At 8:00 a.m. I find a spot in Mammoth's main parking lot.
I'm here to catch up with U.S. Freeskiing Halfpipe Coach and former pro pipe star Andy Woods for a story that'll appear in volume 42 of POWDER. I throw on my gear, listening to Steely Dan. After securing a ticket and coffee, I ride Chair 1 and run through theories on what a U.S. Freeskiing Team Camp would look like. Would they run drills of the entire team throwing down flawless right 9s, one after another, like NBA pre-game layups? How many pushups on the pipe deck would I see completed? With the Winter Olympics less than one year away, many questions remained and I assumed, as I have for the last five years, that it would be a tamed-down version of a Rocky training montage.
I schuss to the private halfpipe and park built on Solitude, right off the High-Five Express (Chair 5) lift. Coaches, media, and park builders are pushing and pulling an air bag into place at the bottom left of half of a halfpipe (not to be confused with a quarterpipe). Around 9:30 a.m., skiers and snowboarders slide in to place. Woods informs me U.S. Snowboarding and Freeskiing often share the same team camp facilities, which is why Scotty Lago, Kelly Clark, and Danny Kass are here, too.
Maddie Bowman, one of the United States hopefuls for ski halfpipe gold in Sochi, learns alley oop flat 5s into the bag, her long ponytail whipping around from under her helmet. With a real smile on her face, not one of those USSA media-trained robot smiles we hear the mogul team must learn before competition, Bowman's vibe is loose, hiking at her own pace. A couple of times she has trouble with her takeoff, getting lost in the air before landing in the bag. She shrugs it off, happily chats it up with her coaches, hikes and tries the trick again, the benefit of having a pipe built for around 30 people. Wing Tai Barrymore, nursing a small injury, sat to the side, eating pistachios in the sun, encouraging Bowman, sometimes jokingly pushing her to try a double.
Over the next two hours, the Olympic army "training" center I imagined on Chair 1 morphs into the greatest summer camp session ever. And I want in.
These skiers are working on tricks, putting their own style on them, and perfecting them within their own definition of perfection. No handbooks exist that outline perfect form or what a 540 needs to look like. They ski hard, no doubt, often times with the same intensity as the skiers in the Unbound Terrain Park a few lifts over. With more resources like air bags, cameras, and iPads for instant playback and analysis, the skiers at the U.S. Freeskiing Camp are reaping the rewards of thousands of hours of hard skiing.
Yet the U.S. Teamers are not jocks. They are skiers learning new tricks at their own pace so they can be at the forefront of their idea of “progression” or as I prefer to call it, "getting better at skiing." Like LeBron James working on his defense or David Wright swinging 1,000 times off a tee, their goal is to get better. No, actually a better comparison would be like Tanner Hall spinning like a top in one of his trampoline edits or the Traveling Circus crew in a backyard, their goal is to move their skiing forward, in a new direction for themselves.
Sure, they have to perform and, like all disciplines of skiing, there are those that take it way too seriously. But unlike popular opinion professes, style lives here too. Duncan Adams hones a cork three in the pipe. I watch Bowman reach for a high safety grab into that alley oop flat 5. Torin Yater-Wallace, who left his Armada Pipe Cleaner's in a coach's car, schusses down on skis borrowed from Henrik Harlaut. When he returns, he nose butter right 5s the bottom left wall, a trick he surely won't throw in Russia, but I appreciate the fluidity and how that kid makes everything look so damn easy.
When I was 13, I attended Camp of Champions in Whistler, another one of the greatest private places a 13-year-old skier from anywhere can go. There, I learned how to slide rails and tighten up my 360s, snagging a grab. Tall and lanky, I was anything but a jock, hiking the 25-foot jump and suffering slam after slam, trying to flail my way to a first 540 safety grab. Some could say I was training. I called it the greatest week of my life.
If I were 13 today, I’d want to be on the U.S. Freeskiing Team, a permanent summer camp with insanely great resources to get better at skiing. The only difference between then and now is one can actually become a world champion. Whether or not that matters seems of little importance. Most of these skiers grew up with twin tips and started skiing park and pipe well before the remote possibility of these disciplines reaching an Olympic level. As Woods points out, the Olympics, while important, is only one pipe comp.
Sure, one could assume there are those on national teams that are in it for the media exposure and money, hoping to cash in, becoming the next Shaun White and bastardising the sport. We, as a ski community, have every right to point our fingers, make fun of their Stride Gum Commercials and laugh at shirtless covers of Rolling Stone. Some people crave media attention, money and fame, and possess a narrow focus. Others, like most skiers on national teams and skiers in general, just want to get better at skiing. That's part of the fun.
I ski back to the Unbound Terrain Park. There, I run in to Parker White, Chris Logan, and the E-Doggo crew. They're lapping Mammoth's pristine parks. Parker tells me there's a Level 1 shoot on the backside in a few days and suggests I should stick around to watch the private jump session. I tell him I can't make it, but if I had to guess, the similarities between the two private parks would be strikingly similar, the perceived differences in the crews laughable. Just two groups of skiers, trying to get better at skiing, and having fun in the sun in the process.