Aspen freestyle coach earns top honor |

Aspen freestyle coach earns top honor

Nate Peterson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Elana Chase led AVSC's freestyle program to 16 Junior Olympic medals this past winter, eight of which were gold. Four of Chase's athletes also earned spots to compete in three World Cup events and halfpipe specialist Jen Hudak, whom Chase recruited as a post-graduate athlete, podiumed at three World Cup events as well as the Winter X Games. (Courtesy AVSC)

ASPEN ” It’s an award reserved for men. More accurately, older men ” who come from an elder era of freestyle skiing. For years, it has been an award for coaches who specialize in moguls and aerials, and who have devoted a life’s work to shaping young athletes.

To be exact, it is an award known for honoring the past, not looking ahead to the future.

Until this year.

Elana Chase is always talking about the future of freestyle skiing, and this past winter, after the band of freeride athletes she coaches at the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club (AVSC) turned in a season for the record books, the local coach got her due.

Last month at its annual awards banquet, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association named Chase its domestic freestyle coach of the year. The award is the highest honor in Chase’s line of work.

Youth, it seems, has finally been served.

“It feels really good because I know that some people who wouldn’t normally vote, who are peers in the freeride community who take a stand against the establishment, actually went out and voted because I was a nominee,” said Chase last week at the AVSC clubhouse. “I didn’t ask them to, but they told me they voted for me. That was kind of cool, people who normally weren’t involved kind of took the extra step.”

If ever there was a coach to break the mold of who receives such an honor, it’s Chase. She is both knowledgeable and respectful of competitive freestyle skiing’s history, and yet, she’s also an unapologetic defender of the freeride movement that has taken competitive skiing into terrain parks and halfpipes.

A native of Vermont, Chase grew up competing in moguls and aerials, first at Killington Mountain School, then as a scholarship athlete at the University of Montana State in Bozeman.

In 1993, while at Montana State, she was named to the United States’ development team, and competed under the national team umbrella until 1997.

Two years later, she began coaching freestyle skiers at Okemo Mountain School in Vermont. As the freeride movement evolved, so too did Chase as a coach. Early on, Chase recognized the potential for events like halfpipe and slopestyle to surpass moguls and aerials in popularity ” and creativity ” and embraced the change instead of fighting it.

In her opinion, Chase said the freeride movement represents the essence of freestyle skiing at its purest. It’s the perfect blend of organized chaos: a competitive venue where creativity reigns.

In recent years, she’s even stumped for park and pipe skiers at national team meetings, urging officials to adopt the idea of forming a national halfpipe team, among other things.

“There’s so many kids in slopestyle and halfpipe who are under the USSA umbrella,” Chase said. “In the nicest way I can say it, they’re not always getting what they deserve all the time. Freestyle started because people wanted to work really hard, have fun and be creative. These kids are still working hard and trying to better their buddy and push the limits of skiing, but in their own way.”

Just as she has helped the sport evolve, Chase is responsible for noticeable changes at AVSC. Most prominent among those is the post-graduate program she helped found four years ago when she arrived in Aspen.

The guinea pig for that venture was Jen Hudak, a talented freeskier who Chase coached at Okemo Mountain School and with whom Chase wanted to continue working while at AVSC.

Chase said her first year in Aspen was a trying one, and that her saving grace was the creative freedom given to her by her superiors to build a program to her liking. That meant recruiting an established athlete like Hudak, while also continuing to work with some of the club’s burgeoning freestylers.

“I give AVSC a lot of credit for being creative,” Chase said. “I work better that way. I didn’t like it so much my first year here because I was trying to fit in a mold and I didn’t really know what the mold was between our coaches and the other coaches. I really didn’t know where I was supposed to fit. It wasn’t working. Then I went on my own path.”

That pioneering path led to the payoff of this past season, when Chase’s roster of athletes racked up podiums nearly every weekend. The results were too overwhelming for coaches around the country to ignore.

Under her direction, AVSC skiers won 16 Junior Olympic medals, eight of which were gold, and four skiers earned spots to compete in three World Cup events.

That’s not to mention the winter turned in by Hudak, who won her third straight U.S. national halfpipe title, took third at the Winter X Games in halfpipe and reached the podium in all three World Cup events she entered ” including her first World Cup win, at the season finale in Valmalenco, Italy.

Chase defers credit for those results, quickly noting that her athletes were the ones who skied so well, not her.

“For them to believe in what I want to do and what events we should enter, and for me to believe in them, me winning the award is just an extension of them,” Chase said.

In the same breath, if there’s an award for a national coach of the year, Chase said it’s hard to argue that anyone deserved it more than her after this past winter.

“I feel like I truly won the award,” she said. “Most often, the award is kind of a lifetime achievement award. But for this particular year, no one else had better results as a domestic coach.”

“The award shows the respect for what she’s out doing, getting wins on the World Cup,” Knight added. “She’s come out with a group of athletes who are taking the sport more seriously and they’re bringing along the sport, along with Elana.”

Chase bristles at the notion that freeride athletes are just a bunch of park and pipe rats who couldn’t hack it as moguls skiers.

“They get a bad rap sometimes, and there’s a perception that the moguls skiers work harder, which is so not true,” she said. “Most of the kids I work with have personal trainers, nutritionalists, and they really care about what they eat. I don’t coach the kids who go to bed at 10 o’clock at night. They’ll never be the greatest ones in their sport. … Their nature, their whole personality is to push the limits of everything. That doesn’t mean they don’t work hard.”

Chase also believes in letting her athletes make their own choices, as opposed to being a micro-managing taskmaster.

Her explanation: It’s an individual sport, and it’s ultimately up to the athlete to decide their destiny. She can’t get people to chase dreams if they’re not their own dreams.

Chase said that same individualistic philosophy carries over to her coaching. She said she doesn’t have a particular coaching style, instead choosing to go by feel with each athlete she works with.

“Some I like to joke around with. Some are really serious and they want matter of fact. They like the nuts and bolts. Some, they need someone to demonstrate for them,” she said. “There are so many different ways. Some you have to crack the whip.”

The results speak for themselves, although Chase also admits that results aren’t always everything. It’s complicated, but it’s really not.

“I like to win,” she said. “I like to train champions and I like to win. Winners aren’t always champions. I don’t just want to make good skiers, I want to make good people because they’ll be people a lot longer than they’ll be competitive skiers. And they can take it to something else. I do like to win, and I try to win every week. Every time there’s someone on the podium, I feel like I did my job and they did their job. I’m just as happy as if I was skiing.”