For the first time in the history of competitive big mountain skiing, collegiate athletes will have a tour of their own, starting next year. A handful of collegiate athletes have always made appearances at various competitions throughout the winter, though it was likely at the expense of class participation grades. Driven by a gap between the number of college-aged athletes and competitions that fit into an academic schedule, the International Freeskiers and Snowboarders Association (IFSA) is stepping up to the plate next season to organize a handful of contests that will be held throughout the West in 2015.
The Collegiate Freeride Series will have three stops in its inaugural year: Grand Targhee (January 31-February 1), Crested Butte (February 13-16), and the National Championships in Snowbird at a date to be determined in March. (The collegiate events will be open to non-college students, as well.)
"It's the evolution (of the tour), this is where we saw the best opportunity and the most need," says Scott Mahoney, IFSA president.
The announcement of a collegiate series is the latest from the IFSA, which was on the brink of obsolescence just four years ago in 2010, when it lost its affiliation from the then Freeskiing World Tour, a blow that was both financial and psychological. Competitors' membership fees supported the organization, and without a direct connection to the tour, the IFSA's ability to represent the athletes was jeopardized. Today, however, the IFSA is boasting record membership and greater relevance than at nearly any other time in the nonprofit's history, since the late Shane McConkey founded the organization in 1996. With close to 1,100 members and over 40 sanctioned events hosted at more than 30 resorts across North America, the IFSA is shaping the future of contests.
The IFSA owes much of its success to the growth of junior big mountain programs. While junior contests have been gaining popularity for the better part of the last decade, the competitions were a hodgepodge of events scattered throughout the country until the IFSA unified them into one tour with a championship at the end of the season. The IFSA created a national ranking system, provided a platform for athletes, coaches, and parents to converse, and helped organizers with judging and logistics.
"When I began competing, each event we went to had it’s own different feel, usually some variation in organization, rules, and judging, as well as a different group of people in charge," says Martin Lentz, the 2014 North American Junior Tour men's champion. "(The tour) has evolved a lot, to where this year all the competitors knew who the judges were going to be before the comp and we all shared an understanding of the expectations and rules."
With the announcement of collegiate events for competitors ages 19-24, the IFSA has also begun to answer the ever-present question of the last few years: what do these competitors do when they turn 18? "The idea is to try and take the kids that have come through the junior program and make sure they have a competitive venue to show their skill in and continue onto adult competition," says Mahoney. Currently, about 100 kids a year are aging-out of the junior series, in addition to those that may be attracted to the sport through collegiate clubs and organizations.
"There is a huge competition gap in freeride right now," says Jason Holton, Western State Colorado University's assistant director of mountain sports who reached out to 22 different schools with big mountain skiing programs to seek their participation. "Unless you are the best of the best destined for a Freeride World Tour podium, you are going to have a lot of trouble trying to compete more than once or twice in a season." Holton envisions these events to serve as a stepping-stone to larger competitions. "I’m hoping that we can build a strong series that doesn’t necessarily replace the adult competitions for collegiate athletes, but complements them and helps them gain the experience they need to be competitive at the sports highest levels.
While the IFSA board of directors continues to focus on growing the sport, they are equally committed to keeping contests financially accessible. Whereas the costs of alternative competitions, such as racing, tend to increase with age, the IFSA strives to keep costs consistent across all age categories. The current IFSA membership fee is $80, compared to around $230 for a junior racer competing in both USSA and F.I.S. events.
"Skiing is typically an expensive sport, we're doing everything we can to keep (these events) accessible to anyone that wants to compete," says Mahoney.
Affordable junior events and an entry-level collegiate series reflect the IFSA's grass-roots beginnings. However, with the IFSA's overwhelming growth, and the Freeride World Tour's recent decision to cut ties with its North American event organizer, Mountain Sports International, athletes and organizers alike are speculating whether now is the time for the IFSA to step up to a larger role with adult big mountain competitions.
"We need to understand what the face of freeride in North America looks like right now, and I don't think anyone knows what that's going to be," says Mahoney. "If we've got something that fits what we're doing, we've got the bandwidth to execute it, and it makes sense for everybody we're trying to take care of, that's usually something we're interested in looking at."