At the bottom of the venue for the Tahoe Junior Freeride Series' Alpine Meadows event, Eric DesLauriers, head coach of the Squaw Valley Big Mountain freeskiing team, spoke into his radio.
"Hey Chase, just do it again, man," DesLauriers said. "You know what to do--smooth and fast and link it all together."
Chase Whitney, 15, exploded out of the gate, making fast, graceful turns to his first air. Whitney was one of more than 140 athletes who competed at the regional event sanctioned by the International Freeskiers & Snowboarders Association (IFSA). Kids 11 to 18 years old charged down the Poma Rocks venue, powering up to intimidating lines and stomping huge airs.
The Tahoe Junior Freeride Series started about five years ago as a friendly competition between the Sugar Bowl and Squaw Valley freeskiing teams. There were 10 boys and five girls in its first events. Those days are long gone. Young athletes are flocking to big mountain freeskiing programs, and the demand for junior competitions has increased exponentially. DesLauriers said his Squaw Valley big mountain team has doubled its numbers of kids more than twice in the last five years.
The Junior Freeskiing Tour (now the Junior Freeride Tour) was the first national venue for teenage freeskiers. The JFT hosted its first junior comp in 2008 at Crested Butte. But it didn't take long for the junior freeskiing industry to outgrow the existing competitions.
Before this year, JFT events notoriously sold out in less than a minute, leaving coaches scrambling to find open competitions for their athletes. Frustrated by the lack of existing events, a group of 35 coaches from across the country and members of the International Free Skiers Association decided to sanction its own junior tour, expanding regional events under existing programs like the Tahoe Junior Freeride Series and establishing its own North American tour for athletes who qualify.
"At the end of the day, we want to make junior events happen," said Rob Greener, who is the head coach of the Alta/Snowbird Freeride Team and is the vice president of the IFSA.
Now there are two separate tours for junior freeskiing, the IFSA and the Junior Freeride Tour. The IFSA is hosting 40 events across the U.S. and Canada this winter. The JFT scheduled five comps, although they had to cancel their junior event at Crested Butte. Both tours will crown a champion -- on the same weekend. Both aim to encourage their athletes with judging they deem as "safe and smart." Both hope to see their top junior athletes transition successfully to adult competition.
But neither recognizes the other. The tours are independent of each other and points from one don't transfer to the other.
That's put athletes in a tight spot -- either choose the tour that has more competitions, or the one that will earn you points that transfer to the adult Freeride World Tour. This season, many followed their coaches to compete at IFSA events. And for the first time in recent years, the JFT events did not sell out.
"I don't think it will work out this way with it split," said Martin Lentz, 17, who skis on the Alta/Bird team and competes on the IFSA. "All the competition is on the tour that doesn't count for anything. It doesn't make sense to take the less competitive skiers into the adult tours."
As the IFSA developed its own tour, the Junior Freeride Tour has also undergone some reevaluation. The recent changes to the Freeride World Tour go all the way down to the junior level. Officials said that the JFT wants to focus on the top-level junior athletes who are serious about transferring up to the adult tours. Organizers wanted to create a clear path from the JFT to the Freeride World Tour, so that if kids want to continue to compete when they turn 18, they will hit the ground running with points already accumulated from their junior comps. JFT comps are classified as two-star events on the FWT.
"It was good timing for us to move our JFT to the whole concept of the global, unified tour," said Bryan Barlow, the tour manager for the adult and junior Freeride World Tour events.
The JFT also decided to cut its younger age group. Barlow said there was too much of an ability gap between a 12-year-old and an 18-year-old.
"Putting them on the same venues became really hard to manage," Barlow said. "It's a matter of capacity. We want to cater to any junior that wants to gain knowledge and experience to make them a better big mountain skier."
The JFT's decision to exclude the younger kids ended up being a deal-breaker for some teams, many of which have more kids in the younger age bracket. At the Alpine Meadows comp, more than half of the competitors were in the younger age group. DesLauriers said that the JFT's decision to cut the younger kids out of the events does not reflect the demographic of junior freeskiing, and it doesn't work for teams like his that want to travel to events together.
The JFT has hosted one of its four events so far this year at Crystal Mountain in Washington.
"It was a great starting event for us," Barlow said. "We came away with really good positive feedback from all the coaches and the kids."
Sierra Swan, 15, who skis on the Alta/Bird team, was the only girl to compete at the JFT’s Crystal Mountain stop. She chose a line that took an air off the ridge, opened up into the bowl with big turns and then sent her off a cliff at the bottom. Swan got first place in the girls division and took home an uncontested $300 prize.
"I ran with the boys," Swan said.
Swan left her coach and team to compete at Crystal because she says that the JFT is the program she's always competed in. Her dad was also the photographer for the event. Since she didn't have her coach to guide her, she adopted a mentor through the Flyin' Ryan program.
"The tour I've always done is the JFT," Swan said. "I support both tours fully. I definitely do. All my friends do the IFSA, so I fully support that."
Graham Griffin, 16, who skis at Alpental and is entering his first year of freeskiing comps, is one of the few athletes who have done events in both tours. Based on his experience, he says the judging is consistent between the two. He liked having the younger kids at the IFSA event because it gave him the opportunity to be a mentor, and he liked how the JFT event was smaller because he had more time to ski.
DesLauriers said the none of his kids decided to pursue a JFT competition, although some might sign up for the Squaw Valley comp in March since it's at their home mountain.
"Their focus has always been the adult tours," DesLauriers said of the JFT. "They look at it as a primer for their own tour instead of recognizing that [junior freeskiing] is its own discipline, its own event, its own series. They should treat it that way and give it the respect it deserves."
Even with 140 skiers taking two runs down the venue over both days, the IFSA Alpine Meadows event last weekend ran smoothly. The competition was high -- in the boys and the girls divisions -- as it is at most junior freeskiing events.
"The best skiers right now -- fundamentally skiing -- are the ladies," Greener said. "The top 15 boys -- they ski better than the adults, in my opinion."
DesLauriers, Greener and many other coaches who developed the IFSA comps say they want to find a way to merge both tours. The JFT is positioned to support the top-level athletes who are in pursuit of adult-level competition, while the IFSA could continue to oversee the regional and national events.
"It's my hope, and several others, that the two can come back together and sit at the same table and work collaboratively for the future of the sport," said Trevor Tanhoff, director of the Sugar Bowl Academy's freeskiing program.
Barlow acknowledged that the IFSA helps fill the demand for competition on the grassroots level. But he said the JFT is focused on its comprehensive world tour and providing a junior component. "We're set with what we're doing and that's the direction that we're going," Barlow said. "All in all, we're trying to grow the sport."
IFSA National Comps
The Jeep Junior Freeski Presented by Rossignol
Fernie, British Columbia
Feb. 21 to 24
IFSA National Junior Event
Taos, New Mexico
Feb. 23 and 24
Tahoe Junior Freeride Series
Squaw Valley, California
March 2 and 3
Junior Big Mountain Challenge
Lake Louise, Alberta
March 7 to 10
IFSA Junior Freeskiing National Championships
Crested Butte, Colorado
March 7 to 10
Junior IFSA Freeskiing Comp
Crystal Mountain, Washington
March 14 to 17
Targhee IFSA Junior Freeskiing Open
Grand Targhee, Wyoming
March 21 to 24
IFSA Junior Championships - North American Finals
Revelstoke, British Columbia
April 4 to 7
Junior Freeride Tour
Squaw Valley, California
March 8 to 10
Taos, New Mexico
March 29 and 30
Junior World Championship
April 3 to 7