2017 USASA Nationals preview: How snowboarding saved 19-year-old Rachle DeFelicé’s life | SummitDaily.com

2017 USASA Nationals preview: How snowboarding saved 19-year-old Rachle DeFelicé’s life

You could say snowboarding saved Rachel DeFelicé's life.

Three years ago, at just 16 years old, the California native moved from the West Coast to Colorado with her mom for one final shot at her dream: to become a pro snowboarder. Since the age of 2, she'd battled a rare and unclassified autoimmune disorder that attacked her lung tissue and made it difficult to breathe. Doctors told the teen she had only five or six years to live, and so she took their advice and did what made her happy. That meant moving to the mountains after seeing "The Art of Flight," a 2011 film from Travis Rice, and hooking up with Team Summit Colorado for halfpipe and slopestyle training.

Except DeFelicé didn't listen too closely to her doctors. They were convinced that moving to Colorado would exacerbate her disorder, not improve it, but the fiery 16-year-old was committed.

"I just really knew what I wanted, so I said if I'm going to die anyway, I'm going to die doing something I want," said DeFelicé, who had never set foot on a snowboard before moving to Colorado. "I took the risk and moved here, and pretty soon after I stopped going to the hospital as much."

Snowboarding that first season wasn't much fun — she had a rough time getting acclimated to Breck's altitude and her new sport, which she admits was harder than it looked — but her condition was slowly improving. By her second full season in Summit County, her lifelong routine of biannual hospital visits for three or four months apiece had disappeared.

"The thought of, 'I'm going to die in a hospital bed,' was always with me, so if I fell or got hurt on a snowboard, at least it's doing something I really love," DeFelicé said of her first two seasons on a snowboard. "Fear doesn't really factor into things."

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And it showed. After just one season, DeFelicé was getting exponentially better on a snowboard. She qualified for the 2016 USA Snowboard and Freeski Association National Championships at Copper Mountain Resort and wowed her coaches with two solid finishes: third overall for halfpipe and fourth overall for slopestyle, both in the women's 18-22 division.

Starting today with halfpipe practice, 19-year-old DeFelicé is back and better than ever. She'll compete in the women's Open division at 2017 USASA Nationals (April 1-12), joining another 40 snowboarders from Team Summit and hundreds of athletes from across the world for two full weeks of competition in six disciplines: halfpipe, slopestyle and rail jam for snowboarders and freeskiers, plus boardercross, slalom and giant slalom for snowboarders only. There's also skiercross.

"I want all of our kids to be proud of the work they did throughout the season," said Matt Voegtle, snowboard program director for Team Summit. "Nationals is kind of the final cap on our training, and over the past three days we've been looking at what we can do at Nationals: What are your goals?"

DeFelicé's goal is simple: land a halfpipe run she couldn't come close to landing just two years ago.

"I feel great," DeFelicé said about her run a few days before competition started. "It took me a month to get the flow down, but I couldn't be happier with my progress. I'm pretty confident I'll land every trick, and I'm happy I've worked toward creating a run."

USASA showdown

This season marks the 10th year USASA Nationals have come to Copper Mountain. The event regularly draws hundreds of snowboarders and freeskiers from across the nation, along with a few international athletes, and all are considered the best of the best in youth winter sports.

To qualify, athletes need to gather points throughout the season in the various disciplines. The top-three athletes in each discipline for each age division — there are more than 20 — are sent a qualification letter in mid-March after the final USASA contests of the season.

But not all disciplines are created equal. It's relatively easy to earn an invite for something like snowboard slalom, Voegtle said, while events like ski and snowboard slopestyle are incredibly competitive. He's certain Team Summit is one of the biggest teams at Nationals with 42 snowboarders — the team sent 28 last year — and it's thanks to a training plan that promotes balance over tunnel vision.

"Now we have a better balance of training and competing," Voegtle said. "We've been getting that formula dialed in to not just qualify for Nationals, but compete once they get there."

Athletes to watch

Voegtle's approach has helped DeFelicé improve by "leaps and bounds," the coach says. Her halfpipe run is impressive — frontside 540, cab 360 and backside 540, plus straight airs — and if she can land it clean, her coaches are convinced she'll make the podium in the Open division.

On the slope course, DeFelicé's teammates, Ellie Duchow and Ellie Weiler, also look promising after strong seasons. Dubbed "The Ellies," the two compete in the girls 14-15 division and have trained at least three times per week, all season long to get ready for Nationals. Voegtle says "they're at the top of their game," and slopestyle coach Josh Underwood is excited to see what they can do with confidence.

"If either of those girls can land a clean run, they will win their division," said Underwood, who is head coach for the 12-plus snowboard group. "A lot of the girls at this level have the same tricks, but our girls have the advantage of working on these jumps (at Copper) all the time. They're comfortable with the size of everything."

For the snowboard boys, Voegtle expects young Bode Heflin to do well in the Breaker boys 12-13 division. Because age-class cutoffs happen on Jan. 1, Underwood says Heflin will be competing against 14-year-olds — and he still expects the Team Summit youngster to shine.

"It's funny — even the other kids on the team talk about, Bode looks so good," said Underwood, noting that Heflin has tons of style for his age. "He's 12, and it kind of looks like he's almost 10, but he makes it look so good. That's going in his favor."

Then there's fellow youngster Axl Bonenberger. The 12-year-old Team Breckenridge/Hawks Freeride skier enters Nationals with an incredible record: six first-place finishes and one second-place finish this season. He hopes to keep the win train chugging at Nationals with a huge slopestyle line: switch 900, right cork 720, left double 1080 — all brand-new tricks for this season.

For coaches and athletes alike, Nationals is the perfect time to show off what they've been doing all season. It's like a mini-Olympics, and kids who can stand the heat flourish.

"I've seen these kids put down runs 20, 30 times in the past few weeks," Underwood said. "But they only have two chances (at Nationals), and that's when the pressure is on. You have friends and coaches and judges and parents watching you, and I think it's good for these kids to have that at this age — to see if it's something they like."

2017 USASA Nationals schedule

The schedule is subject to change based on weather and other unknowns. The Main Vein superpipe will be closed to the public until April 13, along with Copperopolis, Fairplay and Lower Bittersweet. The medium and large lines at Central Park will close as needed for events. For up-to-date info on closures, see the daily terrain report at CopperColorado.com.

April 1 — Snowboard training

April 2-6 — Snowboard events (halfpipe, slopestyle, boardercross, rail jam, slalom, GS)

April 7 — Snowboard weather day and banked slalom fundraiser

April 8 — Ski training

April 9-12 — Ski events (halfpipe, slopestyle, skier cross, rail jam)

April 13 — Ski weather day

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