Most people think of the NSW Central Coast as a perfect summer holiday destination, with its warm weather and beach culture dominating the local community. However, at an early age, local resident Matthew Graham swapped the sun and sand for the snow, and now 16 years later he is reaping the rewards with a shot at Olympic selection looming on the horizon.
“We started off going to the snow when I was three years old; that’s when I first skied at Perisher,” Graham explained of his beginnings on the slopes.
“It started off as family holidays and we did that for a week each year. When I was seven years old we joined the Perisher Winter Sports Club Program, which was a weekend program.”
Every Friday during July, August and September the Graham family would drive to Perisher so the kids could learn to ski, before driving back on Sunday afternoon before school on Monday. Graham began by learning all he could about skiing, before deciding that competing in moguls was the path he wanted to take.
“We’d do alpine racing, the terrain park, free ride skiing, and ski cross, but I was best at moguls,” he said.
“It seemed like it had a bit of everything; speed, acrobatics and the technical skiing which is what intrigued me. I like the fast pace.”
It wasn’t until a few years later, while watching the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Turin, Italy, that Graham decided he wanted to take the next step in his sporting career and aim for the Olympics. It’s no surprise that Dale Begg-Smith’s gold in the men’s moguls was the catalyst for Graham to want more.
“(Begg-Smith’s gold) inspired me to get a bit more serious, to realise my potential and find out where I could go in the sport.”
Seven years later, Graham is on the cusp of realising his Olympic dream, helped by a career best season in 2012/13, where he posted two top-10 finishes during the annual world cup series, and a fourth place finish at the world championships.
“Last season was a breakthrough year for me. I didn’t start off too well and wasn’t getting the results I wanted to and knew I was capable of, so me and my coaches changed a few things and started focusing on putting down the runs I know I’m capable of, and executing my jumps and turns to the best of my ability,” Graham stated.
“We changed that approach to competition and it really impacted the results.”
Graham stated that his goal at the start of the season just finished was turning the qualification runs into finals appearances, which began to happen midway through the season.
One of Graham’s highlights in particular was a seventh place finish at the world cup event in Sochi, Russia, the venue and official test event for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Not only did Graham post an excellent result on the Olympic course, he realised the opportunity to experience the Olympic city and its surrounds first hand.
“Sochi, I thought was a really good event; the course was great. It was well built considering the limited snow conditions that they had,” Graham said.
“The snow conditions suited the Australian skiers a lot because it was really soft and slushy, which is similar to what we get in Australia. That gave us an advantage.”
The strong result in Sochi set Graham up for an even better showing at the world championships in Norway, where he was considered a good chance at securing a top-10 finish and an outside chance at a medal. With a near perfect display of skiing, Graham put together runs of 25.40 and 24.42 points to take fourth place, a career best finish on the international stage.
“The course was perfect. All the jumps and specifications were sweet, and I just got myself pretty fired up before the finals run, just a little bit more fired up than I usually would,” Graham recalled.
“I’m a little bit more conservative and take it pretty easy, but I put it a little more on the line in that competition and that’s where I was able to make up those extra few placings.”
Graham reflected that the realisation of fourth in the world didn’t hit him until later that night, after the prerequisite drug tests and wind down from competition. Not only did he revel in the fact that he had just posted a career best result, it gave him confidence that the upcoming 2013/14 season, including the Olympic Games, would be one to remember.
The new season begins in Finland in early December, with the following five world cup events determining whether or not Graham will make his Olympic debut in February. Although Graham is confident of performing well and earning a spot on Australia’s Olympic team, he is determined not to put unnecessary pressure on himself.
“It’s about putting down a run that I’d be happy with; that I can go home and know that I’ve done as well as I could. If I do that then the placing should be good,” Graham said.
“I’m not going to go there with a mindset of ‘I want second place’. Everyone who goes (to the Olympics) tries to win a gold medal, and I’m going to try and win a gold medal but I won’t be thinking about that at all.”
Adding to Graham’s confidence is the backing of his hero, Begg-Smith, who now more than ever plays a vital role in the youngster’s sporting career.
“Over the past four or five years he’s been a big mentor for me,” Graham revealed.
“When I was 14 years old he took a few days out of his training schedule and coached me while he was training, so I was able to train with him and get coached at the same time which was pretty shocking for me. I was skiing with an Olympic gold medallist.”
Since then Graham and Begg-Smith have maintained contact, regularly trading emails and discussing training tips and race tactics. It remains to be seen whether Begg-Smith will vie for a spot at the 2014 Games, however, regardless of whether Begg-Smith is there or not, the two have formed a strong relationship which has been invaluable for the Olympic hopeful.
“He’s been a big inspiration. My goal was to follow in his footsteps after he won the gold in Torino.”
Only time will tell whether Graham does in fact win Olympic gold, in 2014, 2018 or beyond. Though one thing is for certain; swapping the sun and surf for the snow, slopes and countless six hour journeys between the Central Coast and Perisher has been worth it.