It wasn't easy to see right away who would place first and who would place second at the men's open slopestyle event at the USASA Nationals at Copper Mountain Resort this week. What was obvious, however, was that, either way, it would be a win for Team Breckenridge.
It came down to the judges' decision between athletes Ethan Swadburg and Mark Nowakiwsky.
"It was a battle between first and second," said Team Breckenridge Hawk's Freeride head coach Chris Hawks. "I wasn't sure who won at the end."
The final result had Swadburg taking first and Nowakiwsky second. Additionally, two of their teammates, Kai George and Levi Ascher, placed in the top 10 overall at eighth and 10th place, respectively.
Hawks said he was not surprised by the success of his team.
"Every time we go to an event, we think we're going to do it, because they're really good. These kids have been working at it for a long time, so we expect to be up there," he said. "The whole field made good runs down, it's just that our guys were a bit better."
Swadburg's first run wasn't ideal, he said, which made him a little nervous for the second, "but I ended up landing it." This year marked his fourth year competing at the nationals event. Last year he took first for the 13-15 age group. Winning in his first year at the 16-18 bracket was unexpected.
"It was pretty exciting, I was pretty overwhelmed at the moment," he said. "I didn't really expect to win. It was pretty cool."
Swadburg praised the competition, particularly his teammates, who he shares a friendly competitive relationship with.
Currently a junior at Summit High School, Swadburg has been skiing since the age of 3 and entering competitions since age 9. He skis at least six days a week, sometimes more, emphasizing that putting in the time to practice is the best way to do as well as he does. Advising younger skiers, he said, "Just ski as much as you can - get as comfortable as possible on your skis."
Keith Swadburg, his father, has watched his son grow up on his skis, witnessing the progression from beginner to Slopestyle competitor. He and his wife, Julie, attend as many of their son's competitions as possible and were on the sidelines at the nationals event Monday.
"We're proud, of course," Keith Swadburg said. "Parents are always proud of their kids when they do good things and I'm happy for him and his friends."
He also mentioned that slopestyle competitors "tend to be very encouraging of their competition," which can be seen in the supportive attitude of the Team Breckenridge athletes.
John George, father of Kai George, agrees.
"The pressure to perform out there is fairly high, because the envelope keeps getting pushed, but most of these kids ski together and they do a pretty amazing job of just pushing each other to perform," he said. "They're all good friends and spend a lot of time together. It's such a positive experience for those kids, it's pretty cool."
Both Nowakiwsky and Swadburg said they were excited to take the top two places together and watch their teammates place high as well.
"I think it was awesome that we could be up there first and second," said Nowakiwsky. He also emphasized the sense of friendly competition between himself, Swadburg and the rest of the team. "There are definitely no hard feelings. You push each other. Everyone's super friendly and feeds off everybody else. It's cool, there's a lot of camaraderie."
Nowakiwsky experienced a bit of an emotional roller coaster during the event, relating that he just made it into the final round and then learned he was up against Swadburg.
"It was a really talented field and I found out just before Ethan went that I was in first place," he said, "but Ethan was a top qualifier so I was definitely on edge. He had an awesome run and that was really good to see, because he's a teammate."
Despite his nervousness, Nowakiwsky mastered himself and pulled off what he describes as one of his best runs of the season.
"I was able to put it together my second run at finals and link all my tricks together that I hadn't done all in a row yet this season," he said. "I feel super proud and accomplished that I was able to do that run that I'd planned. This was the first time in the season, so it was definitely a good way to finish it off."
Nowakiwsky, a Breckenridge native, graduated from Summit High School last year. He spent the fall taking classes at University of Colorado, Boulder, then spent the spring focusing on his skiing. He plans to do the same this year, while supplementing his credits with classes at Colorado Mountain College. He has an interest in business, but plans to take some more classes before deciding on a major.
Skiing, of course, will retain a large role, with attendance at summer camps and plans to stay on snow as much as possible. While he enjoys competitions, Nowakiwsky said that his real love of the sport lies with hanging out and spending time with friends.
"It's just about being out there and having fun," he said. "It's not about winning, it's not about sponsorship, it's about skiing with your friends and making it fun. That's what makes me love the sport - going out there every day and not getting sick of it. The completions are fun, but they can be stressful. My ideal day would just be a sunny day with my friends just having fun."