A preview of the 2015-16 ski club season
Team Summit’s Ryan VanNuys and Grifen Moller are praying for a few good blizzards in Andorra.
This coming February — just about the time snow takes a mid-winter break in North America — VanNuys, the ski club’s big mountain coach, heads to the small European country with his top skier to take on the Freeride Junior World Championships.
For Moller, an Eagle County native who recently turned 17 years old, this season’s Freeride Worlds will be his first taste of international terrain. Andorra is nestled between France and Germany, in the eastern Pyrenees mountain range. The peaks are steep, rocky and wide-open — a bona fide playground for freeriders.
Until his first taste of European riding, Moller will train with VanNuys on the burliest chutes and cliffs that Summit County has to offer. And you’d better believe they’re just as intimidating as the Pyrenees terrain some 5,000 miles away.
“Team Summit skiers have some of the best terrain for training anywhere in the state,” VanNuys wrote in an email at the end of a pre-season trip to Argentina. “Between the Pali chair at the Basin, which is hands down the most efficient terrain in the country to train on, to the steep, fun, high-altitude terrain at Breck, Summit County is a gem for training. Nowhere combines the access, training at altitude, varied snow surfaces and terrain that Summit County does.”
High praise for a small, Colorado mountain community that’s produced dozens of high-caliber skiers and snowboarders over the years. This season, nearly 800 athletes with Team Summit and Team Breck will travel the state, country and, in Moller’s case, the world for races and freeride competitions. A few of the older athletes are ready for a crack at the X Games and Olympics — freestyle monster Bobby Brown is a Team Summit alum — while their peers in elementary development programs are just itching for their first taste of a race course.
The first major races of the season are about three weeks away, when the second event of the 2015-16 USSA Nor Am alpine series comes to Copper Nov. 30 to Dec. 3. It kicks off the entire youth ski season and, as it has for more than a decade, is a breeding ground for the next generation of ski superstars. Here’s your guide to the season.
Alpine is still the biggest and deepest ski program for both Team Summit and Team Breck. Together, the teams are host to nearly 500 alpine skiers this season. They train for the big four: Downhill, Super-G, giant slalom and slalom.
It’s no wonder that alpine continues to remain popular. Greg Needell, Team Summit’s new alpine program director, calls gate training the “purest form of the sport.” The pipeline is complex, beginning with development programs for skiers as young as 6 years old. After learning the basics for all disciplines, skiers begin to specialize with the help of coaches.
Team Summit and Team Breck’s alpine programs are both at capacity this season. It’s relatively typical for alpine — again, it’s the most popular discipline — and coaches for both teams are expecting strong races from their seasoned skiers.
For Team Breck, age class lead Chuck Roth is already excited about a fast group of U-10 and U-12 skiers, with Samantha Cheek, 13, and Jenna Sheldon, 12, turning heads as U-14s. The team also hosts a U-14 Super-G on Breck’s Cimarron course in January, which is a Junior Championships qualifier.
Colorado tends to breed slalom and GS heavyweights, and the latest batch of up-and-comers is no different. Watch for Team Summit’s Jordan Watts, Zach Elsass and R.J. McLennan to perform well in the U-19 divisions at FIS and Nor Am races.
Alpine might still dominate the youth club scene, but freeskiing (along with snowboarding) is nearly as popular. In the ‘90s, it referred only to the adrenaline junkies who attacked moguls and Olympic freestyle jumps. Then came ski halfpipe and slopestyle, and now, Summit County is home to a few of the best freeski programs and athletes in the world.
Why? Because Summit is also home to world-class terrain parks at Breckenridge, Keystone and Copper, the sort of parks that set the standard for snow features across the world. Led by freeski director Chris Hawks, a former ski halfpipe champion, Team Breck’s Bridget O’Brien, 17, and Axl Bonnenberger, 10, are expected to clean up in the USASA Rocky Mountain Division, with O’Brien pushing for a podium at the Copper Mountain Revolution Tour stop from Dec. 7-11.
But what about moguls? The discipline took a major hit when terrain parks burst onto the scene, but it’s now regaining momentum. Team Summit’s program is at capacity, with 32 girls and boys moguls skiers from 12 to 17 years old. It’s the biggest the program has been since head coach Paul Walker took over five years back.
“It’s starting to boom again,” Walker said. “The degree of difficulty with tricks keeps progressing. There’s something new that comes out every year and we now have some new scoring criteria.”
Moguls season kicks into gear with the first major event of the season in Aspen on Dec. 12-13 (the first of nine Colorado comps). Team Summit is sending about 15 Rocky Mountain Division athletes, including U.S. Ski Team hopefuls Jason Tilley, Tori Ware and Antonia Hart. The ski team selection races are Dec. 19-20 at Winter Park.
It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that snowboarders made Summit County the action sports Mecca that it is today. Breck played host to the first legitimate half-pipe competitions, hosted at the old-school pipe location on Peak 9, and Copper has fast become a must-visit destination for off-season training thanks to Woodward.
Team Breck and Team Summit are no different. Both boast strong snowboard programs led by former pros — Team Summit alone went from 40 athletes last season to 70 this winter — including Team Summit’s newest snowboard coach, 2000s World Cup competitor Tonnie Bennett. Bennett is in charge of the new Elite program, a pipeline built just for athletes with pro-level promise. Head coach Matt Voegtle has three 15-year-olds who are pre-qualified for snowboard Rev Tour and could easily make the pro cut: Blake Moller— brother of big-mountain skier Grifen — Nyah Attansio and Michale Mawn. They’ll also begin with the early-December Rev Tour stop at Copper.
Andorra doesn’t have a stranglehold on competition. A bit closer to home, the Team Summit and Team Breck freeride teams travel to Park City, Taos and British Columbia throughout the season, all before returning to Peak 6 at Breckenridge in late March for one of the final Junior Freeride Tour stops.
“As always, I am looking forward to the comp at Taos,” VanNuys wrote. “It’s where it all started for me, where I first saw the potential for Team Summit big mountain while competing myself. The venues are hands down some of the best in the world.”
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