Ted Ligety sounds immediately familiar when he answers the phone. We haven’t spoken before, and have never met, but the two-time Olympic champion has been a constant voice in my head for three days, and I owe him a debt of gratitude for shaping up my own, far less heroic, efforts on the slopes.
Ligety is speaking from his base in Park City, the resort in the Wasatch Mountains where he grew up. The boy who learnt to ski in the heart of the Rockies became the dominant giant slalom talent of his generation, with 25 World Cup victories and five World Championships, in addition to those gold medals from Turin in 2006 and Sochi in 2014.
Now, 20 months since he retired from elite racing, he is pushing at different boundaries, as an advisor to, and investor in, the wearable ski-coaching tech start-up, Carv. And this explains the uncanny sense of familiarity.
When you first try Carv, it all seems obvious, the kind of innovation that was waiting for someone to find it. A thin footbed – packed with pressure sensors and an accelerometer – fits into each boot and measures every detail of your skiing. Connect it to the smartphone app and, thanks to years of data-crunching and machine learning, Carv knows when you nail the perfect turn, and when you don’t, it knows exactly what you have to do to improve.
Every turn is measured and scored, challenging you to improve your technique, with real-time feedback coming through your headphones, training modes personalised to your particular strengths and weaknesses, video coaching so you can see what you looked like when you nailed your high score, and tutorials on everything from pre-season yoga to buying the right equipment. Now, you even get those tips from Ligety himself.
I haven’t skied without Carv since I first tried it, two years ago. And no one is taking it off me now. But if this digital coach has an incredibly devoted following among the converted, you would not be alone if you’re thinking this doesn’t initially sound right for you.
“Being the skier I am, I was very sceptical at first. Over the years I’ve seen a lot of techy pieces come and go,” say Ligety. “I first heard about Carv on social media, seeing videos on YouTube, and I met the founder, Jamie Grant, in Park City, so we tried it.
“I’ve had two back surgeries, and my left leg was feeling weaker. It felt smushy when I turned on that leg, but it’s hard to know for sure. It’s the kind of thing that would only really be picked up by a coach, when you’re wearing a GS [Giant Slalom] suit,” he says. “But I was truly shocked by the data Carv gave me. It showed me I really was putting less pressure through my left leg. I was sold.”
Sold, and bought-in: Ligety invested in the start-up and joined a small band of coders, maths brains, data-crunchers and ski-obsessives on a mission to create the perfect digital ski coach.
Carv’s latest feature – fresh for this ski season – is called “Train With An Olympian”, but is known universally by the Carv team as “Ted Mode”. That’s how I (virtually) got to know Ted, and became so familiar with the authoritative, reassuring voice that coached and encouraged me, sharing along the way the advice and tips that took him to the very peak of world skiing, and made me a little bit better with (almost) every run.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be Olympic-standard to get a huge amount out of it.
“Skiing is fun,” says the man who had to take things pretty seriously during his ascent up the world rankings. “The better you are, the more fun you can have, ripping those Super-G turns, really laid over. If I can give you the tools, it will be more fun, better, safer. Even in powder – that’s a different skill set, but it’s still adjacent.”
Carv focuses on four attributes that determine how well you’re skiing: edge similarity (how well you tip both of your skis onto their edges in unison), outside ski pressure (how you push your weight through that ski, flexing at the waist), early edging (how soon you initiate your next turn with your inside ski), and edge angle (just how far you tip your skis to carve through the turn). Ted Mode focuses on these in order, bringing them together as you progress through 40 levels.
Ligety likes the gamification. And – guess what – the former Olympian is competitive by nature. As well as progressing through the levels of Ted Mode, Carv constantly assesses your skiing and gives you a Ski IQ. If you opt in, these are public. I mention that, with a Ski IQ of 158, he’s not quite at the top of the leaderboard.
“When you look at that run [the statistics are there for all to see], my edge angle was 83 degrees and my speed was 48mph – almost twice as fast as the others. But I’m looking forward to playing with that.” A few days later, I check back. Ligety’s Ski IQ is up to 160, one mark off the top spot. Watch this space.
Morgan Engel, an elite-level ski instructor in Whistler, is flying the flag for Canada at the top of the leaderboard. Next, tied with Ligety, is Andrey Ivashenko, a Ukrainian ski instructor who has relocated to Stubai, in the Carv team’s adopted Alpine home city of Innsbruck due to the war in his homeland. A little further down is Alexander Kamuzaev, a lawyer from Moscow, who increased his Ski IQ from 120 to 158 in two years of using Carv, and is now a ski instructor. As for my own position, well, you have to scroll down a few more swipes to find me.
Jamie Grant, Carv co-founder and CEO, started skiing while studying physics at Oxford University. “I think if I’d learnt to ski as a child, I never would have made Carv,” he says. He found skiing hard, and wanted to get better, and thought there had to be an alternative to the expensive world of human tuition.
Grant went on to a PhD at Imperial College in London, where – as a side project – years of work recording turn data and applying machine learning to the results began. Slowly, Carv began to take shape.
The Carv sensors can be bought for $199, £199, or 199 euros, with an ongoing annual membership of $99, £79 or 99 euros, reflecting the ongoing commitment of the team of app developers, data analysts and ski instructors he has built to constantly improve the product – all the app updates are made available to all users, whenever you bought your Carv hardware. It’s designed to encourage progress and develop technique in all ability groups, from those just starting to link parallel turns, right up to, well, Ligety’s level.
On Stubai, on the early-season snow, we spend the afternoon together, taking on Ted Mode, pretending not to be competitive and instead focusing on the addictive gamification, and gratifying feeling of progressing through the levels as our technique passes the thresholds designed by a two-time Olympic champion.
Grant is a good advert for his own product, and skips through the first 25 of the 40 “Ted Mode” levels with relative ease. His Ski IQ? 148, 16 points ahead of me. But who’s counting? Of course, there’s more to a great day in the mountains than achieving a high score, but already I’m thinking about the details I need to improve on my next trip.
There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that Carv has made me a better skier. I started out getting intermediate scores when I first used the app two years ago. A few weeks later, I could feel my technique changing, my confidence building, and the smile on my face growing. My scores increased, and I moved up to a more advanced category, rated as a “Carv Connoisseur”.
There are two higher levels of the seven in total: “Mountain Master” (think Jamie), and “Grim Ripper” (Ted). I think I belong in the category above where I am (who doesn’t?), I’m determined to pass some higher levels of Ted Mode, and I know I can beat my Ski IQ. There’s a new season ahead of me, and besides, this year I’ve got a former Olympic champion as a coach.
Carv can be bought directly from getcarv.com
The author stayed at the Stage 12 hotel in Innsbruck