Behind Every Great Winter Olympian Is a Wax Technician

Meet the Unknown Man Behind Countless Winter Olympic Medals


Sports and Outdoors : Sports By Photo by Sung Han
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W
alk down Ketchum, Idaho’s Main Street, past the tourist shops and outfitters shops, past the dive bars and the cocktail lounges. Turn southwest at Second Street. As you walk toward the ski slopes, your back to everything the guidebooks tell you to seek out downtown, and you’ll pass a modest, house-like building with plain, cream-colored clapboards and a single large window. The lights will be on, the music will be blaring. This is a store, a workshop, a haven for professional ski bums. This is The Waxroom, and it’s home to an Olympian of a different sort.

Curtis Bacca isn’t a world champion skier or a gold medal snowboarder. He’s a wax technician. He works in racing, but he doesn’t weave through gates (although he does move). His job happens in the hours leading up to a race, in the critical moments when the final adjustments are made to a snowboard or a pair of skis to ensure that it glides over snow and ice as fast as possible. It’s Bacca’s job to pick the skis, grind the skis, put structure in the skis and test the skis. Then, immediately before a race, he has to take stock of the conditions and figure out what to use for the underlay, the base layer, the overlay and the additives. Each decision is crucial and translates directly into wins and losses. The wax kit Bacca travels with consists of two 50-pound boxes that contain $50,000 worth of gear. (One bar of high-quality ski wax can cost up to $300.) He is to ski and snowboard racing what a pit crew is to NASCAR.

Like a skier or snowboarder, Bacca is lean, with a face that’s weathered from so much time spent in the mountains. He grew up in eastern Idaho, where he skied at Grand Targhee, a mellower ski resort on the opposite side of the Tetons from Jackson Hole. After college, Bacca moved to San Diego to pursue “a real job” in advertising and marketing, but his time there was short-lived. “I had to get back to the mountains,” he says. So he packed up, left Southern California and headed to Sun Valley.

Bacca spent his first years back in Idaho as the prototypical ski bum. He coached racing and worked as an instructor, and spent time working in ski shops. But Bacca is a rare example of someone who managed to escape the dead-end delinquency that’s a common pitfall of life as a ski bum. He got a job working for Head skis and, in December of 1990, found himself at a World Cup race in Wengen, Switzerland, prepping skis for Kyle Rasmussen — a promising young skier from California looking to make a name for himself on the world cup circuit.

“All of the sudden everybody starts coming up to me and saying congratulations. I still get a chill.”

Rasmussen ended up finishing in the top 15, a respectable finish for the young racer and for Bacca as well. “I made a wax call on some skis and Kyle skied great,” says Bacca. “It was my first race, and everybody was like, ‘Who is this guy?’” The result made an impression on the ski racing community. But perhaps more importantly, Bacca had gained the trust and respect of the Austrians. “They were the premier knowledge base in alpine downhill skiing” at the time, according to Bacca. Some even opened up that knowledge to him, and he soaked it up like a sponge.

All of a sudden, Bacca found himself in the big leagues of alpine skiing. He had gone from ski bum to shot-calling for one of the biggest names in downhill skiing. In 1995, He returned to the iconic downhill course at Wengen with Rasmussen. Bacca took to his role; he had a quick mind and was always observing. “I paid attention to the sky, the sun, the angle, the wind — everything. I don’t really speak German or French or Italian, but I’d listen to the Austrian radio and the French radio,” he says. “Every race is like a story.”

This race, like Bacca’s first trip to Wengen, would turn out to be pivotal. The night before Rasmussen was set to race, it snowed, which set the stage for the course to start slow and become faster as each skier compacted the surface of the snow. Rasmussen drew the first run: in most cases, a surefire way to end up finishing down the list. Rasmussen’s time was “pretty good,” according to Bacca, who fully expected that the result wouldn’t hold up. But, against the norm, Rasmussen’s time held. Bacca recalls the moment: “All of a sudden, everybody starts coming up to me and saying congratulations. I still get a chill. I wasn’t thinking about my guy actually winning.”

Rasmussen became the third American to ever win a World Cup downhill race, according to Bacca. At the time, Bacca was only the second American-born wax technician at work at such a prestigious race. According to Bacca, there have only been three total to date. “I went from just being a guy out there to being one of the guys in downhill that can have guys win races. It secured my position in our own little cliquey, eccentric world,” says Bacca. But then, just two years later, Bacca left the circuit, went back to Sun Valley, and opened The Waxroom.

“I want to treat everybody like Kyle Rasmussen or Tommy Moe.”

Inside the shop, the walls aren’t packed with products; they’re laden with old photos and race bibs instead. Bacca has elected to focus on the part of skiing that he knows best: service. Behind the main counter, instead of goggles and accessories, is the principal tuning bench. While most shops relegate this workshop to an out-of-sight back room, Bacca has chosen to make it the focus of the shop. He and his crew of loyal employees work in full view of the customer and perform as much of the work by hand as possible.

Bacca opened The Waxroom because he saw a void in the industry. “At ninety-nine percent of shops, people come in and get the same ski tune,” he says. “Everybody skis differently. We’re all built differently, we all have different skis we like, our setups with our boots are different; you don’t need the same thing I do.” That approach has drawn in a group of loyal customers. The Waxroom isn’t on Main Street or in Sun Valley’s base village; people find it because they seek it out. Some even send boards in through the mail.

At The Waxroom, tuning skis is treated as more of a craft than a service. Bacca uses many of the same big green machines that other ski shops use for grinding and building structure into a ski’s base (structure, in skiing, is a granular pattern in the P-tex base that helps skis glide). But unlike those other shops, Bacca still finishes his work — work that constitutes sharpening and beveling the edges and, of course, waxing — by hand. Bacca’s mission with the shop is to share the knowledge and technique he provides to world-class athletes with the everyday skier and snowboarder. “I want to treat everybody like Kyle Rasmussen or Tommy Moe,” he says.

Try as he might, Bacca couldn’t keep himself from racing. He got talked into going to the X Games and began waxing for snowboarders like Nate Holland, Lindsey Jacobellis and Seth Wescott. It was Wescott who brought Bacca to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The games were plagued with poor weather. It rained more than it snowed, and organizers were forced to farm in snow using trucks. It was full of straw, gravel, dirt and oil — not ideal for racing, or for the base of a snowboard.

Wescott botched his first trial run and Bacca was forced to scramble. He rushed from the race start back down to the wax room, where he grabbed a Nordic ski tech looking for some insight on ironing in overlays — a foreign concept in the world of snowboarding. After a lightning tutorial, Bacca decided to go for it. He worked quickly, rushed back through security, and made it back to the top of the course with little time to spare. Wescott won heat after heat, and eventually took home the gold medal.

Bacca describes it as his crowning achievement. “I’d like to have that every day in life. I got really in tune with the weather and the wind and the snow, and all the elements that were coming together. It was like I had this intuitive sixth sense. Sometimes I make good calls, but this was different.”