How Breck became home base for international Olympic hopefuls |

How Breck became home base for international Olympic hopefuls

Alec Savery is pretty fond of Breckenridge.

At 20 years old, the New Zealand-born freeskier has been coming to Summit County for training at Copper and Breck since he was 15 years old. It’s early summer right now in his native Queenstown and his home base of Cardrona Alpine Resort is pretty bare. He grew up skiing The Remarkables nearby but now spends most of his time in Cardrona, where just about anyone who’s anyone in the NZ freeski scene spends their winters. It’s a bit like Summit that way.

So, when it comes time to compete during the other winter — the northern hemisphere winter, our winter — Savery calls Breck home.

“For what we do the park here is the best in the world at the moment,” Savery said on a chilly but clear day at the top of the Freeway jump line. “A lot of people base themselves here, so it becomes a really cool town, you know? You have this small town where everyone who’s competing and skiing is based.”

Savery is a slopestyle specialist, which means he knows a good booter when he sees one. Those manicured jumps are the tools of his trade.

But, just because Breck is home base doesn’t mean he stays in Colorado from November to April. Just a week from now, he’ll head to Mammoth Mountain in California for the Mammoth Grand Prix, one of several FIS-sanctioned events that are now required to earn an Olympic birth. Ski slopestyle is the newest and hottest addition to the Olympic roster, and that means the Freeway line might as well be a preview of 2018 in PyeongChang. As the young skier waits to drop, a group of athletes with the U.S. Snowboard team laps through the jump line, followed by a group of Japanese riders and another group of Scandinavian freeskiers.

“If I didn’t travel to the snow I wouldn’t be able to grow and progress,” Savery said before rattling off his travel plans after Mammoth: South Korea, Japan, Europe, then back to the states. “Now that it’s an Olympic sport and FIS is in charge there’s a lot more travel involved. When X Games was the major competition it was pretty much just Europe and America. Now, you have Asia, New Zealand, just a lot of travel all over the world.”

Mandatory globetrotting

Savery is one of three national team skiers working with NZ Snowsports coach Mike Hanley, a U.S. native who was once on the University of Utah dive team. The other two athletes are 16-year-old halfpipe pro Miguel Porteous and 23-year-old veteran Anna Willcox, who qualified for the first-ever Olympic women’s ski slope and placed 15th in the qualifier. It’s a strong (if young) group, separate from privately coached megastars like Jossi Wells.

The three up-and-coming national teamers are all in good hands: Along with a team of traveling trainers (or physios as the Kiwis say), Hanley travels everywhere with the crew. He’s a former World Cup moguls skier with 15 years of coaching experience and counts superstars like Olympian Nick Goepper as his pupils. NZ Snowsports is just his latest gig, and he was more than willing to move from the U.S. Northwest to the team’s headquarters in Wanaka with his wife and children. He’s seen the sport grow and change and shift, and it’s now travel or quit for coaches of his caliber.

“When this became an Olympic sport it became a whole new game,” Hanley said from the top of Park Lane, where he was waiting for Willcox to lap back through. “It’s an international game, so you’re either with a national team or not. It’s just how the sport is these days. Everything is getting a little more official.”

Hanley doesn’t believe the internationalization — an increasing rigidity — of competition skiing is necessarily a bad thing. It can be demanding, sure, but it’s part of a sport built around snow and weather and terrain.

“The sport is constantly evolving and this is just the latest version of it,” Hanley said as Willcox arrived. “This opens up opportunities for countries like Croatia and Belgium and everyone else, but it can make it harder for Americans because there are only so many spots (for the Olympics). It makes the international scene a little more interesting for a coach.”

Hanley has noticed a major shift in the freeski world, and so have his young athletes. Like Savery, Willcox has been coming to Breck for nearly five seasons. She missed most of last year after a nasty crash in early December and is now in rehab mode, practicing relatively easy runs with lofty 360s and straight airs to get back in the groove.

“Every day is a bit of a head game,” Willcox said. “It’s about getting back the tricks you had. It can be really scary.”

But rehab doesn’t mean Willcox’s schedule is any less hectic. Like Savery, she’ll travel from the U.S. to Asia and back again come February. It’s a month of travel and constant movement, but after three years on the teams she’s gotten in the groove.

“For me the past few years have been Europe and America, but this year it will be quite exciting to go to Asia,” Willcox said. “I’m quite looking forward to that. It switches things up. It’s what we do this for, right?”

It’s also the best way to stay in touch with what everyone else is doing. For coaches like Hanley and athletes like his trio of skiers, travel isn’t an option these days. It’s a must.

“Like the kids were saying, this is an international sport these days more than ever,” Hanley said after watching Willcox. “We’re not just trying to be the best Kiwis. We’re trying to keep an eye on the Swedes, the Norwegians, the Americans — everyone.”

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