Running hot for winter: Alex Pullin is flying high ahead of the Winter Olympics. Photo: AFP
As the rest of the world obsesses about Chechen rebels and gay protesters at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Alex “Chumpy” Pullin is more concerned about the small moments.
In other words, those precious little moments in the snowboard cross when he and up to five other competitors are jamming crazy at 90 km/h down a course of cambered turns, jumps and drops, trying not to nudge each other, trying to be the first one standing at the end of the madness.
Those moments like the one in the quarter-finals at the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010, when he was the fastest racer in qualifying before crashing out in his first head-to-head.
“I remember those moments,” says Pullin. “You're holding on to everything and you're fighting and changing and adjusting. It looks like organised chaos but from my view there's a lot of strategy. It's more like a fight. It's not about me having a perfect run. It's not judged. It's a straight-up battle and it doesn't have to look like art. If you're standing on your feet at the end, you won the fight.”
Pullin – or “Chumpy” as he's been universally known since childhood, although there's no particular reason why – heads to Russia for next month's Games as the face of Australia's largest-ever winter team.
While fellow snowboarder Torah Bright is considered a medal certainty in the halfpipe, it's Pullin who shoulders significant pressure, having won the past two world championships and two overall World Cups in the past four years.
“That's not really a choice that I made,” he says calmly of his newfound status as Winter Olympics pin-up boy. “But that's what you get when you're No. 1 in any sport. You can't expect there won't be any attention when you rock up to the next event. Running into Sochi, I'm exactly where I want to be. I can't complain now about there being too much pressure. And I hold more pressure than anything anyone could ever put on me. I've set myself for this one event this season. It's a heavy undertaking but I chose to do it. I'm not trying to dodge that fact.”
Sitting here on a perfect Friday morning, on a park bench at Dee Why on Sydney's northern beaches where he now lives, Pullin is possibly the calmest Olympic gold-medal favourite in memory.
He leaves for Austria next Friday before the opening ceremony on February 7 but others have questioned whether he's had the best preparation, having crashed out in the World Cup event just before Christmas and limiting the number of races he competes in heading into Sochi.
Some have branded it a slow start to the year. He calls is self-preservation.
“People criticise me for sitting here on the beach, a month out from the Olympics,” he says. “That's been my plan. I skipped my last event of last year because I didn't need it. I'd already put the Crystal Globe [for winning the World Cup] away, I'd already won the tour and I thought, 'Let's not be greedy'. I love racing, don't get me wrong. But I would never have forgiven myself if I raced this season, trying to get something under my belt, and had an injury and didn't go to Sochi. I know my sport really well: prior to the Olympics, there are a lot of people trying to qualify. They will do anything. I just want to get there healthy.”
By way of example, consider the World Cup event in Vallnord-Arcalis, Andorra, last weekend, when desperate competitors ended in a litany of concussions and broken bones.
Or the plight of two-time defending Olympic champion Seth Wescott, the 37-year-old who is walking a selection tightrope, although he should earn it via discretion.
He also competed in Andorra, in his first competition since a complete reconstruction of the ACL in his left knee in April after falling into an Alaska crevasse while shooting part of a film for ski and snowboard director Warren Miller.
"I don't criticise Seth for pushing his snowboarding into all areas of the sport," says Pullin. "That's his choice. I fear that guy as much as anyone."
Pullin doesn't share Wescott's fear about a terrorist attack at the opening ceremony after two recent suicide bombings in Russia.
Unconfirmed claims on Friday that Doku Umarov, the Chechen rebel warlord who has threatened to attack the Sochi Olympics, is dead has hardly appeased concerns.
"When you have a radical group saying they will do everything in their power to disrupt the Games . . . ," Wescott said this year, "what is the first opportunity with the most impact? To me, that's the opening ceremonies. I am very concerned."
Says Pullin: "That's interesting. I would never skip an opening ceremony."
The 26-year-old fondly recalls the opening ceremony in Vancouver as he and his Australian teammates walked into the Olympic Stadium behind Bright, who carried the national flag. "Then KD Lang sang, and she sang Hallelujah, it blew my mind," he says. "Russia has a huge investment [an estimated $56 billion] in these Games. The biggest ever by a mile. You don't throw the world's biggest winter party and invite the world along to have people going away thinking, 'That was rubbish'. The Russians are going to impress the world."
While Bright has expressed her reluctance to attend Sochi if further unrest occurs, Pullin remains calm.
"I don't expect the Olympics to be this perfect video game," he says. "But I feel safe, for sure. I just feel sad that's a part of our many global issues at the moment: the recurring bombings and attacks. We see it all around the world. You can't say that because it's happened in Russia, it will be unsafe. They're happening everywhere. It's sad, it's tough, but we travel the world, as competitors, to a lot of other places. We could be up against that all the time. At the Olympics, I will feel safer in Russia than anywhere because of the security.
"It won't be taking the excitement away for me."
As for the country's Draconian anti-gay laws, Pullin says: "We're going into a foreign country. Everyone's got their own culture. You're in their world. I'm there strictly to compete, I am there as part of the Australian team."
It's Pullin who carries as much expectation as any of his 60 or so teammates in Sochi and "Chumpy" is a nickname you're about to hear more frequently next month.
"I've been telling my mates I better come up with an interesting story for it," he says, "because there isn't one, really. I've been called it since I was kid, for no reason."
For Pullin, nicknames are less important than being the last one standing at the end of the fight.