Vail-raised siblings Jack and Kevin Nichols are excited for the 2023 Freeride World Tour season — and life after skiing, too
Jack is a full-time flight instructor and Kevin will be a licensed high school social studies teacher by the end of spring
VAIL — Picture a Freeride World Tour rider. Are you imagining your high school history teacher?
“A lot of people don’t know that like, yeah we ski and stuff, but we also have these aspirations and professional goals,” said Kevin Nichols, 15th-place overall finisher in the 2022 Freeride World Tour (FWT) — the global circuit of freeride snowboarding and skiing. He’s missing this season to student-teach and graduate from Montana State University with his studies education degree.
“I think at first glance they look at Jack and I and they’re just like, ‘ah this is just a couple of ski bums,’ but in reality, he’s teaching people how to fly airplanes and I’m teaching people about history and government.”
Even though they know life exists outside of skiing, Kevin and his brother Jack — a full-time flight instructor — live for hucking huge tricks off the cliffs of iconic European mountain faces from January to April. It’s the essence of FWT, which was acquired by FIS — the international governing body for Olympic disciplines — this fall. Jack’s breakout sixth-place overall finish last season proved he’s part of the young crop of skiers infusing FWT with a blend of freestyle aerial prowess and sufficient skill on the steeps.
“They’re equally comfortable skiing a super gnarly, technical line, but they’ll also throw two tricks into it,” Kevin explained. “Jack’s a good example of that.”
For the first time in years, Jack will be traveling the world without his brother — “I’m not super stoked about that,” he sighed — as Kevin gets his professional ducks in a row.
“In the famous words of (Utah-raised FWT skier) Andrew Pollard, ‘get your education first’” and then have the time to go all-in on skiing,” laughed Kevin, who spent his fall studying, rolling sushi and skiing whenever possible. Skipping the spring competition calendar for the first time in eight seasons brings a poignant positive: he’s free to chase powder.
“I have my snowmobile and I’ll definitely be skiing and filming and following the snow and kind of making use of my time this year,” he said. “It’s nice — it’s kind of a little refresher.”
Speaking of filming, on Jan. 2, Kevin’s releasing a documentary, “Dropping,” on battling epilepsy while on the tour. Diagnosed as a toddler, the disease remained dormant until recently, forcing him to use a wildcard deferral for the 2021 season — a spot he’d earned after placing 12th in 2020 (kicking his older brother, in 13th, out of the FWT and back onto the FWQ — Freeride World Qualifier — in the process). The film includes more than just behind-the-scenes glimpses of life on the FWT.
“It’s a lot about mental health, taking care of yourself, asking for help and the community of freeride,” Kevin said.
“A lot of my really great supporters and the reason I was able to come back and ski on the tour was people like Jack and the freeride community that really supported me.” Kevin said his health remains a constant battle to manage but is currently in a good place. He’s had occasional minor seizures, but nothing where his whole body shuts down.
Jack said watching his brother navigate epilepsy while striving for his degree and excellence at the sport’s highest level has been incredibly inspirational, but it was “gutting” watching him be unable to travel in 2021.
“He was so ready and his skiing was so good,” he said. “He was feeling good. He’d had a quick bounce back from the seizure. To see him come back the next year was so sick and kind of a blessing in disguise — we got to do it again together.”
The FWT kicks off in Baqueria Beret Jan. 28-Feb. 2, the first of five FWT events. The 24-skier field is whittled in half after the first three competitions, with athletes using their top two scores to make the Fieberbrunn Pro and Xtreme Verbier finales.
“It’s a brutal cut. You look at the field and it’s no joke,” Kevin explained, adding that some events include wildcard athletes, like Tanner Hall at Canada’s Kicking Horse Golden BC on Feb. 17-22.
“It’s harder to stay on the tour, but it’s easier to get back on,” added Jack. He should know: he won the FWQ tour in 2021 to earn his World Tour spot back en route to his stellar 2022 campaign. Unlike major league baseball, in FWT, even Mike Trout can get sent down to triple-A. In fact, all it takes is one bad at-bat.
“You can have a decent couple of runs and it’s a minor mistake here or there that could be the difference between staying on tour, being on the top five and not being on the tour at all,” Kevin said.
“You definitely feel a little bit of pressure,” added Jack.
“There’s not 82 games in a season where I can come back and bounce back. I have to do it right here, right now.”
Depending on the face, the venue and the conditions, that’s easier said than done.
“For me, and I think for Kev, too, the easiest way to look at it is it’s just another day skiing with your friends.”
The brothers, who live together in Bozeman and train at nearby Big Sky resort, speak highly of each other. Jack described Kevin as resilient, opportunistic and eager to put his unique stamp on any face.
“He’s never going to back down,” Jack praised, pointing to Kevin’s run in Canada last season, where he placed sixth.
“When it was stacked up against him, he really had to get a good result to qualify and he laid down the sickest run of the day in my opinion and he didn’t care how he ended up — he was just happy to put one down for himself.”
Kevin lauded his older brother’s technical, clean, fast lines and ability to “throw clean tricks into super high-consequence areas and make it look easy.” At Baqueira Beret last year, athletes scouted the mountain from the base prior to the competition (they are not allowed to preview the run themselves) and Jack spotted a line he fancied. His comrades didn’t approve.
“There were a couple of people who expressed their opinion of like, ‘hey man I don’t think that’s possible,’” Kevin recalled. One person, though, knew Jack could pull it off — Kevin — and years of daily shred sessions meant his opinion could instill the confidence necessary to go for it.
“I think the coolest thing of going together and skiing together all the time is that we trust each other like crazy,” Jack said. “(It’s a) ‘if you think I got it, then I think I got it’ kind of thing.”
Kevin detailed what transpired in the competition: “He did a flat spin off a gap wind-lift and landed in-between two rocks and then made a turn out of it before the ‘death rocks’ below him.”
In the Verbier final, Jack shocked his brother again, launching a massive backflip off a lower cliff in his fourth-place run.
“That backflip was a whole Jack I haven’t seen before,” Kevin gushed, adding that all of his brother’s runs last year were “unique to how he skis as a person.”
“He’s in a really cool position where he’s comfortable knowing that his ability and his skiing and technique is good enough and now he can take that to the next level.”
As good as Jack is, he said he feels like he’s the one trying to keep up with Kevin. “He’s always been a step ahead of me, as much as I hate to say that as the older brother,” he laughed.
What to expect in 2023 in the FWT
Reine Barkered and 32-year-old Kristofer Turdell are the FWT veteran stalwarts, but the Nichols are also excited about competing alongside the younger generation “taking things up a couple of notches.” They expect guys like Sweden’s Max Palm, Swiss skier Maxime Chabloz — the defending overall winner — Australia’s Craig Murray as well as Americans like Ross Tester and Xander Guldman, Leif Mumma and Dillon Flinders to continue upping the ante.
“I think the vets are looking at those guys thinking ‘OK, we’re probably going to ski the same line, but they’re going to throw two tricks in,” Kevin said.
“They’re changing the sport slowly, but for the better,” Jack said, who said the theme of his season this year is “keeping the culture and vibes the same.”
“I think it’s such a sick sport and I think that it attracts the coolest people,” he said, adding that at competitions, he’s more focused on “competing against myself than other people.”
The camaraderie within the tour has the brothers hooked, but they think the nature of the sport’s relatability, juxtaposed with its incomprehensibility — since most haven’t stood on the edge of the Wildseeloder — is what’s attractive to new fans. At every FWT competition, athletes combine all aspects of skiing — skill, speed, aerial ability, technicality, creativity and vision — in a natural environment, expressing their unique skiing fingerprint on the mountain’s blank canvas, untethered by gates, moguls or a superpipe.
“That’s a great way to put it,” Jack said. “For me the coolest part about it is picking your own line and how every person looks at a mountain differently.
Kevin echoed the sentiment. “Where I think it might be hard for the general viewer to look at park skiing and see how the skier is expressing themselves and putting their own individualistic twist on what they’re doing, I think in freeride it’s a little more apparent,” he said.
The concept of big mountain riders being the unspoken mountain bosses also perhaps resonates with any chairlift rider who’s ever watched (and naturally holds in high regard) a gifted artisan flying through trees or flipping off a sketchy cliff below.
“It’s like, ‘OK, I think I understand that person as a human being because of how they ski,” Kevin said. “Like, that guy’s super aggressive, that guy’s super laid back and chill.’ You really get to see who these people are with their runs.”
Which means, for a flight instructor like Jack, fans can expect more deftly maneuvered, high-flying, high-consequence lines in 2023.
“I’ve heard a lot of really good things about Jack as a flight instructor and I think a lot really transfers to his skiing,” Kevin said.
“He’s good at risk management. He’s good at articulating things so people can understand them and relate to them and I try to do the same in the classroom — a little bit different level. More academic and less about not crashing in an airplane.”
As far as Kevin goes — well, maybe it depends on how you imagined that FWT skier at the beginning. For now, he’s content spending a year away from the competitions.
“Personally I’m stoked to follow the snow and get some soul-skiing under me,” he said.
“But, I’m a fan of all kinds of skiing — I watch park comps and ski racing — but I think I’m the biggest fan of the FWT. So I’m stoked to go fan out on all my buddies and especially my brother.”
Before closing the group Zoom call, Kevin urged Jack to “hit the mute button,” before singing more of his kin’s praises.
“I don’t think Jack can even think this right now. … He’s definitely tapping into a new realm of skiing that I don’t think he even knows he’s at,” he said.
“I’m really stoked to see where he takes it this year — I’m pumped to be surprised again.”
This story is from VailDaily.com.
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