Who We Are: Black and Esser: Brothers in bindings
summit daily news
FRISCO – He stood strapped into his board, staring down at the halfpipe. The TV cameras, the loudspeakers, the dense crowd at the bottom – it all set the scene for Brett Esser to take the first pipe run of Winter X Games 15, his first-ever run in the sport’s most popular event.
The 18-year-old Summit High senior spent the whole week not knowing if he’d even get the chance to drop: He was the second alternate.
“I know he was nervous about getting in, but he was still throwing all the tricks all week in practice like he was in,” Zack Black said. “Then the time came.”
Two riders went down with injuries in practice, and Esser got the nod just 15 minutes before the live-on-ESPN contest was set to kick off.
And with that Esser joined Black in, arguably, the most prestigious snowboard pipe contest in the world – two friends, two locals reaching the highest level of riding before either could (legally) sip a beer.
While they’re in similar spots now in terms of snowboarding, their respective starts in the sport were about as different as the two places they grew up in.
Black is a Summit County native and has been on snow since the time he could walk. With a ski instructor for a mother and siblings equally obsessed with finding powder, it was almost inevitable for Black to spend his childhood on the slopes.
Esser’s family also lived right down the street from a ski resort – in Dubuque, Iowa.
“Sundown Mountain was like 10 minutes from my house,” Esser said. “My brother was a snowboard instructor there, my sister worked in retail and my parents did advertising for them. It was kind of a family place for us.”
When Esser’s older brother started college in Colorado, his family came out to visit as much as possible.
“We came out here all the time – Thanksgiving, Christmas, spring break, just whenever we could,” he said.
Between their fondness of the area and Esser’s progression in riding, his family decided to make a permanent switch to the High Country. (“My parents never really liked Iowa that much anyway,” Esser joked.)
Esser joined Team Summit as a seventh-grader at Summit Middle School.
Black, two years older, was already riding and training with the team.
And that’s when the two not only found each other but also found their unique riding styles.
“Our coach at the time, Jim Smith, was just unbelievable in terms of the way he approached snowboarding,” Black said. “It wasn’t just about going and riding park all day or riding pipe all day. It was just snowboarding all day. That’s all he cared about.”
Smith made sure his athletes could ride everything and could do jumps all four ways (frontside, backside, switch frontside and switch backside).
The instruction not only helped develop both riders’ incredible diversity of tricks but also helped them gain a better appreciation for the sport itself.
“It makes a difference because everything we did we wanted to do,” Black said. “You do it to have fun. That’s why we do it.”
Before the start of the 2009-10 snowboarding season, longtime Breckenridge rider and two-time X Games champion Steve Fisher talked about the future of his sport. Two of the riders he mentioned as part of where snowboarding is headed were Black and Esser.
“It’s amazing to hear he said that,” Esser said, “because I’ve always looked up to Steve so much, since I was a little kid even.”
And both Esser and Black have done their part to make Fisher’s pipe prophecy come to fruition.
Black had a little head start on his friend. As a senior at Summit High, Black was named to the U.S. Snowboarding Team for the 2009-10 season. Since then, he’s made a monumental progression from young up-and-comer to one of the top American riders.
A year ago, he came up just short of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team which dominated in Vancouver. He was only 19 and with a podium finish at the U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix that season – the contest in which Shaun White debuted the double cork on American soil – Black showed he was capable of riding with the best in the world.
“Making the U.S. team would be amazing,” Black said. “Really, the qualifying to make it is harder than the actual (Olympic competition) is, because so many of the best riders are from the U.S.”
Black barely missed the fourth and final spot on the team, but in doing so established himself as arguably the top switch halfpipe rider in the world. At that Copper event, Black landed the first-ever switch, backside 1080 in competition history. To this day, no one has matched the trick.
He followed up this season with a steady stream of solid finishes, only missing out on two finals the whole season.
Esser meanwhile is just a few weeks removed from his own breakout year. Besides getting the invite to the X Games for the first time, Esser made the finals at the Copper Grand Prix and several other major pipe contests. He finished third in the final Grand Prix slopestyle event and, for his season-long efforts, was named the Winter Dew Tour’s Breakthrough Athlete of the Year.
“It was awesome. I was stoked,” Esser said. “The people I was up against were heavy.”
Sure, both riders are pleased with their progression the last few years, but they both said they’re no where near where they want to be.
Black had a recent reminder of “how far I have to go” to reach the top.
He was standing with Fisher at the final Dew Tour stop of the season at Snow Basin, Utah, and Black said Fisher wasn’t happy with the way the scoring was going in the finals. So, without having attempted the trick all week, Fisher threw down a double cork on his final run, the first he’d ever done in a competition.
It landed Fisher on the podium and left Black with his jaw dropped.
“Having such control and experience and muscle memory – it’s just impressive,” he said.
“You watch Steve ride a halfpipe – you just watch his board, and you can tell he just rides better than everyone,” added Esser, who was also competing that day.
Neither Black nor Esser like to set specific goals for themselves, although both said they just want to continue to push their own riding in new and unique directions. Neither wants to follow the crowd; both want to lead it.
And they’ll be pushing each other to do it.
“I watched Brett learn a bunch of (double corks) off a jump in New Zealand last summer, and I was just thinking, ‘Wow, I hate him,'” Black said with a laugh. “It’s an individual sport, but when you’re watching your friend performing, it makes you perform better.”
For now, Esser said he’d definitely take a less dramatic entrance to the X Games next time around.
“Yeah, that’d be nice,” he said.
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