Arianna Tricomi knows the Freeride World Tour ain’t so free. PHOTO: Jeremy Bernard/Swatch FWT
Drew Tabke secured the men's win in Vallnord-Arcalis when the Freeride World Tour kicked off the season early this month, while Italian Arianna Tricomi came out on top of the female line up in a freeride-oriented style not usually seen in the women's competition. Spirits were high, the sun was shining, and a fresh coat of snow blanketed the venue. There were big airs, tricks, crashes, smiles, and fist pumps—all of the classic components of a FWT event.
What wasn't seen on the live feed, however, was the financial cost to the skiers standing in the iconic Swatch-face start gate.
For most FWT athletes, at least two years are spent on the qualifying tour. To keep costs low, athletes cram into hotel rooms, live off of free Clif bars, and put up with cramped carpooling. With the five qualifying events costing at an average of $600 (beer not included), athletes are looking at spending at least $3,000 per qualifying season without a guarantee of ever standing on top of the Bec des Ros—the Tour's final venue in Verbier. Connery Lundin spent five years on the qualifying tour without financial help from sponsors.
"The costs and sacrifices of competing are absolutely worth it," says Lundin, who won the American-based Subaru Freeride Series and went on to film with Matchstick Productions and Powder Productions. "While competing on the FWQ I met my best friends, faced failure, and refined my process to become a better person and skier."
Still, securing a spot on the FWT doesn't guarantee financial assistance from sponsors. Current tour rookies Kylie Sivell and Mark Mikos hosted local and online fundraisers to be able to head to Europe for the winter this year. Conor Pelton spends the summer setting up stages on the Warp tour to foot the bill of competition, while Griffin Dunne saved every dime he earned from his full-time job since he secured his qualification last winter. Previous competitor Kyle Taylor competed in in skijoring and gelande events to stack up prize money that could then be used to compete in FWT events.
With the Tour holding more weight in the European markets, many (though not all) Region 1 riders are able to support their athletic careers through commercial and local sponsorships. But the support usually covers basic training and competition costs. Most Tour riders, regardless of nationality, are looking to come away from the year with a break-even balance. Even with podium wins, athletes like two-time Tour winner Eva Walkner avoid vacations, live simply, and put every dime back into training, hospital bills, and gear.
The lack of financial support for skiers is nothing new, nor is it endemic to competitors. Funding falls short for even top TGR athletes. If anything, the lack of financial gain is just a testament to how the spirit and soul of skiing can be motivation enough. These athletes are arguably the most pure one can find because success (or just perpetuation of career and skill) is in no way motivated by financial gain, because frankly, there isn't any. And yet, you’d be hard-pressed to find a skier who regrets the unredeemed sums of money spent to be on the Tour.
"[Competing] was the best decision I've ever made. It felt so good to chase my dreams and stop slinging burgers, but it also added a lot more pressure to win," says Jess McMillan.
In reality, athletes will always continue to compete, regardless of costs. But, what would happen with a larger pool of funding, access to coaches, physicians, nutritionists: Is there potential for even more impressive runs with athletes that are trained more like their U.S. Ski Team counterparts and less like college freshman? Or is it a testament to the free nature of the sport that these athletes can go without traditional methods of preparation that require financial support including training and time-off, while still sitting on top of a podium?