Stoke party at Copper (no invitation needed)
Aspen, CO ColoradoCOPPER MOUNTAIN – When there is no snow, Aidan Sheahan, 14, goes looking for rocks. Not to throw, but to jump off. He leaps from the top and twirls in the air before landing on his feet.When he tires of jumping off rocks, he goes over to a neighbor’s house and bounces on the trampoline, inverting his body high in the sky, over and over, until he is ready for something else.That something often begins with a trip to the local hardware store, where he and his friends pick up enough Astroturf to cover Sheahan’s front walkway. If they can’t make it to the store – or if their allowances are tight that week – they’ll look for an alternative, usually a rug from one of their homes.”If it’s a really dirty one I can use it, but I’m not really allowed to use my mom’s good carpet,” Sheahan explains.They station a metal rail in his fenced-in front yard and grind it with their skis before popping onto the landing surface du jour. The stoke is slightly less than what they feel when they’re in one of their beloved terrain parks, but they manage. After all, this is what it’s all about when you are a dreamer and a believer, and there is nothing else you want to do.
At the U.S. Freeskiing Open this week, only one competitor is named Aidan Sheahan, but there are hundreds more with stories just like his. Kids young and old have come to Copper from thousands of miles away – 11-year-old Beau Wells hails from New Zealand – traveling on their parents’ dime, fueled by a wonderful thing called belief.Ninety-five percent of them have literally no shot at advancing past their qualifying heats, which means they have traveled all that way for two measly competition runs. You think they care?They are here to feel a thrill you cannot buy in a store, or with a lift ticket, or by watching their heroes compete for X Games gold on television.It’s called the U.S. Freeskiing Open for a literal reason: because it’s open to anyone. All you must do is register on the event’s website within the 15 minutes it usually takes to fill up the 300-some spots each December (harder than it sounds, judging by the hundreds of kids who don’t get in).Every competition in the ski industry but a few requires an invitation to compete. Which raises the old chicken-or-egg question: How do you get good enough to earn an invitation if the best way to establish yourself is in invitation-only contests?Answer: You go to the U.S. Freeskiing Open and turn heads.
“This is pretty much the biggest open contest in the world,” said P.K. Hunder, a Scandinavian teenager who earned the top qualifying score of the four heats thus far. “If you wanna do well in any competition, it’s this one.”Hunder, 17, is a study on the power of an open contest. He grew up in a tiny (population 5,000) town outside Lillehammer, Norway, and flew halfway across the planet in search of a career-making result. After the way he skied Wednesday, more than a few onlookers could be heard talking about him as one of the next big things.Almost to a skier, the top pros all have their own, similar stories of arriving at the U.S. Open as anonymous as those slated to compete this year. Before long they emerged, some quicker than others but none without the raised eyebrows that go along with an unknown commodity becoming known.”I remember my first Open,” said Greg Tuffelmire, 30, a Copper Freeride Team member and accomplished veteran who has competed in seven of the 10 U.S. Freeskiing Opens. “Just looking around at all the guys I’d seen in the magazines and going, ‘Wow. I guess this is the real deal. Do it, or don’t.'”Michelle Parker, 19, of Squaw Valley, Calif., is competing in her fourth U.S. Open this week. She first took part when there were barely enough girls to hold a contest; two years later she landed on the slopestyle podium, and she is now one of Team K2’s hottest female skiers.
“I was definitely really nervous,” she recalled of her first Open experience. “It was the biggest jumps I’d ever hit. I went in because a sponsor told me, ‘Oh, you should go to the Open.’ I was like, ‘OK.’ The jumps were huge. I didn’t even know how to spin a 360 at the time; I just hit rails”Which brings us back to Aidan Sheahan. At 5-foot-4 and 100 pounds, the spindly ninth-grader from Boulder is barely large enough to clear the knuckle on some of the slopestyle course’s jumps. But he’s still confident and itching to try.He plans to throw a string of tricks that should include some combination of an unnatural 540, a 900, a 720 with a grab, then a 540. His mom, a former U.S. Cross Country Ski Team member, and dad both ski with their heels free, but this is Aidan’s love.Earlier this year he ripped the park with Swedish superstar Jon Olsson at Keystone, where Olsson taught him how to land a Rodeo (540 with a backflip). Sheahan has had to wait until today, the third and final day of slopestyle qualifying, before he competes, but he’s been up there on course nonetheless, soaking up every detail his eyes can find.”You’re amazed by them,” he said of the pros. “I see ’em doing stuff and it’s cool for me because they’ve been doing it for so many years, and it just gets me excited to keep progressing.”So goes the cycle.
Let’s make some skiing predictions. I made my X Games snowboarding predictions a day earlier and remain only mildly lukewarm in terms of confidence, but maybe I’ll feel better about the skiers.