Sit. Ski. Success.
ASPEN – It was “Lights! Camera! Action!” Wednesday on Aspen Highlands as one of Warren Miller’s cameramen turned his lens on Sam Ferguson, a local sit-skier and disabled freeskiing pioneer.Ferguson, a California native who grew up surfing in Hawaii and Florida, came to Aspen in his 20s to pursue a life of extreme sports, but a mountain bike accident at the age of 25 left him paralyzed. When he first met Amanda Boxtel, a co-founder of Challenge Aspen, a nonprofit giving disabled people sporting options, Ferguson was apprehensive, saying doctors had him convinced that he was too fragile. But Boxtel badgered him, and his first appearance on skis was in front of the cameras for “Good Morning America.””My first ski lesson was in front of 20 million people … no pressure,” Ferguson laughed.”But as soon as my ski hit the snow, I knew I had something to be passionate about,” he said. Skiing helped him believe in his own goals: “It’s been a blessing.”
A Grateful Dead sticker on the seat of his sit-ski, Ferguson wears a glam, fuzzy hooded coat, and his CD player pumps hip-hop to get him fired up.Wednesday, Ferguson ripped up Highlands for the lens of Brook Aitken, a filmmaker from Boulder who’s worked freelance for Warren Miller for 10 years (Aitken’s father, also a filmmaker, was a friend of Miller’s), as well as National Geographic and the Discovery Channel.”Give me a ‘three, two, one’ as he approaches the lip,” Aitken said through his cell phone, and with shot after shot, Ferguson went big for the cameras, tearing up a high ridge down Deception in Olympic Bowl, or catching air off rollers on groomed runs.Skiing for the camera “really teaches you to be on your skiing,” Ferguson said. “You have to be right there in the moment. When the camera’s on, you better be on.”A homage to Chris BoveFerguson met Chris Bove, a Challenge Aspen instructor, in 2000, and the two just clicked, he said. Ferguson was one of the last to see the charismatic instructor before he died in a ski accident at Snowmass in February, and Ferguson credits people like Bove and Emily Cote, a former U.S. Freestyle Team member who coached him in the bumps, with his success.Chris Bove’s younger brother, Andy, joined the film crew and even skied a few runs as a stand-in to help Aitken check for camera angle and focus.
Ferguson first skied Highland Bowl in February 2003 with the help of Bove and a group of friends who pulled his sit-ski up the track. And that first descent first landed him in the spotlight.”How would you like to come back and do that Monday for Warren Miller?” a producer asked Ferguson that afternoon, and a film shoot landed him a segment in Miller’s 2004 film, “Journey.””I like the freedom,” Aitken told the cameraman Wednesday – he’s a pro kayaker in the offseason – and Aitken faces assignments that see him jumping from a helicopters and skiing with oversized packs. But he called it a great tradeoff from being chained to a desk.Warren Miller Films chose Ferguson as a subject, Aitken said, but it is up to Aitken how he photographs, shooting with high-speed 16-milimeter film because the equipment holds up better in the cold, he said.A disabled freeskier’s visionFerguson used to race, and was nationally ranked, but he turned his focus to freeskiing after a girlfriend died in a car accident. He’s forerun the halfpipe event at the Winter X Games at Buttermilk and took a tough fall at the 2007 inaugural Mono Skier X after his binding gave way.
Ferguson and Bove set up jump off a 10-foot cliff at Arapahoe Basin during a film shoot last season. But Ferguson chose the wrong line for his final approach.Instead of the 10-foot huck, Ferguson shot off a 35-foot cliff, a new high for his sit-ski, and an idea was born: disabled freeskiing, setting new standards of big air and extreme terrain skiing.”We need to keep this movement going,” Ferguson remembers Bove saying after the jump. And since Bove’s death, Ferguson wants to honor him by pioneering the sport.Ferguson is forming the International Disabled Freeskiing Association and applied for nonprofit status. His goal: hold the first disabled freeskiers event in two years on Highland Bowl in honor of Bove’s memory. Ferguson hopes the event will be the first of many disabled freeskier competitions.At age 36, Ferguson said he can only help the sport grow, adding that it will be young up-and-comers, and many Iraq war veterans with the “courage and the resources” to pioneer the sport.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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