Marquee Image: Logan Pehota is just 20 years old, but he’s already making an impact on the big stage, currently ranked first overall on the Freeride World Tour. Photo: Dom Daher
During his first run on the 2015 Freeride World Tour, 21-year-old George Rodney launched a 100-foot backflip to his head. He was a rookie, after all, and this was his first stop on the tour. Multiple helicopters filmed his run from all angles, and he was competing against seasoned veterans, some of whom had competed on the FWT longer than he'd had a driver's license. Excitable, young, talented, and a little inexperienced, he wanted to make an impression.
But then the unprecedented happened: Rodney won the next event. In fact, he kept winning throughout the season, and eventually took the overall title to join an exclusive group of skiers—including Candide Thovex and Loic Collomb-Patton—who took the overall title in their freshman season.
In fact, Rodney, now 22, came in with a serious advantage. He's one of an ever-increasing number of young athletes who competed in junior big mountain competitions before they were old enough to think about the FWT. Last season, Max Durtschi, Martin Lentz, and Trace Cook all qualified for the 2016 tour at 19, and Lauren Cameron at 22. All four rookies came out of junior big mountain circuits, and they—and their peers—are infusing the sport with a huge amount raw talent, energy, and style.
Historically, the path to the FWT for North American skiers was long and undefined. Most athletes' success started with a move to a ski town to hone their big mountain skills. Once confident enough in those abilities, they could enter low-level freeride competitions on their own dollar, gradually earning both points and a reputation. Eventually, they might land on the shortlist for a Freeride World Qualifier event—a huge accomplishment in itself—where they would compete against a stacked field of athletes for a FWT spot.
If an athlete gets through to the tour, the learning curve is still steep. From throwing down in sketchy conditions on super-technical terrain, often skiing for the media for the first time, and competing against veterans who've been on the tour for close to a decade, the road from rookie to champion was tortuously long. Veterans, it would appear, have always had a clear advantage. But the ever-expanding youth big mountain scene has built a much more structured path to success on the grand stage.
"By the time they're 18 and they step into their first year on the qualifying tour, they're savvy, they're strong, they're extremely skilled, and they understand intimately the game that they're playing."
"These kids are growing up in ski school programs form the time that they're 2 or 3 years old. Then when they're 11, they enter freeride programs," says Derek Foose, coach of the Whistler-Blackcomb Freeride Club. "By the time they're 18 and they step into their first year on the qualifying tour, they're savvy, they're strong, they're extremely skilled, and they understand intimately the game that they're playing."
These competition circuits are relatively young, founded in large part by Foose himself, who kickstarted the movement with the first North American youth freeride competition at Whistler Blackcomb in 2002. It's been a tumultuous road for competitive junior freeriding since then, but the sport is finally starting to come into its own. Over the past few years, the International Freeskiers and Snowboarders Association (IFSA) has finally settled on a clear infrastructure for the junior circuit—how competitions are scored, how points are gathered, how many competitions an athlete can participate in—that has helped big mountain riding gain recognition as a legitimate sport.
Prior to the rise of these junior circuits, the only organized path available to competitive young skiers was alpine racing. Many current FWT athletes started out racing and abandoned it as their passion for skiing grew out of the confines of a race course.
"I loved the challenge of ski racing, and I liked being out on the hill every day skiing," says Lentz, who transitioned into freeride competitions in his early teens. "But what these freeriding events provided that ski racing never did was a much greater sense of community. Compared to racing, where everyone is so focused on their time, in freeriding, it’s like, 'Oh, wasn't my day, it’s all good. I'm gonna go have fun with my friends.'"
Echoing Lentz's experience, Foose explains that ski racing's precision and lack of creativity often doesn't inspire a love for the sport. Big mountain riding, on the other hand, requires a unique sensibility—a "psycho spark" and a mental looseness, according to Foose—that includes a true passion for the mountains and a desire to express that passion through creative skiing.
The number of young athletes registered with the IFSA has more than doubled in the last four years, and the possibilities to shape a new generation of athletes seem limitless. But for a coach who used to watch Whistler-raised 13- and 14-year-old racers burn out and quit skiing altogether, Foose's main goal is to help his racers build a sustainable relationship with the sport.
"We want to keep the best interest of the kids in mind. We want, at the end of the day, for all of them to leave their time in this arena as passionate, lifelong skiers," says Foose. "Some of them are going to succeed in competition, some of them are not, but the whole youth sport is not really about success at that sport, it's about how you react to the times when you're not successful."
"We want to keep the best interest of the kids in mind. We want, at the end of the day, for all of them to leave their time in this arena as passionate, lifelong skiers.”
The skiers that do find competitive success and land themselves on the FWT join a rapidly changing field of athletes with a definite leg up in terms of experience. Rather than learning to choose lines, ski to judges' criteria, get creative with a limited space, and deal with competition nerves once they enter FWQ and FWT events, many have been developing those skills since they were 12. But that's not to say they're unstoppable.
"Young skiers are so damn impressive these days," says Drew Tabke, tour veteran and 2011 and 2013 FWT Champion. "New guys show up with Stengel, balls, talent. But one of the biggest differences is that lot of them have never done a “visual inspection” in juniors or qualifiers; looking at a peak you haven’t been on and flashing a line on your first attempt."
Lentz, recalling his first FWT event in Andorra this year, echoed the challenge of the visual inspection, which presents a huge challenge to rookies choosing a line that suits their style and skill set. "I picked a pretty mellow line," he says. "I was worried about some features and wasn't sure it would work. Then I skied it and was like, 'Wow, that was much less intimidating than I thought it would be.'"
With youngsters flocking to big mountain comps, safety and decision-making are major concerns as well. "The only thing I find a little worrying is that the older you get the more you have this little thing in the back of your mind: judgment and decision-making," says Hazel Birnbaum, a four-year tour veteran. "When I was 18, I would just throw myself off of whatever and bounce back really quick, but I wasn't necessarily thinking about the outcome."
"The only thing I find a little worrying is that the older you get the more you have this little thing in the back of your mind: judgment and decision-making."
Surprisingly, the booming junior circuit doesn't correlate with young skiers making poor decisions. The competitions, in fact, build in a risk-management sensibility at a younger age. Progressive venue selections make big features off-limits to younger age groups, gradually introducing the athletes to increased risk only when their experience allows. Furthermore, both coaches and judges prize clean, in-control skiing over out-of-control, risky runs. As athletes discuss line choices with coaches, and train and compete on increasingly challenging terrain, risk management is a huge part of the conversation—more than it might be for a young skier outside of a competitive framework.
Beyond the visual inspection and the media circus, the FWT operates much like junior events, and the competition is just as fierce for the teens.
"If there is any question to the level of junior skiing compared to the adults right now," says Lentz, "go watch the highlights from the Freeride Junior World championships (at the end of January). They ended up skiing the same venue as the Swatch Skiers Cup, and the podium of the junior tour would have beat every single one of the Swatch guys."
While experienced rookies are certainly ushering in a huge wave of young talent, the rookies haven't made it impossible for other accomplished athletes to qualify. One of this season's standouts, Logan Pehota, 20, came up through the ranks in a more traditional fashion, relying on a lifetime of skiing and a history of big-air and slopestyle competitions to land him a spot on the tour.
"I think freeskiing is still such that anyone can be successful, coach or program or not," says Tabke. "Ideally the sport represents the best big mountain skiing, period, and that can come from any background. It has always been that way, just now there are more well-organized paths for kids to get experience specifically geared to freeride. You could still just be an anonymous bum ripper and come through to the top."
The culture on the tour—one of camaraderie, respect, and collaboration—hasn't changed either. "We're all competitors, so age doesn't really affect much. Its' your level of skill. Rookies can look up to seasoned athletes who have been competing for a while, but they aren't looking up to them because of their age, they're looking up to them because of their skill level," says Birnbaum. "There are so many individual personalities on the tour, but we're such a small group that it becomes like a family in a way. Everyone just loves to ski, and that's why we're here," says Birnbaum. And, at the end of the day, the rookies aren't changing that.