The article first appeared in the October 2015 (44.2) issue of POWDER.
THE INSULAR ALPINE REPUBLIC OF SWITZERLAND is known to keep a low profile. Only a few of the country's highlights—the banks, the chocolate, Pirmin Zurbriggen, Roger Federer—have made a breakthrough to the world stage. But with a new generation of top-level Swiss big air and slopestyle skiers on the rise, it might be time to add freestyle skiing to the list of things for which Switzerland is famous.
In the last four years, Swiss skiers have earned more medals in X Games big air competitions than any other country, thanks to the duo of Elias Ambühl and Kai Mahler. Either Ambühl or Mahler has consistently landed a second- or third-place finish in big air since 2012 (in 2013, both placed in the top three). One more top-three win and Switzerland will match the United States in overall X Games big air medals at seven apiece.
Meanwhile, the Swiss have been making inroads in slopestyle, a field where other Alpine nations like Germany and Austria have struggled to match the competition from North America and Scandinavia. In February, Swiss young-gun Fabian Bösch, 18, claimed the slopestyle title at the FIS Freestyle Ski and Snowboard Championships in Kreischberg, Austria. Up-and-comers Andri Ragettli, Luca Schuler, and Giulia Tanno also posted top-three results at World Cup slopestyle events and at France's SFR Tour, Europe's biggest slopestyle circuit. To steal a phrase from freeskiing history, there's a new Swiss Air Force on the scene.
The secret lies within the Swiss Freeski Team, an incubator for the country's top talent that is funded by the Swiss Ski Federation, which has long viewed freestyle sports as a strategic niche in the Olympic-medal calculus. Members of the team are privy to benefits that only the world's top competitive freeskiers can enjoy: year-round training programs and full-time physio coaches and physical trainers. Some athletes even have an agency to manage their endorsement contracts.
But it takes more than funding and training to make champions. Often, national teams and development programs are viewed as factories that churn out robots with cookie-cutter style. The Swiss team has managed to avoid this stereotype thanks to head coach Misra Noto's knack for helping his skiers hone their individual strengths. From Mahler's cat-like balance in difficult tricks to Schuler's pioneering triple-cork 1080, each skier on Noto's squad has something that stands out from the crowd.
"While they each have their own sense of style, they work together as a group to push each other," says Mike Hanley, a veteran slopestyle coach who worked with Nick Goepper and now heads up the New Zealand team. "Noto functions as the captain of the ship to help ensure that everyone is headed in the right direction, without being an authoritarian by mandating any specific skill set or format. Along with the Scandinavians, the Swiss team is going to be a force to be reckoned with for a long time."
A former aerialist and pro skier, Noto, 32, has coached the Swiss team since 2010. His program includes an unusual training regimen that focuses on all-around freestyle skills. This summer, Noto scheduled water-ramp training for his athletes in Mettmenstetten, near Zürich, and then a trip to Bispingen, Germany, to work on rail tricks in the snowdome. Other off-season training tools include slack lines, diving boards, cliff jumps, weights, and trampolines. "Basically, it's about doing tricks everywhere," says Noto.
With his team's talent pool reaching critical mass, Noto hopes the Swiss team will continue to improve its results leading up to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea. Medals are the ultimate goal, for which the Swiss slopestyle competitors will have to contend with a stacked field of Americans, Canadians, and Scandinavians.
"We are still a little behind the Americans," says Noto. "But then it's us, the Norwegians, the Finns, the Swedish. We're right there, and we're not sleeping."
Kai Mahler is an example of Switzerland's latest great export. PHOTO: Ruedi FlÜck