Why you and your child should try a freeski club.
"Freeskiing" used to be what athletes did when they weren’t training for ski racing or moguls, as in “The coach finally stopped making us do drills and let us go freeskiing.” But as ski movies grew in popularity in the ‘90s, freeskiing became its own niche, and it was followed almost immediately by “freeski” contests. In 1999 the first freeski club for kids, the Rocky Mountain Freeriders, started right in our backyard of Lake Louise. More clubs followed rapidly and now every ski hill on the planet has one or more organized freeski clubs for kids to join.
These clubs vary in both commitment and cost. They don’t produce Olympians, and an athlete’s progress can be tough to quantity, so how do you know which one is right for you or your child?
There are freestyle clubs that funnel talent towards the world cup in big air and halfpipe skiing. Likewise, there are race clubs at every ski area trying to create champions. But the heart of the freeski movement is an ability to adapt to the mountain and the conditions while maintaining freedom of expression, and a resistance to rules or regimented style. Two clubs that have had a lot of success balancing that line between structure and freedom are the Whistler Freeride Club and the Lake Louise based Ullr Big Mountain program.
Junior Freeski Contest at Red Mountain
The marketing material put out by the Whistler Freeride Club (WFC) makes it sound too good to be true, “The coaches will get your child stoked to ski each weekend, improve their skiing technique and develop their big mountain and park skills, as well as general ski improvement. No matter what their goal; to compete, to have fun or just become the best skier on the mountain, Freeride Club can take them there.” That’s a lot to aspire to, but the head coach of their senior program, Jen Ashton, simplifies their mission, “Our goal is to make life long skiers.”
The WFC is a big club with different tiers and kids ranging in age from 11 to 18. The upper levels are so competitive that athletes need to try-out each year, yet somehow they’ve fostered a supportive community of skiers who stay in touch and enjoy skiing together. Ashton says, “You see these posses of old Freeride Club skiers ripping together still. They all go to different schools now or have moved away, but you see them having fun together when they are back at Christmas.” You can tell she takes pride in seeing those ex-students still enjoying the sport and in the fact that skiers from the club rarely burn out the way athletes often do in ski racing. “Most kids age out of our program. They don’t quit.”
In the Rockies, Jordy Burks, the Program Director of Ullr Big Mountain, takes pride in the same thing, “Our retention is high. As high as 100% some years.” That makes sense when you hear him talk about Ullr and their philosophy. “We want to tune people into the joy of skiing. And that joy increases the better you get at it.”
Young freeskiers pushing each other.
Ullr trains athletes with a real generalist’s model. They ski everything from the terrain park to the backcountry and all the various terrain inbounds. “A lot of our coaches came out of the old Rocky Mountain Freeriders program. They lead the way, and the kids naturally imitate them.” The coaches model the type of skiers and type of people the program is trying to breed, “Bold and adaptable skiers who love the sport.”
Making “life long skiers” who “love the sport” is a less tangible goal than producing professional athletes or Olympians. But that seems to be what drives the culture and camaraderie in these clubs and if it gets teens hooked on skiing for the longhaul, that’s a great first step.
Powder day for the club.
Ashton has coached long enough to see athletes develop in many different ways, from shy late-bloomers to competitive, motivated youngsters. She says, “They all progress differently, but the kids that love skiing the most and want to go all the time do the best.”
Ashton adds that the most successful kids in these programs “have to want to be pushed,” and as any parent of a teen will tell you, there is a social side to everything. If athletes are in a group of like-minded peers, “They all push each other and chase each other. If one does a triple backflip, chances are someone else is going to try one.”
So the message seems to be that skiing needs to be fun so that young athletes love it and want to improve naturally. But they still need structure to progress and improve, right? Burks explains, “We want it to be fun and safe, and our staff training focuses on that.” These clubs have coaches who are trained and certified to teach aerials safely and to develop kids’ technique through on-snow drills and feedback. As freeski clubs have proliferated, big-mountain freeski contests for junior athletes have boomed as a way to bring everyone together. They also offer that elusive measuring stick.
Flying the club flag.
Burks, an ex-race coach, stikes a balanced approach to contests, “We go to the big mountain contests and recommend our kids do them, but the goal is to use the contests to bring out the best in the kids. And one reward for participating is that they get to travel to the best ski areas in Canada and meet a tight-knit community of skiers.”
Even when they’re talking about contests, Ashton and Burks talk about community, fun, and enjoying the sport. If you are still trying to decide between a race or freestyle program and a freeski program, that holistic may be the biggest differentiator. “Moguls and racing are real high cost, high repetition training, which is great for some athletes. We offer enough structure to keep things safe but still be able to adapt to the mountain.” Burks explains.
If fostering a life-long love of skiing is what you want for yourself, or your child, a freeski club is a great place to start. So look around for a club near you that has coaches worth emulating and an attitude that matches your own. You’ll be part of the freeskiing community in no time.
Calgary/Rockies Freeski Clubs.
If you are looking to get involved in the sport, here are a few solid options:
-Calgary Freeriderz offers a diverse training program that exposes athletes to every aspect of freeskiing: sliding rails, airing in the halfpipe, or dropping a cliffs. They split their time between Canada Olympic Park and Lake Louise. www.calgaryfreeriderz.club/
-Ullr is a big mountain focused club based out of Lake Louise that even offers avalanche courses and backcountry touring days for its crew.ullrbigmountain.com/
-Evolve is the club you want if you like to go fast. This competitive group trains ski cross athletes with eyes on the Olympics someday.evolvesnow.ca
-Southern Alberta Freestyle. A big, well-established club, Southern Alberta Freestyle has been producing mogul, aerial, park and pipe athletes from Calgary and area for a long time. Check out all their different programs atfreestyleskiclub.ca/
-Check your favourite ski resort as well. Most ski schools have a weekly freeski program to check out.
*Many clubs offer spring tester days where you can ski around with them and decide if you want to join the following season. Why not try it?*