On a cold perfect day, you’ll find them. They’re snow angels, pirouetting off jumps and landing perfectly, defying the very laws of gravity. Freestyle skiing is a talent like no other, and it’s one of the toughest and most physically demanding things you can do on skis.
These are skiers who look for something different, skiers who combine skill with showmanship and make dangerous look easy. They may be born with the nerve, but they aren’t born with the skills, and that’s why you’ll find these special athletes at the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF).
Freestyle skiing was started in the 1930s by Norwegian skiers, but didn’t take off until 1979, when the International Ski Federation recognized it as a sport.
There are two main branches of freestyle skiing recognized in competition: the more traditional type like moguls and aerials, and the newer type, which includes half-pipes, and “big air.”
The birth of Sun Valley’s Freestyle Ski Team dates to 1990 when John Zuck, a mogul skier from Montana, decided to do something different in Sun Valley. Zuck was a competitive skier and in 1979 fell in love with and settled permanently in Sun Valley.
“I was competing, but also wanted to give back,” says Zuck, who, during his free time, can be seen on Bald Mountain, skiing with the kids from the team. He says it helps getting to know his kids better on and off the runs. And while he’s teaching them this wild and competitive sport, he’s also teaching them work ethics. “I think it instills a lot of life skills. They’re looking down and realizing they’re going to do back flips. It takes a certain mentality to do it. It can be scary.”
It took Zuck two years to get the SVSEF to start up a whole new program. It was, he says, two years of convincing and pleading with the board of directors. But finally in 1990 the Sun Valley Freestyle Ski Team was installed as a new branch.
There were only six kids on the first team. Now there are 60. The Freestyle Team competes in Boise and Utah. The competition season usually starts the first weekend after Christmas and runs for eight straight weeks until the Junior Olympics which begin in March. >>>
Since the installation of the Freestyle Team, many skiers have come through the program. Nick Hanscom, 23, who hails from Sun Valley and is a graduate of The Community School, came through the Freestyle Team and has had a successful career skiing since. A two-time gold medalist in the Junior Olympics, Hanscom also made the U.S. Freestyle Development Team in 2002. He’s been in the top 10 in the national championships and has been training at the U.S. Ski Team headquarters, in Park City, Utah. He will also be trying to make the U.S. National Team and hopes to compete in the 2010 Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia.
“In freestyle, every run is different and you can go off different lines and jumps,” Hanscom says about why he loves his sport. “Jumping is a huge part of it. There are so many different approaches and it is really challenging. It never gets easy.”
Like most of the skiers who come through the Freestyle Team and the SVSEF, Hanscom learned a lot from Zuck.
“He’s great,” Hanscom says. “He pretty much taught me how to ski. I came into the team not knowing anything. He works really well with kids. I’ve known him for 11 years and I have a really good relationship with him,” Hanscom says.
Kids who want to go through the SVSEF must start basic training at age seven. After a year or two, kids have a choice of which division they want to compete in.
The importance of that basic training is inestimable, Hanscom says. The SVSEF teaches kids the art of skiing.
“Moguls are the off-shoot of skiing,” Hanscom says. “You can’t mogul without the basics.”
Despite its appeal as a “cool sport,” freestyle continues to draw the smallest team at SVSEF, and Zuck thinks it’s partly because it’s intimidating. “Moguls are the hardest thing you can do on skis,” adds Hanscom. “If you can rip moguls, then you can do anything. You gotta be strong and fast. It’s a hard thing to get good at.”
Hanscom thinks there is another reason why Sun Valley’s freestyle team is smaller than other teams in the Valley. It’s Sun Valley’s history in racing. “More people want to race,” Hanscom says. “There are other cities with huge freestyle teams. Sun Valley has a richer racing history.”
Zuck believes there is a lot of room for expansion within the program. They’re working on a year-round program to build an indoor jumping facility south of Bellevue to help with ski jumps.
Obviously, the team attracts the daredevils of skiing who love nothing more than to go off a jump and land a perfect 720, a maneuver counting the degrees of spins a skier can turn while in the air. >>>
One of those young daredevils is Luke Robertson, 10. Luke has been on the developmental team for nearly three years. The best thing about the freestyle team, according to him, is the jumps and tricks. His favorite slope is Lower Holliday where he perfects his jumps.
“It’s fun because at the beginning it’s not that steep, but as you go deeper it’s more of a challenge,” says Robertson who welcomes that challenge like any other pure competitor.
His best trick is the 720 because he loves the feeling he gets when he lands. That’s called adrenaline. Robertson might be young, but few his age know what pure adrenaline feels like. There’s the rush of something spectacular, the excitement from those who just watched an amazing feat, and also knowing that you just did something perfect.
Not surprisingly, the majority of kids in the program are the offspring of skiers. Luke’s father, Rick, was on the Sun Valley Ski Patrol and introduced Luke to skiing.
According to Rick, Luke decided on his own that he preferred freestyle over downhill when it came time to choose which direction he would take. Luke is an independent kid who enjoys the thrill and the full challenge of skiing.
“Both his mom and I are encouraging him to develop a passion, and, at least for now, this seems to be it,” Rick says.
Luke’s passion landed him third in the Bogus Basin Freestyle at Boise last winter. With every practice, his moves are getting better. By the end of his first year, Robertson was able to do a full 360. Last year he was perfecting the 720, which is a much tougher.
Most people would think that doing spins and tricks in the air would come with a price. Zuck’s team, however, hasn’t had to pay. During the entire tenure of Zuck’s program there have been no serious injuries to any skiers, which says a lot about how good an instructor Zuck really is.
“None on my program,” he says. “We’ve been really lucky. But, he adds, “they do just fine as long as they keep fit.”