The Natural

Walla Walla native Will Brandenburg took to the slopes when he was 11 months old and has never stopped skiing, all the way to the Winter Olympics.

Advertisement

photo

Will Brandenburg has competed in hundreds events around the globe since becoming a member of the U.S. Ski Team four years ago. This month he gets the chance to compete in his first Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C.

photo

Will Brandenburg, who was born in Walla Walla and moved to Spokane when he was 9, will compete in the super combined alpine skiing event at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. B.C., next week.

WALLA WALLA - You hear it all the time.

He was born to do this. She was born to do that.

More often then not, observations like those are more exaggeration than point of fact.

But in the case of Will Brandenburg - a Walla Walla native who will represent us all this month on the slopes of Whistler Creekside north of Vancouver, B.C., at the 2010 Winter Olympics - it's an axiom that is very close to spot on.

Brandenburg, who turned 23 on New Years Day, had yet to celebrate his first birthday when his parents, Brad and Anne Brandenburg, plopped him into older brother Pat's ski boots and put him on a pair of mini-boards for the very first time.

As Brad remembered it, the family - he, Anne, Pat and older sister Emily - had planned a December outing at Ski Bluewood south of Dayton. Will, who was 11 months old at the time, was to remain at home with a baby sitter, but the baby sitter never showed.

"So Anne said, ‘You know, Will's pretty good sized. I'll bet Pat's old boots will fit him,'?" Brad recalled his wife saying. "We tried them, they fit and we decided, this will work."

That afternoon, young Will, who according to the legend learned to walk at three months, took to the slopes for the very first time and negotiated Bluewood's smaller hills tucked safely between his parents' legs.

"We went a couple of times again that same year," Brad Brandenburg said. "And by the following year, Will was skiing on his own."

And he's never stopped.

"You could see that he absolutely loved it," Brad said. "He had an unbelievable feel for the snow."

An alpine natural if there ever was one.

Will's siblings, Pat and Emily, were both outstanding swimmers on the Walla Walla YMCA Swim Team. Will was not nearly as enamored by the water sport.

"He just didn't really like it," his father said. "So I told him he had to pick some other sport, and he said, ‘Why can't I ski race?'?"

As soon as he was old enough, Will joined the Bluewood racing team. And after the family relocated in Spokane when Will was 9 years old, he continued competitive ski racing, first at Mount Spokane and later at Schweitzer Mountain.

It was at Schweitzer where Will made a name for himself as a junior racer, and that eventually led to his selection to the U.S. Ski Team when he was 19 years old. Four years and hundreds of races later, traveling to all corners of the world, he's a member of the U.S. Olympic Ski Team and will break from the starting gate at Whistler Creekside in the super combined event one week from today.

"It's an amazing feeling that I can't describe," Brandenburg said last week in a telephone interview from U.S. Ski Team headquarters in Park City, Utah, where he had just returned from World Cup competition in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia.

"I'm happy and I'm thrilled to be able to make a big goal that I put out there for myself," Brandenburg said. "All the hard work has come together at the right time.

"I'm pretty speechless, which isn't something I am very often."

It's also a position Brandenburg didn't expect to find himself in as recently as a couple of weeks prior to the announcement of this year's U.S. alpine contingent to Vancouver. A knee injury in 2008 that required surgery in January of 2009 kept him off the slopes until October and significantly dimmed his Olympic aspirations.

"I'd had a couple of big falls the summer before last in New Zealand, and I was having trouble pushing through the pain," Brandenburg explained. "So in January I decided to have it checked out."

What he discovered was that he had suffered meniscus damage and a micro fracture that would require surgery. He spent the first seven weeks following surgery unable to put any pressure on his leg, and he wasn't cleared to resume any kind of athletic activity until July.

"For a guy like me, it was brutal," Brandenburg said. "I couldn't run, jump, anything until July 15. "It was a long, long summer and a long road back. But considering last year at this time I couldn't even walk, this is a whole lot better."

Brandenburg said he resumed "running gates" in October and returned to racing in November. But he didn't consider himself nearly at full strength.

"I had spent all of those hours in the gym and not on the snow," he said. "So the season was kind of a rebuilding year. I was recovering, coming back and progressing.

"But it was taking awhile, and I didn't think I would make the Olympics."

So much so, in fact, that Brandenburg sent email messages to his close friends thanking them for their support but confiding that because of the injury "things hadn't come together" as quickly as he had hoped and that he "wasn't going to make it."

Then, three days after emailing the bad news, something clicked.

"All of a sudden I started skiing really fast," Brandenburg said. "And I began thinking, maybe they will pick me up."

And as he studied the U.S. Ski Team's Olympic options, he realized that if there was a fourth spot open in the super combined event, he was the logical choice to fill it. It came down to the quota the U.S. team received.

"It was a matter of if there were enough spots open. I knew I would be the fourth guy if the chips fell the right way," Brandenburg said.

And they did.

The super combined is a rigorous event that requires not only speed on the first, mostly straight downhill run but also the dexterity to negotiate the slalom gates on the second run. It's an event that is right up Brandenburg's alley.

"I wouldn't call it the most difficult event, because every event has challenges," Brandenburg said. "But it takes the skier with the most tools to win.

"You have to be able to go fast and straight and glide. But you also have to be fast in the slalom course, which is difficult because they are totally different ski turns. You have to have a lot of tricks in your bag to be fast at it."

Brandenburg considers versatility to be his strength on skis.

"Being able to do all four events (slalom, giant slalom, super G and downhill) is my greatest strength," he said. "I have been able to get good at all four events, but I am not yet at the elite or great level in any of them."

But his need for speed is certainly an asset, he agreed.

"You can't be scared of going fast, that's for sure," Brandenburg said. "I think since I was really little, I liked going fast. Speed has never really bothered me.

"I think that since I was on snow at such a young age, I am comfortable on skis. I don't realize that I am going that fast. I'm clocked at 82 mph and I say, ‘Wow, that was fast.' But it felt like I was going 35 mph in my pickup truck."

But sometimes, he admitted, desecration is the better part of valor.

"You have to be reckless, but you also have to be smart about it," Brandenburg said. "If you are reckless all the time, you won't stay healthy. And if you don't stay healthy, you aren't able to get the runs and the experience that you need to get you where you want to be.

"You ski with reckless abandon, but you also know when not to."

And perhaps the final ace up Brandenburg's sleeve is his competitive edge. Even though he considers himself a longshot to medal next week in Vancouver, he's unwilling to discount the possibility.

"I don't want to sell myself short," he said. "I'm just going to ski as fast as I can and see what happens. I'm not going to throw it away.

"I've skied every race since I was 6 years old to win, and I'm not going to be holding anything back."

And Brandenburg doesn't in any way view the 2010 Winter Olympics as the culmination of his career. Just the opposite, in fact.

"To be an Olympian is the biggest honor you can get," Brandenburg said. "It's one of the greatest events in sports. But at the same time it is still the beginning for me.

"Ski racers don't peak until their 27 or 32 years old. If I can continue to develop, I can do this for another eight years and hopefully get to that elite level of consistency."

And even though he considers Spokane his hometown - Brandenburg can't remember returning to Walla Walla since he moved away as a 9-year-old - he hasn't forgotten his roots.

"I still have a lot of friends in Walla Walla, and a lot of good memories of Bluewood and on the baseball fields," he said. "There's still a big part of Walla Walla in me. It's where I grew up and started everything.

"It doesn't seem like home, but I am proud to be from Walla Walla."

Comments

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment

Click here to sign in