WORDS: Drew Petersen
For those already familiar with skier George Rodney, his recent success on the Freeride World Tour comes as no surprise. If you don't know the name, take note. In his rookie year on the FWT, the 21-year-old American big mountain skier currently sits atop the overall rankings. The only American male skier to win the overall title of the European-centric FWT is Drew Tabke in 2013, but with two events left in the season, Rodney has the championship in his sights.
"People were saying, 'Who's the rookie kid that's winning?'" Tabke said after the latest FWT comp in Andorra. "But George didn't really seem surprised. I think that's his plan. I think that's what he's here to do."
Coming into his debut season on the FWT, Rodney was focused on just winning one event—a goal he referred to as "lofty, but possible"—and he's already realized it. Due to poor snow conditions and an avalanche at the secondary venue, this year's Austria stop was moved to the Pyrenees of Andorra. The event was the third and most recent event of the FWT season, offering the last opportunity to acquire points leading into the second half of the winter.
Rodney found a unique line on the outer edge of the venue, far from the tracks of his competitors. He decisively found the entrance to his upper feature and maneuvered above dangerous exposure, airing 30 feet out of the area, over a chute of rock and ice. After sending another sizeable cliff, he entered the finish corral the clear leader. The run was a perfect exhibition of what has defined George's style since he shifted from racing to big mountain events at the age of 17—technically sound turns, big airs, and stomped landings. At the end of the day, Rodney not only found himself atop the podium but also in the lead for the overall rankings.
After Rodney's recent success, Tabke and the other Americans nicknamed him Golden Rod, a playful adage to his gold medal and the bib he will don in Haines. Despite Rodney's total of 4,690 points on the season, he has virtually no cushion in the overall standings. The top ten riders are separated by less than 1,000 points, making the overall title anyone's championship to win (2,500 points are awarded for winning one event). Further intensifying the pressure is the fact that three of the riders on Rodney's heels are overall champions from the past three years: Reine Barkered (2012), Tabke (2013), and Loïc Collomb-Patton (2014). For Rodney to hold onto the golden bib he will need to keep his current momentum rolling and maybe bring something new to the table in Alaska.
The remaining events are in Haines, Alaska, and Verbier, Switzerland. Thus far the 2015 FWT stops have been relatively short and small, but the classic, steep spine faces of Alaska and the famous Bec des Rosses in Verbier will be the opposite: long, gnarly, and foreboding. Rodney has the skillset necessary to perform on these venues, but his line choice and mental preparation will be critical.
"If he can just find something that works for his style, then he'll be fine," says Tabke.
Rodney has never been to Alaska or Verbier, but it’s Haines stop that holds extra significance, as it's the first time the FWT will visit the freeriding mecca of Alaska. More importantly, Haines is the only FWT event held in North America this year, and Rodney hopes to protect a bit of home soil in addition to chasing a FWT title in his rookie campaign.
"When I quit ski racing I thought that was all kind of out the door, being able to represent my country," says Rodney. "But to be able to do just that on the biggest level, it's everything. And there's obviously a lot of pressure, but it's good pressure. Pressure is how diamonds are made."