New Zealand Speed Skier Tawny Wagstaff (Methven, 44) has broken the twenty-year-old NZ Speed Skiing record, clocking an incredible 248.610kph at the Speed Skiing World Championships held in Vars on the 22nd of March.
Wagstaff in fact broke the NZ record twice over the last four days, initially breaking the twenty-year-old NZ record on the 20th of March with a speed of 233kph, then subsequently topping his own record with a speed of 248.610kph on the 22nd of March. Wagstaff is now the eleventh fastest person in the world of all time.
Wagstaff said, “This speed is still sinking in. Breaking the NZ record was a goal, but I still want to get as fast as 250kph and above. I love the intensity and the purity of this sport, I am constantly refining my equipment and working tirelessly to perfect the tuck position. Technically speaking, everyone can ski in a straight line, which is why I love this sport.”
Speed Skiing is the fastest unpowered sport on earth where the athletes remain in contact with the ground. Wagstaff has been competing in this high-speed discipline since 2017. Prior to that he was a youth Alpine Ski Racer competing in the technical events but has now found a need for speed.
The Vars track where Wagstaff broke the NZ record starts at 2700m altitude, with a vertical drop of 400m over just 800m of track. There is a 400m long area at the bottom for reducing speed and stopping once they have crossed the finish line.
Speed Skiing is not a sport for the faint hearted. Wagstaff explained that speed skiing is not just physical, it has a huge mental element where the higher you start, the faster you go, requiring absolute poise under pressure.
“To ski really fast and do it well is very hard, and to ski really fast you have to start high which brings its own mental challenge. 30 seconds is all it takes to complete a run. Dropping from the top of the track in Vars is another world, no one wants to fall at these high speeds. If you are lucky enough to walk away from a fall, at these speeds you will still destroy your skis and outer shell of your helmet, damage your suit and you will have burns and bruising from the snow. On top of that you then have your mind to deal with.”
Interview with Tawny Wagstagg
Tell us about Tawny Wagstaff
Where? Methven, New Zealand
Home mountain? Mt Hutt
Kids no kids, there is no way I could afford to do this sport if I had kids.
What you do when you are not speed skiing
I am a stone mason/bricklayer, ski racing coach at Mt Hutt (again), and mountain climber and study part-time both sports coaching and astronomy.
Firstly, how did you get into speed skiing?
Had a small hiatus from ski working life as a Heli guide and coach and decided to focus on studying and climbing, when I came back to skiing I just did it for my own pleasure, I have always enjoyed and felt comfortable with going fast on skis but during this year I just did this more and more. Eventually, looking into a potential ski holiday overseas, combining it with some sort of speed competition, not knowing at the time about the World Cup circuit, but a quick search online was all it took. I remember back to when I was about 15 seeing an article in the skier magazine about a world record around the low 240s kph, might have been about Jeff Hamilton and I was wondering how that was possible and how insane that must be, then forgot all about it after that.
How have you been involved and how has the sport developed over that time.
I started speed skiing in 2017/18, and not too much has changed since this time, Covid was the biggest setback cancelling many of the competitions, in particular the main high speed events at Vars for both 2020 and 2021.
After the 2018 season, I had a knee injury in NZ and missed the 2019 speed ski season. I came to Europe to race in 2020 halfway through the season as I didn’t really have enough money saved to go earlier and I was here 2 weeks getting ready to race for the main event then covid shut us down so I back home. I returned back for 2021 during covid, no guarantee that the 3 small competitions that were left in Sweden would still go ahead, and not knowing if I could even get into Europe or on the plane in Auckland, let alone the quarantine situation that I was going to have to go through on returning to NZ. Uncertain times but I was not going to miss another season. My efforts worked out well and finished with 3 top 5 positions. The speed ski track in Sweden is only a 180kph track max, we love the track, but we really don’t consider this real speed skiing as such.
The Covid situation made a lot more paperwork, cost a lot more, and regular tests having crap shoved up our noses at 6am before a race…not cool, still could never get used to it. But I was not going to let the covid stop me from what I have to do, I’m older so I don’t have a time to wait and at the time we had no idea how long they would keep Covid going.
Where did it start?
For me the speed ski started at Mt Hutt, it has the steepest and widest groomed runs in NZ, it was only a matter of time I think before someone was going to race speed, was lucky enough to be me, or unlucky depending on how you look at it, haha, it’s not a sport that many ppl want to do and I have the experience to understand why. Even just 6 years ago it was a bit different skiing in NZ, there was not so many backs then so it was safer to ski fast. In NZ it is harder and harder to ski fast due to safety concerns. I have always been very careful when skiing fast, Important not to be reckless and hurt other ppl.
Tell us about the gear?
Our suits are made to be air tight, the only protection we have is a back protector. We wear spoilers behind our boots which reduce drag. These are hand made out of hard foam and have to adhere to FIS regulations, length, weight and construction. Our helmets are wide so we can cover our shoulders also adhering to FIS rules of weight and size. Skis are 240cm maximum length with a side cut of 96 meters, and slightly wider then an alpine racing ski, heavy to help hold us to the ground. Shortened poles to 1 meter in length with extreme bends to fit tightly around the body.
How do you go about training for this discipline?
We need to do the runs around the 180 and above to train for the high speed, it’s a very hard sport to train for as we don’t ski the really high speeds very often.
The best we can do around this is to prepare our bodies at the gym, mental training also plays a big part. General skiing is helpful.
Talk us through a normal successful run?
It starts a few hours before the run with making sure the gear is all put on correctly, it takes about 40 minutes to gear up, and usually an hour or two to prepare the skis with various waxes the night before. Then we have to carry the skis and helmet usually across a sketchy traverse to get to the lower starts wearing non slip clothing over top of our race suit, a helper will then take our access skis and clothes down to the bottom of the track. Prior to starting the run we take off the nonslip clothing above a net, usually its steep and the area sometimes covered in chopped up powder making it more awkward. Ok so once its our turn we traverse onto the track, we ready ourselves to jump the 240cm long skis around. We have 1 minute to start our run. The starter will give us the ok and then for me I run my eyes down the line then I go, jumping into the air and when my skis land I fold up into my position like a bird going into a dive. When I’m in position I take another look forward to check that I’m on line then its head down all the way, really only seeing about 10metres ahead at the most. I keep my eyes mostly on the groomer lines underneath me which start to become more blurry as the speed increases. The dye lines on the sides help give me an idea also of where I am mainly from peripheral vision, or if you notice they are under you then its time to do something steering wise. There’s 1 to 2 key points that I focus on down the run, I wont go into detail here but its what I focus on for safety and speed. The sound of the air pushing up against me gets louder and louder, and towards the bottom will start to feel the compressions wanting to pull my body down and then usually bounce it back up again so we have to work hard to maintain the body in the tight position. We don’t get long, 15 seconds and the run is all over, we go through the 100m timing trap in just over a second and once we see the red line pass underneath its time to stand up but not too quickly as suddenly standing up at 240 will blow you off your feet. The runout is a decent length but feels short at these speeds. Once we have stabilised ourselves in a standing position we make ourselves as large as possible to catch as much air but only for a for seconds, by this stage our speed has dropped to about 180 and we then make our first turn being very careful, and using as mush of the width of the runout as possible but also allowing some room for redundancy if something were to go wrong. By the time we finish the first turn the speed drops to just above a 100, then we make the 2nd turn which will finish us up right towards the end of the runout. It all has to be well timed and care taken. The slowing down process is a big deal. Going from those speeds and slowing up safely with only a set of skis as breaks takes a bit of getting use to. But I would rather have the skis to slow me down then being on my ass.
The runs that we consider stable and nice usually are the slower ones, the ones where we are more uncontrolled usually turn out to be faster…like with many sports, we have to put ourselves out of the comfort zone if we want to do well.
What speeds do you get up too?
During the Would cup circuit speeds are limited to about 230kph (vars), although most of the time the tracks at other locations are below 200kph. So anywhere between 160-230kph…
The World record is now 255.500kph set at vars 2023 World championships. The world record before this was set by Italian Ivan Origone set in 2016 at vars at a speed of 254.958kph.
The NZ record now that I hold is 248.610kph during the World championships at vars 2023.
The NZ record before this was 232kph held by Chris Gebbie set at a different location back in 2005, at the time the current world record was 250.7kph (maybe don’t put that in but you can see the difference of where the kiwis once stood amongst the top guys)
The current world record for women was set in 2016 by Italian Valentina Greggio at 247.083kph. There was no world record from the women this year. The best speed from the ladies this year was 244kph by Swedish Britta Buckland which was enough to give her the Swedish ladies speed record and Valentina finished with a speed of 244kph. It’s interesting that the women were a little off the WR this year compared to the men, I think this may have been because of the snow condition. The best conditions is well transformed snow, that is old snow, and this year the conditions were not quite there, There is a lot more competition amongst the men also so this constant pushing between the athletes I think has also increased the speed difference between the men and the ladies
What happens when it goes wrong?
If you are lucky not to break anything in your body you will still have friction burns and bruising…most ppl will hurt their shoulders or knees. Your skis usually explode when they hit the snow from end to end usually, your suit can get ripped, the outer shell of the helmet detaches from the inner protective helmet, usually also cracks and needs work to fix. Also poles tend to break as well, sometimes damage to the fairings we wear underneath the suit behind our boots. Then you will have your mind to deal with. Some ppl will take weeks, months to recover, some ppl never do. Then there is the odd animal that will get back up and be on his feet ready to go the next day
Have you had any major accidents?
I have not crashed in speed skiing yet. I know its coming for me at some point. The closer you want to get to the leader the tighter the tuck has to be, the tighter the tuck the less travel the legs will have meaning less ability to absorb the hollow and bumps. The way I play it is 2 steps forward one back. But there will come a time, but not today.
I have had two previous knee injuries both from skiing. A knee basically means 1.5 to 2 years off from being back in form.
How does New Zealand rank in the world?
In the past not so great, I don’t mean to offend anyone that has speed skied from NZ before me (maybe don’t put that down)
When I started, due to my racing background in alpine and my skill with my hands I was able to build up some really nice gear as aerodynamics is so important. We can easily look at a speed skier and tell from what they are wearing if they are fast or not.
I still have a lot of work to do to catch the very top guys but from my entry into the speed ski game I have produced some good results for NZ. Some notable results below
2018, 4th and 2 x 5th place in Canada World Cup
2021, 4th and 2 x 5th place in Sweden World Cup
2022, 4th place at Sweden World Cup
2023, 6th at the World Championships, and 4th in the World Cup, both at vars
2023, broke the NZ record 4 times in a row, something that will never ever happen again in the future of speed skiing.
NZ is now ranked 6th fastest country in the world ever. In order…France, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Finland then NZ.
I am the 11th fastest person in the history of speed skiing ever and the fastest person outside of Europe just beating the Unites states and Sweden to name a few.
Previous to this season I was the 158th fastest at a speed of 219.646kph
Is the world racing circuit a close-knit group or are there major rivalries?
Mostly tight knit, we all know the risks so we are always happy for each when we have good clean runs and stoked when someone pulls off a near crash. There is usually a crash at each event but not always, it can happen anytime so I think it keeps us humble and respectful. There is a bit of rivalry between some of the French team for various reasons, its a good thing my French kind of sucks as it keeps me out of it as I spend a lot time training with the rouge French skier Simon Billy, the current record holder. There’s the usual Italian rivalry, not the most out going types along with the Austrians, you have to earn there respect.
Will speed skiing ever be an Olympic event?
Yes I believe it will be its just a matter of when. At the moment there is a chance you may see it in the 2026 Olympics, watch this space.
Someone who knows you well – how would they describe you?
Driven, I don’t tend to ask to much more haha. Maybe a bit stubborn, love sleeping.
If you knew then what you know now what would you tell your younger self?
To start speed skiing in my 20s and believe in yourself more than ever and make the most of your time with a type of urgency, make it happen, dream bigger. Aim for the stars and you may just land on the moon.
Best place in the world to speed ski.
Vars, It’s the only current Speed ski track that is over 200kph, it’s the track I call home. Simon’s dad (Phillipe Billy) made this track, and has kept it going for many years. He made a world record here in 1993, and now the World record is back home, like father like son.
What does the future hold for Tawny Wagstaff?
I will continue speed skiing for at least another 3-5 years, chasing the now current world record of 255.500 kph. In the process I will break the NZ record a few more times. As for the World Cup circuit goes, I will get onto that podium and perhaps fly the NZ flag at the opening ceremony of the 2026 Olympics. Also making it into space one day, low earth orbit will be fine, but the moon will be better.
A question we get a lot about extreme sports?
As the sport evolves and the speed gets faster and faster and the risks become greater will there comes a point where riders say that enough, the risks are too high or will it naturally find its own level
What we have with speed skiing is we need higher and longer tracks to go faster. At this stage there really is no limit to speed skiing, we will risk everything to go faster.
As with all sports I am sure sponsors play a major part are there any you would like to thank.
I have no sponsors, but I would like to give many thanks to the Billy’s for if it was not for this family, I would not be skiing at 248kph.