Jenn's natural approach to health has brought her body and her career to full bloom. Olympic gold medalist, Jennifer Heil discusses the secrets to her success.
She was a novice skier at two years old, competitive swimmer at nine, and national freestyle ski champion at 16. By age 17, Jennifer Heil’s five-foot three-inch frame had taken such a beating from moguls and freestyle ski landings that she could hardly walk in her ski boots.
“I was in so much pain I could barely ski a full run,” says Jenn, now 23. “The day I won my first medal at a World Cup competition in 2002, my shins hurt so much, I had to sideslip down the course and use mental imagery to visualize myself going through the race.”
Freestyle skiing is a 30-second sport that requires explosive power built doing exercises like squats or jumping on and off boxes, as many times as possible, in 15- to 25-second bursts. But Jenn couldn’t do that.
“I couldn’t train properly because of the shin splints and lower back pain. I realized that if I wanted to reach my full potential, I had to get stronger and fitter so I could train the way I needed to, both on and off the hill,” she says.
That’s when Jenn decided to stay off skis for the 2002-2003 season, attend McGill University, and with the financial support of sports patron J.D. Miller, begin working with a team of Montreal specialists: Dave Campbell, an osteopath; Leslie Larson, who practises Hellerwork (a kind of deep tissue massage); Scott Livingston, strength and conditioning coach with the Montreal Canadiens; and Sandra Grant, a licensed nutritionist.
“Taking that year off to improve my physical condition was so crucial for me,” says Jenn. “When I first came to Montreal I was only 17 years old. My technique and my skill as a skier had enabled me to progress through the ranks very quickly. And I was able to finish fourth at the Salt Lake City Olympics, but my body wasn’t necessarily ready to be there.”
It’s All in the Core
During her year away from competition, Jenn began strengthening her core to prevent injury.
“Core strengthening is part of everything we do,” she says, referring to the gym routines she and Scott Livingston, her strength and conditioning coach, work through together. “Instead of doing a conventional dumbbell press on a bench, we’ll do it on an exercise ball so the core is involved. We’ll do squats on a wobble board."
More advanced core work involves having Scott loop a rope around her hips so that she is always fighting resistance while squatting and lifting weights.
“I have to stabilize my core even more to resist the pull,” she explains. “It’s a great exercise, and Scott is so good at taking what’s applicable to our sport and training me in the gym.”
Health Through Giving Back
“Most amateur athletes don’t get enough funding to work with a trainer every day, but incredible support from J.D. and other individuals across Canada allowed me to work with experts such as Dave, Leslie, and Sandra as required. On snow, I had my own technical coach as well,” says Jenn.
Now Jenn is able to offer other talented Canadian athletes preparing for the 2010 Olympics the same opportunity she had. Since the Turin Olympics, a lot of people have come forward to support Jenn and her training program, called B2ten. “Our objective is to have enough private funding to support the training and preparation needs of seven athletes over the next four years heading up to Vancouver,” she explains.
What motivates Jenn is her conviction that providing the right tools without compromise pays off. “Canada is such a large country, and the logistics of providing tools to athletes in all regions is a huge challenge. Our goal is to show that proper training and preparation can make the difference when sending Canadians on to the international competition scene.
“Amateur athletes invest everything. It’s not the monetary reward we’re going after; that’s actually quite rare. It’s passion and love for what we do,” Jenn explains. “But with solid funding it’s really exciting to be able to provide others the opportunity to reach their potential as well.”
A Year in Sport
Jenn and her freestyle teammates work out year-round with only brief breaks away from the gym. After her Olympic gold medal win at Turin in February 2006, Jenn’s schedule demanded lots of public appearances that reduced her workout time. By early summer, though, she was training hard again, working out two or three hours at a time, five days a week, stretching with yoga and Pilates, and incorporating trampoline work two to three times a week to perfect the technique on her jumps.
Trampoline work allows Jenn to practise aerial tricks, like her signature 360 iron cross, where she turns halfway round, points her ski tips down and crosses them, then uncrosses them before completing a full turn and landing. (Jenn was the first woman to attempt this trick during competition at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.) She is also known for her 360 grab, where she crouches and grabs her skis with one hand, pulling them in to her chest as she turns.
“Right now we’re working on a back full, which is a back flip with one full twist. It’s a technical jump and this is my second summer learning it. We’re making every step perfect, and at the moment we’re working really hard to get my takeoff just right.”
Getting it right means practising on the water ramp at Canada’s first national freestyle water ramp training centre in Lac-Beauport, just north of Quebec City, where Jenn spent much of the month of July.
The state-of-the-art water ramp facility includes five ramps of varying lengths. The shock of landing is absorbed by a bubble machine that delivers 5,500 cubic feet of air per minute from the bottom of the pool.
After drills on the water ramp, Jenn trained in Australia’s Snowy Mountains with a technical coach. Then she returned to Canada to celebrate the wedding of her older sister Amie, a fellow freestyle skier who competed with Jenn when she was younger. And then it was back into the gym to move her fitness ahead to the next level and check in with the crew. In October, she and the freestyle ski team headed to Zermatt, Switzerland, to train on snow again. In late November they left for the World Cup competition season, which in 2006-2007 takes competitors to four continents and 10 countries.
“We have a tough travel season this year, with one race in a different location every weekend,” Jenn explains. But she will weather through and looks forward to being in top form at the Freestyle World Championships in January in Madonna di Campiglio, Italy.
Jenn made a gutsy decision in 2002 to stay off skis even though she was at the peak of her career and facing external pressures and the will of the team. The huge payoff is recovered health, which allows her to now enjoy the heat of the 2006 World Cup tour, the World Championships, and the preparation for 2010–with alive magazine cheering for her all the way.
Jenn and Her Osteopath, Dave Campbell
By the time Montreal osteopath Dave Campbell first met Jennifer Heil, she had been dealing with long-term pain. Whatever was causing it, his goal was to begin restoring normal movement using an osteopathic approach.
In osteopathy, the body is evaluated globally to look for breakdowns in movement patterns or imbalances in strength, flexibility, or function. Osteopathy looks at the body as an interactive system in which different body systems–musculoskeletal, circulatory, neurological, and cranial–all must work together; each moving part relies on all of the other moving parts.
“With Jenn, we had to take a load off muscles that were overworked because of breakdowns that were occurring in a number of different areas of her body,” says Campbell. “We worked to correct problems in the head and neck, middle and lower back, as well as the hips, legs, and feet to eliminate pain and allow free movement.
Jenn Relies on a Whole Foods Diet
Before Olympic competition, Montreal nutritionist Sandra Grant also began working with Jennifer Heil.
“I asked Jenn to journal four days’ worth of food intake so that I could see that she was getting the whole foods that would help her maintain a strong immune system, and since it is difficult to meet the iron needs of female athletes, we also recommended a multivitamin with 10 mg iron daily.”
“We made sure Jenn’s nutrition really contributed to her performance,” says Grant, “so that she knows she had done everything she possibly can to build strong muscle tissue. Knowing she is eating right is a great confidence booster.”