Olympic medalist Jonny Moseley has gone back into training — as a student
By Bonnie Azab Powell, NewsCenter | 28 April 2004
BERKELEY – A few minor things set Jonny Moseley apart from other UC Berkeley students. At 28, he's a little bit older than the typical undergraduate. He's the hero of a video game, Jonny Moseley's Mad Trix. Oh, and he gave the keynote address at Berkeley's 2002 Commencement Convocation, has hosted Saturday Night Live; and has sat on David Letterman's interview couch — the rewards of two trips to the Winter Olympics, where he brought home a gold medal for moguls skiing in 1998.
Yet in some ways Moseley sounds a lot like his classmates. "I'm going to have to do something for the next 50 years of my life, and I don't know exactly what it's going to be," he confides over lunch at Café Muse, the Berkeley Art Museum's new raw- and natural-food restaurant. "I'm kind of confused, if you can't tell. I've got a lot of ambitions, a lot of balls in the air."
Coming straight to lunch from an Environmental Science & Policy Management (ESPM) class, Moseley bears more than a passing resemblance to Tom Cruise, circa "Risky Business." His spiky hair is flattened forward, and he squints a lot, as if perennially snow-blinded. He has been enrolled at UC Berkeley part-time since last fall, picking back up the education that he shelved when the Olympics first beckoned. Raised in Tiburon, Moseley went to UC Davis right after high school, managing to fit three quarters in between traveling around the globe as a World Cup skier. Then, in 1996, he decided to start training for the Olympics. UC Davis didn't make the cut.
"There was no way, if I was going to really try to win, that I could do anything else," Moseley explains, bypassing the acclaimed Raw offerings on Café Muse's menu in favor of barbecued chicken-and-cheddar quesadillas with cilantro-jicama salsa. After wavering over root beer, he decides on a healthier bottle of water. "To train for the Olympics, you have to want it so bad. You put everything on hold. I don't even answer the phone. Ever."
That focus paid off. For the final jump of his moguls run, Moseley pulled off a "mute helicopter grab" — a 360-degree-twist-and-grab, midair maneuver inspired by skateboarders — and came back from Nagano with a gold medal. His was promptly hailed as the new face of skiing, and his daredevil style as auguring a new era of cool for the sport. Endorsements and invitations to appear on TV rained down on him. His days at UC Davis seemed very, very far away.
"It was like I went on a balloon ride for two years afterward," Moseley recalls. "I thought, 'No way can I go to school right now — this is the time of my life. I'm getting all these invitations, I have to take advantage of it all.' In retrospect, I had a pretty good routine worked out with school, and I could have gone back to it. But I thought I had to change everything around." So he juggled celebrity appearances with continuing to ski in top competitions like the X Games and the World Cup.
On a roll
Eventually, as his Olympics win receded into the past, he found himself jonesing for attention. As he told the audience in his speech at Berkeley's 2002 Commencement Convocation, "So there I was, two years after the Olympics, my celebrity dwindling, satisfaction waning. I needed a fix … Although I really had no idea at the time, narcissism was the essence of what prompted me to return to the 2002 Olympics."
Moseley had been enrolled in UCLA for just a couple of weeks when he dropped out in order to train. He had decided to attempt a difficult maneuver he called the "dinner roll," never before performed at the Olympics and so dangerous he had to obtain special permission from the Olympic judges to even try it. They agreed — by one vote.
'After the Olympics, nothing can make me nervous. Saturday Night Live was like a vacation.'
With the 2002 Olympics only a few weeks away, Moseley was only landing 3 out of 50 attempts at the trick, and was being mocked in the press for even attempting it. He realized he had been training with the wrong focus — for the world's approval and adulation — and in a panic, feared that not only would he fail to win a medal, he would be embarrassed by failing to execute the trick at all. He kicked his training into overtime.
"What's so hard about the dinner roll?" I ask him, trying to eat my Southern crispy chicken salad without splattering the buttermilk dressing on myself or Moseley.
The trick involves two complete 360-degree twists, he tells me, one on the vertical plane and one on the horizontal, without an inversion (which is prohibited by the judges). Seeing my look of incomprehension, he pulls out his Titanium PowerBook and offers to show me footage — his sponsorship responsibilities include giving corporate presentations, so he keeps several video clips handy.
Even now having seen it, the dinner roll is difficult to describe. Careening down the slope, Moseley appears to launch himself a hundred feet in the air, hover there for a split second — spinning and rotating as casually as a kid doing tricks on a diving board — before plunging gracefully to earth. He landed the trick perfectly, to wild cheering by the Olympic crowds. But the dinner roll was so new that the judges didn't score it as highly as they might — and since have scored it — and his times on the other portions of the competition were not as fast as successive competitors. Moseley placed fourth.
"Was I bummed? Sure," he shrugs. "I knew the judges weren't going to get it, but I had to do it anyway. I wasn't going to look back at the Olympics and know that I played it safe. I needed to be progressive, to take it to the next level, for me. I already had a gold, after all."
Moseley explains that the moves in freestyle skiing, like snowboarding and skateboarding, simply have evolved so fast that "if you're not one of the athletes or recently retired, you don't get it, period. I'm starting not to get some of the things they're doing now because I've been in school for a year." And "not getting it" means perhaps not recognizing the challenge of the newest tricks with appropriately high scores. "You can watch a million videos and not get it. You have to have done it, or have at least tried to do it, to have a value for how hard it is or what it takes to get there. Otherwise you have no idea," he says.
Tricks are for kids
Coming home without a medal didn't prevent Moseley from enjoying a second round of celebrity and endorsements. In March of 2002 he hosted Saturday Night Live; Outkast were the musical guests. When I ask if he was nervous about hosting SNL — it is live, after all — he rolls his eyes. "Everybody wants to know that, but no. Not at all," he says. "After the Olympics, nothing can make me nervous. Saturday Night Live was like a vacation."
A few months later, he was invited to give Berkeley's 2002 Commencement speech, a controversial move by the student organizing committee when it became public that Moseley had never finished college himself. In the end, the sincere, frank assessment he gave of his own shortcomings as well as success won over most critics.
Moseley decided it was time to start training again, only this time, he'd focus on his mind. He enrolled at Berkeley in August 2002, and has taken two classes each semester. "I just feel lucky to be able to go here. It's a personal issue I have to get through," he says. "I feel a responsibility to myself and to other people to try to be educated, to get some education on other things besides skiing, to work on my mind." He'd like to go full-time, but he still has sponsorship duties to fulfill for Sprint and others, and continues to ski in exhibitions and the occasional tournament. Recently he was skiing with some kids and they begged him to do a dinner roll for them. After limbering up, he obliged, but it's not something he does regularly anymore.
"I love skiing, I'll always love skiing, I just don't have the desire as much to get up there and really push the envelope anymore," Moseley explains, mopping up the last of his quesadillas. "These days, I really don't ski for fun. I mean, don't get me wrong, it's fun, but I ski for work, mostly. It's a job, and school is my hobby. That's the way it has to work right now."
At UC Davis, he smartly decided to get calculus and statistics out of the way while the subjects were still fresh in his mind from high school. At UC Berkeley he has taken business administration, economics, geography, and ESPM classes, making A's and B's. "I don't know what I'm going to major in," he admits. "My first gut instinct was to do business stuff, because as an athlete I've had to do a lot of negotiating and managing all my life. But now I'm taking this environmental science class and I like it a lot. The geography class was great too. It's all really enlightening."
Moseley has had more than a few requests for autographs, but mostly people on campus leave him alone, for which he's grateful. He sympathizes with William Hung, the UC Berkeley civil engineering student whose brief singing turn on "American Idol" has turned him into an overnight celebrity. "It's super hard to keep a frame of reference when that happens," Moseley says. "The whole time you're telling yourself to stay normal, but the hardest thing to do is stay humble when everyone around you is telling you how great you are."
The real Moseley trick — the one that rescued him from the downhill narcissistic track he was on before the 2002 Olympics — is "to keep your friends and family close." That piece of advice was given to him in passing by Olympic figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi. "At the time I was like, 'whatever,' but I used it. It's valuable advice. Your friends and family won't let you get away with all that crap." Nor, presumably, will his fiancée, Malia — a woman Moseley has known since high school but only reconnected with a few years ago.
Any other advice for William Hung? "Get a good lawyer — when I was 16, I had to negotiate my own contracts. I was whiting out numbers, doubling them and faxing it back. Not good," says Moseley, grabbing his laptop and preparing to amble off to his next class. "Stay humble, don't be scared. And try to stay in school."