from ballet and kind of showed up on the aerial hill one day was pretty fascinating to me,” said world champion freestyle skier Trace Worthington, who competed at a similar time. “I'll never forget - there are only a couple of people who've really done that successfully - Matt Christensen and Richard Pierce - who became aerialists from being a good ballet skier.”
As the 1998 Olympics loomed in the foreground, he saw that he was not likely to crack the top selection for a trip with Canada to the Nagano Games. So he started to set his sights on new opportunities. And he looked south across the border to America.
Coming to America
That winter, Christensen did show jumping to get by. But his focus moved to coaching. He landed a job with aerials guru Nick Preston at the training pool in Lake Placid. At the same time, U.S. Freestyle Ski Team Head Coach Wayne HIlterbrand was in the market for another coach for his growing aerials team.
“I knew that I had a pretty big need for an additional coach,” said Hilterbrand, who oversaw the entire freestyle program as well as coaching aerials. “So I offered him the job as C Team aerials coach, essentially our development team. He accepted.”
Just months after Eric Bergoust and Nikki Stone swept aerials gold at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, the fledgling new coach was now hooked into the red hot U.S. aerials team. It was also a transitional period, with a generation of athletes retiring and a new wave coming on.
Hilterbrand recalls the new thinking that Christensen brought to the team. “He had a lot of ideas that really made sense and I hadn't thought of,” he said. “They were ideas that made a pretty big difference.”
One of those ideas was greater integration of trampoline skills as a means of raising skill level. “I had used trampoline for learning tricks and then taking them to snow. Matt was trying to extend their skills on a trampoline more extensively than I was. That was huge. It really helped athletes to be able to perform better. As a young coach, he brought stuff to the table that I hadn’t really thought of and it was great.”
Uncompromising Belief in Athletes
Young aerialist Emily Cook met Christensen at her first aerials World Cup in January of 1998 at Mont Tremblant. A month earlier he had competed in his final event at Tignes. “Matt was there and I think he just decided at that event like, ‘All right, I’m done.’ And the next fall he came on as our C Team coach - my coach.”
Cook saw early on that he was more than a coach. “He was a dynamic human being,” she said. “He was good at keeping in touch with people. You would always get a random text or phone call. While some of us just hunker down and move on, he wasn’t like that.”
Despite going on different pathways in life, Christensen stayed in touch. “I actually saw him three weeks ago at a Red Bull event,” said Cook. “He was just the same as he had always been.”
Over the next three seasons, Cook would grow into one of the best aerialists in the world. She was ranked sixth in the 2001 World Cup - the top American. She won the Olympic qualifying Gold Cup at Lake Placid and was soaring into the Salt Lake City Olympic Winter Games as a medal favorite.
But the euphoria came crashing down two weeks before the opening ceremony when she shattered her feet in a dramatic training crash in Lake Placid. She wouldn’t compete again for three years.
“Matt was a fiercely loyal coach,” said Cook, who was devastated by the injury. “He believed in me every step of the way.”
She recalls lying half asleep after the accident on the couch in a condo her father Don had rented in Lake Placid. Matt was there talking to her father. “Matt was saying to my dad, ‘Everything is going to be OK. We’re going to take care of her. She’s going to get healthy and come back better than ever.’
“But what struck me was that he had so much going on. He was preparing for a hometown Olympics. But he took the time to spend that day with my dad and myself. It was so hard for us. But he set the stage for everything that afternoon. I knew that he was the type of coach that had every bit of belief in me.”
During Cook’s comeback, Christensen was always there for her. “I always knew that he had my back,” she said. “Without that, I don’t know what those years would have looked like or what my future in the sport would look like.”
Just Loved Working With Athletes
“He just loved working with the athletes,” said Worthington, who retired in 1997 and was beginning his own career in broadcasting. “You could just tell they just really loved jumping for him. And he made it fun. He did a lot of things outside of just coaching. He was a guy who truly was engaged in athletes’ personal lives and cared about what they were doing.”
After two seasons as C-Team coach, Christensen stepped up to the head aerials coach position when Hilterbrand retired in 2000. As he embarked on his new role, he took the helm of a team in transition. With the development of summer training pools in both Lake Placid and Park City in the ‘90s, aerials was booming in America. And a new wave of future stars like Cook, Peterson and Pack was beginning to rise up.
“Matt Christensen was a big piece of who I was and how well I did,” said Pack, who soared to Olympic silver in front of hometown fans at Deer Valley Resort. “He managed the personalities of the men's aerials team. We didn't do things very traditionally, if you will. But we produced results. Matt was so good at making sure the athletes made it fun. And when they needed support, he did it for everybody - he didn't pick favorites.”
“He was the head coach of the aerials team when being a member meant being family,” said St. Onge. “He kept that family together while we were competing and the decade since.”
Leading into the 2006 Olympic season, Christensen organized a Navy SEALS camp with the team’s high performance director Andy Walshe. “That camp really brought us all together,” said Cook. “I mean, that was the closest team I’ve ever been on. And he was the anchor.”
It was also a period where the sport was growing. Aerials had debuted at the 1994 Lillehammer Games. The U.S. Freestyle Ski Team was one of the hottest global brands in ski sport. And the Deer Valley World Cup was becoming the marquee stop on the international tour.
“The team was getting bigger, there was more fundraising, the jump sites were getting better and there was more TV,” said Pack. Christensen saw that and pushed his teams into the national and worldwide spotlight.
Peterson, a sometimes unpredictable athlete from Boise, Idaho, was becoming the calling card for the team with his seemingly crazy Hurricane - a quintuple-twisting triple flip that carried a high degree of difficulty and a ton of risk. Unlike typical triple flips that featured single twists on two flips plus one double, the Hurricane included a single twisting flip coming in and going out, but sandwiched a triple twist on a flip in between. It was amazing to watch!
“Matt and Speedy, they were like brothers,” said Luke Bodensteiner, who was head of athletics during Christensen’s tenure. “That was one of the tightest coaching relationships I've ever experienced. He'd been through all of Speedy’s roller coaster rides. But he believed in Speedy so much. They worked one-on-one for so long. They were absolutely best friends.”
“Matt was really good at helping keep Speedy between the lines,” said Jeff Wintersteen, a former athlete who became head freestyle coach in 2000.
“Speedy and I were both products of Matt's coaching,” said St. Onge. “I can't think of two more different and difficult athletes to coach. Speedy was a force of nature, a hurricane, and Matt expertly predicted where he was headed and cleared the way for him to land. I know Speedy would agree, there was no other person in the world that could have coached him better.”
Going into the 2006 Olympics in Torino, NBC drew a sharp focus on Peterson. During the final week of the Games, all eyes were on the tiny village of Sauze d'Oulx for the men’s aerials finals. After the first round, he stood third with the top three each throwing full-double full-full - a pretty traditional opening round jump.
That set the stage for Speedy. He and Christensen talked between jumps and Speedy opted to go big, shooting for gold with the Hurricane. The crowd was mesmerized as Peterson started spinning. He nearly stuck the landing, but ever so delicately touched a hand to the snow behind him. The judges saw it, dropping him down to what would become seventh place.
“We were struggling with speeds during that whole comp,” said Wintersteen. Continually falling snow forced athletes to change their start spots. “Speedy was just a little bit slow. And when you're slow, he had to pull in for that second flip. If you can stretch down to the landing, it's easier to stick it. When he had to pull just a little bit, it's hard to keep the momentum from going back, and that's why he touched.”
The Night the Sport Will Never Forget
It was a cold night in Deer Valley as thousands of fans screamed in celebration. Up on the knoll, Christensen stood on the edge as Peterson launched off the kicker.
With the triple twist in the middle of the Hurricane, Speedy had virtually no visibility of the ground at any time. As he launched skyward, Christensen began to yell. The coach’s commands were the athlete’s lifeline, as Christensen called him through his four seconds to fame.
January 11, 2007 was a night freestyle will never forget. 268.70 - a record two-jump aerials score that may never be eclipsed.
“With Speedy, it was always like, ‘I want to go for it,’” recalled Wintersteen. “Matt was really good with Speedy. He knew when to press the gas with him and when he had to tap the brakes.”
After the 2006 Olympics, Christensen looked to shore up his staff. He approached longtime athlete Brian ‘Curdog’ Currutt, who had retired in 2003. Curdog couldn’t resist.
“Speedy threw a lot of caution to the wind,” said Currutt. “He would say, ‘I’m just doing it. It doesn’t matter. This is MY jump! And Matt always encouraged that, which I think was awesome. That’s one of the things that brought out the best in Speedy. Matt was like, ‘all right, let’s go for this.’”
For Christensen, and Peterson, it was a special night. “It was just kind of Speedy,” said Wintersteen. “It was a hill we're used to. And more importantly, I think Speedy just was a little bit bigger at Deer Valley. He just had a little bit more confidence. He felt a little bit more invincible. When Speedy was feelin’ it, well, it was hard to say ‘no, let’s just back off a bit,’” said Wintersteen. There was no backing off that night.
As teammates swarmed Peterson in the finish, Christensen put on his own show, literally flying off the knoll, ski boots postholing as he sprinted down the landing hill, relishing every second of that special night as teammates hoisted Speedy to their shoulders.
A decade into his career as head aerials coach, Christensen brought a strong team of aerialists into the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
“Vancouver was kind of the culmination of everything,” said Currutt. “We knew things were going to be different after that.”
After the first jump, Peterson stood fifth with St. Onge eighth. Canadian home snow favorite Kyle Nissen held a commanding lead. But the stage was set to unleash the Hurricane one more time.
There was little discussion between Christensen and Peterson. It was go big or go home. Speedy hit the jump and soared higher than ever. Christensen, ever his co-pilot, screamed at the top of his lungs as Speedy twisted and rotated, sticking the landing and pumping his fist.
“We do a subjective sport,” said Currutt. “But I think Matt in his mind thought that Speedy had won - and we all did. But the silver was just fine too, you know? That silver was kind of a culmination of everything that Matt did.”
To Christensen, the Olympic medal was more than an athletic accomplishment.
“With the road Speedy was on and everything that those guys had been through over the years as friends and as coach-athlete relationship, the demons that Speedy had tried to work to overcome - Matt was there the whole way,” said Currutt. “So for Speedy to win that, that medal, that was everything for Matt.”
The silver medal was the 21st for U.S. Ski & Snowboard at Vancouver, sealing its unprecedented run to become best in the world.
A Friend Forever
In the social media posts that have been shared and in conversations with mutual friends from the past since his passing, one message has remained vividly clear. Matt stayed in touch.
Wintersteen heard from longtime Chinese coach Li Yang, a colleague from his past. “He told me, ‘Yah, Matt and I just talked.’”
Stone, who won Olympic gold in 1998, only crossed paths with Christensen as a coach for a few years. Her social media post summed up what others were saying. “He was an incredibly thoughtful person. Every so often, I would find a package in my mailbox filled with these Wunderbars. Matt knew they were my favorite so every so often when he went to Canada (they are only sold there), he’d send me some. Just because...”
Christensen was Kate Reed Currutt’s coach for her entire World Cup career, from her debut in 2000 at Deer Valley through her World Cup podiums in Ruka and Mt. Tremblant and to two World Championships. She wrote:
“As I sift through “grief quotes” a common theme is: grief does not exist without love. And with that, Matt was loved by so many. So many fun times around the world (literally). ALWAYS a competition around who would get upgraded on the flights, who would make 1K first. I can say that a number of times I did beat him in the above, however if it were a chicken wing eating contest…I gracefully bowed out of that one. We will miss you, Matt. The world is a little less bright and sarcastic.”
St. Onge laughed about all the texts he would receive. “The messages would come at a random hour of the night and often months since any of us have reached out to each other,” he said. The messages showcased Christensen’s mastery of sarcasm and humor, some of them pushing the envelope just a bit. “I'm sure that everyone had side splitting laughter for about a minute as messages were passed back and forth between Matt and the rest of the Team.”
In August 2011 friends and teammates gathered in Boise to remember Speedy. It was a profoundly sad time for the freestyle community. For Christensen, it was like losing a brother. Maybe even deeper.
As hundreds gathered, Matt clutched a piece of paper on which he had written words about his friend. But the grief was overwhelming. Cook reached out to console him, taking the note from his hand, offering to convey his words to the crowd.
Christensen wrote about Speedy as more than an athlete. Even more than a friend. They shared a great comfort level. For a decade, Matt Christensen had been so much more than a coach in the troubled life of an athlete that featured the highest of highs and lowest of lows. He balanced an aerials team of diverse personalities that shared the common bond of competing in a sport that put them constantly on the edge of life and death.
“We shared countless wonderful times together,” Christensen wrote. “It didn’t matter if it was celebrating a podium or a win at the bottom of an air site or if we were sitting on a plane for 14 hours going someplace we dreaded (China comes to mind) or marching at the Opening Ceremony. Speedy and I could find fun in just about anything,” he wrote.
A tear welled up in Cook’s eye as she read along, ever mindful of her coach’s emotions.
“I can tell all of you Speedy’s competitive history, results, world records, scores, where and what events he competed his signature Hurricane, where he won, etc. There are some things I can’t tell you. I cannot tell you all of the nice things he has done for his teammates, coaches, friends, and incredibly, the nice and thoughtful things he did for people he didn’t even know. I can honestly say that there are only a few people who have walked into my life and changed it forever and Speedy Peterson was one of them. I miss him so much.”
Ten years after Speedy’s passing, friends and teammates are reading those words from the Speedy Foundation yet another time. Once again, they are mourning the loss of a friend. And they remember not so much the statistics, the wins, the losses, the athletic innovation that he brought to the sport in 12 years with the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team or his 11 years with Red Bull.
What they remember is the kindness of Matt Christensen that touched so many.
Nikki Stone summed it up well: “I wish I could tell Matt how special he was. In honor of Matt, please do something kind and unexpected for a friend today. I’m sure he’d love to know this kindness was being forwarded on his behalf.”
“Matt had a big job pushing me up the hill every day,” said St. Onge in retrospect. “Most of my career I felt like if I wasn't progressing then I was failing. Matt did everything in his power to push hard with me to search for the next improvement. But it was Matt's unending belief in his athletes that helped me to realize that most of the time, you're already good enough.”
Remembering Matt Christensen
A private celebration of Matt’s life will be held at the Granite Club in Toronto on November 30. Given limited space, interested attendees are asked to RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org by November 22. Donations in Matt’s memory may be made to the Ian Walsh Menehune Mayhem Foundation, a youth-related cause in Hawaii that was important to Matt, through GoFundMe.