Employee Spotlight: Michael Nell

One of the more colourful CVs that has come across our human resources desk, Michael Nell is an Olympic athlete and uranium miner. After competing in the 2006 Olympic Winter Games and finishing his studies in Engineering, Michael decided to make the move to Vancouver and joined the WhiteWater team in 2016 as a Mechanical Engineer servicing some of our large-scale projects.    

I hear you are kind of famous… can you tell me about that?

I started Nordic Ski Jumping in grade 10 as part of a program to get older athletes into the ski jumping program. Most kids start the sport at 5 or 6 years old to get the hang of the equipment and develop the specific strength, flexibility, and muscle memory required by the sport, but I started the week before I turned 15. Despite joining a little late, I made it to the Olympics in Turin, Italy in 2006 when I was 22. This was a pretty big deal as it was the first time in 14 years that Canada had a team qualify for the Olympics.

The Canadian Olympic Committee set a high bar for athletes in ski jumping because we had some world-champion level athletes back in the 80s. After they finished competing in the 90s, the program sort of fell apart, but the qualification criteria stuck so you pretty much had to be “podium potential” to even qualify for the Canadian team. The committee finally loosened the restrictions a bit and my team qualified to compete at the Olympics, placing 15th as a team and 64th and 65th in the individual competitions (I saved my best jump for the team event!). My personal distance record (not at the Olympics) is 134m/440 feet, which is like jumping over a football field with end-zones…and landing in the stands on the other side. In height, that’s equivalent to jumping off a 14-story building and hanging in the air for nearly 4 seconds!

How did you end up at WhiteWater?

I grew up in Calgary and moved out to British Columbia in 2006 to go to school at the University of Victoria (UVIC). After graduation I moved to Vancouver and worked for five years at a local company down the street from WhiteWater who did high-tech design and manufacturing of large-format printer systems (printers the size/shape of a pool table…or two!). As cool as some of the projects were, it was not something that I was passionate about. I have always been athletic and into sports and the outdoors, so I began to investigate potential companies that would fit this side of my personality.

I heard about WhiteWater when one of my former co-op students got a job here. I decided that working on water slides and water parks would be a great fit for my love of the outdoors and applied to be on Claudio Barrera’s Product Development team. Although I did not land the job on my first interview, Claudio encouraged me to keep my eyes peeled on the job board because he hoped to be hiring again soon. That time came and I got the job and have now been at WhiteWater for five years.

What’s the weirdest job you have had?

After the Olympics, I went back to school at UVIC and was hired by my buddy’s dad in the Northwest Territories to work as a “claim-staker.” His dad said that he needed some hardworking, athletic people to run through the forest for eight hours a day, staking claim on the land for mineral rights exploration and extraction (uranium and other precious metals). He remembered that I had taken geology (in my first year of university) and thought I would be a good fit for the job. With nothing better to do, I accepted the job and spent four months in Northwest Territories and Northern Saskatchewan. As part of the role, I was dropped in the middle of nowhere by helicopters into various places in the forest with just a machete, a GPS unit, and some flagging tape. We had to walk in a straight line, following the edge of the claim, no matter what; if there was a creek you walked through it, if there was a lake you swam across it (or called the helicopter to pick you up). Once all four boundary lines of the claim had been walked by one of our team, the land could be registered, and the parent company could start mining exploration.

What is your position at WhiteWater and some of your daily responsibilities?

As part of the Water Slide Engineering team I help to field the technical questions that come from our structural and sales teams and work on general product engineering.

What’s your favourite WhiteWater product?

Probably the Boomerango + Manta Fusion water slide. The 6-person products are some of my favourite, and the Boomerango gets you the fastest speeds with the highest and lowest g-forces. There is also something special about the flat space in between the Boomerango wall and the Manta wings. In between these two huge slide components there is an unassuming flat section in the slide where the raft just goes blasting through. It is unexpected, but it’s the ultimate high-speed, “wind in your hair” experience as you sail smoothly at full speed across the flats towards the next big feature. I find it to be a neat and unique spot that people don’t typically think of when they think of that product.

What are some of your hobbies outside of work?

Pretty much anything outdoors. My main hobbies are probably skiing and ski touring in the winter and mountain biking, rock climbing, and surfing in the summer. On my honeymoon, my wife and I also tried out kite surfing which quickly turned into a new hobby as well.  

Who would you trade places with for a day?

I would trade places with someone hanging out on the International Space Station. When I was a kid, the idea of being an astronaut always sounded pretty cool, but somewhere along the line I got distracted with ski jumping and other activities. Working in space is something that has always stuck with me and still interests me so I wouldn’t mind trying it out for the day. Being able to look back at the world from that sort of vantage point would be an incredible experience.

Cassidy Newman