The arrival of Eric Willett
summit daily news
Summit County, Colorado
Some times, the worst thing about snowboarding can be the waiting.
All the pressure of competing, laying down a run, impressing the judges – in the end, it all comes down to waiting to see what the other riders do after you.
“That can be the longest part,” Eric Willett said with a sigh.
The 22-year-old Summit County native should know, because that’s exactly what he had to do at Buttermilk Mountain in Aspen a couple of weeks ago in the snowboard slopestyle men’s final of Winter X Games 14.
A rookie to his sport’s biggest competition, Willett qualified in the seventh spot of the eight-man final, meaning he was the second rider to drop in each of the three runs. He made the most of it, scoring an 86.33 on Run 1, putting him in second place early on.
Then of course, he was forced to wait.
“With how good the field was, I knew the riders dropping in after me were capable of knocking me way down,” Willett said. “I was stoked to put down a good run. But that’s the craziest part, sitting in second like that with so many guys still to go.”
So, after completing his three runs, all Willett could do was stand at the finish area, watching as each of the world’s best slope riders carved down the course.
Luckily, patience is a trait Willett has picked up over the years.
Born and raised in Summit County, most of Willett’s 22 years have been spent on the slopes. His parents strapped him into his first pair of skis when he was only 2, and at age 6, he made the switch to snowboarding, because it was the “cool thing to do” for kids at his grade school.
Another cool thing to do, Willett thought later on, was to become a pro snowboarder. His skills progressed quickly, and his new sport became his new passion. After seeing the pros on TV huckin’ tricks for honkin’ checks, he figured that was the life for him.
“I think it was when I was in high school that I really thought I wanted to be a pro,” he said. “I’d see the guys in the X Games and think it looked awesome. I thought they had all these sponsors, were in all these comps, made lots of money and lived in mansions. I guess I didn’t really know the meaning of being a pro back then.”
Willett said he soon found out becoming the next Shaun White isn’t quite as simple as it looks.
Growing up, Willett didn’t work with any of the local winter sports programs such as Team Summit or Team Breckenridge (formerly Quantum Sports Club), and because of that, he didn’t have access to the coaching and competitions many of his peers had.
“It was just me and my brother and a couple friends,” he said, “and we just all pushed each other and made each other better.”
The lack of structure, Willett thinks, may have been part of the reason he stayed in the park a lot growing up and avoided the halfpipe. He also admitted the pipe scared him a bit as a youngster.
“I grew up riding at Copper (Mountain), and their park was right above the halfpipe,” he recalled. “I just always had more fun and progressed better on all the jumps and rails and everything. And when I’d get toward the bottom, I’d just kind of ignore the pipe.”
The lack of a team, though, kept Willett from getting easier access into competitions and forced him to earn his way a bit more than he originally expected.
After graduating from Summit High School in 2006, Willett decided to make a go as a pro rather than toiling away with books and notes in college.
For the past three years, Willett has lived with his parents in Frisco to save money to be able to pay his way to competitions, and for the most part, he struggled to make a name for himself.
He had a couple of solid finishes early on, including a fifth place at the Burton New Zealand Open, but even as recently as last winter, Willett wasn’t getting all the invites to events he’d hoped for. At the inaugural Winter Dew Tour last winter at Breckenridge, now his home mountain, he had to wait until the final hour to even get into the field.
This season, though, everything has changed.
Willett started his season in New Zealand. And while the snowboarding world held its collective breath as White and other riders attempted the first-ever double corks in the halfpipe, Willett quietly came back to the States with a third-place finish in slope.
Then, he finished third at the Dew Tour’s first stop in Breck.
“That was crazy to finish third there with all the great riders and at my home mountain,” Willett said. “To get that right off the bat was a great start to the year.”
All along, though, Willett’s focus was on earning a spot in the X Games.
“The X Games were always in the back of my mind,” he admitted. “I started hearing some rumors that I might get invited.”
A week after his Dew Tour podium, Willett said a friend of his spotted his name on a Winter X rider list on ESPN.com. He got a call from the organizers another week later, officially inviting him to compete.
“That’s all I’ve wanted to do since I was a little kid,” Willett said of competing in the X Games. “It was like a dream come true.”
Cut back to Buttermilk Mountain, Jan. 31, as Willett stands in the snow, leaning on his board and watching as rider after rider hits the rails, then the jumps, then cruises into the finish area – earning a score less than 86.33.
“You sit there, and you want your score to hold up, but you don’t want anyone to fall. It’s kind of weird,” Willett said. “It was the craziest experience when the last couple guys went and didn’t beat (my score). I was just like, ‘Holy cow, I can’t believe this is happening.'”
All the years of riding with his friends, grinding through qualifiers and working his way up from the bottom instantly paid off.
Willett had won a medal in his sport’s most prestigious competition.
Even though Eero Ettala’s score put the high-flying Finn in first place, Willett’s silver medal showed that he had arrived.
“I’ve been working my way into the scene since I was 18,” Willett said. ” … It’s just crazy. I was finally able to show everybody what I can do.”
Unfortunately, slopestyle is not an event in the Winter Olympics, so Willett will not be in Vancouver this month.
But being near the top of his discipline does have its benefits.
Along with his $12,500 prize check – the largest of his career – Willett has also gotten invites to some prestigious competitions abroad. He’ll compete in the first-ever European Winter X Games March 10-12 in Tignes, France.
“It’s rad to see where snowboarding can take you,” Willett said.
And maybe the wait isn’t so bad after all.
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