The Limelight: Young Axl Bonenberger
Axl Bonenberger might just be the next Bobby Brown and the two haven’t met. Yet.
At 10 years old, the Team Breckenridge freestyle skier is the kind of young-and-hungry grom who makes people stop and watch when he laps through Park Lane at Breckenridge. He’s got the amplitude, skills and pure style of someone at least a decade older — maybe someone like Breck’s own Bobby Brown — and the long, soul-surfer hair to match.
Even though Axl and Brown have never met in person, the reigning U-9 overall freesski champion has seen his local hero plenty. Axl spends three, four, sometimes five days per week training in the park between school and online sessions, which means he has plenty of time for class with the dozens of pros who ride Breck daily. Brown is one of the youngster’s favorite skiers to watch, and if there’s one thing he loves nearly as much as skiing in his backyard it’s watching the local pros, ams and hopefuls from Chair 5.
“We just love the mountains,” says his mom, Jenni, as we wait at the top of the park for Axl to take a warm-up lap. “The city wasn’t really what we were looking for. It doesn’t have the lifestyle the mountains offer, the small-town feeling.”
Axl was born and bred in Breck. At nine months old, Jenni and his dad, Bret, moved from Denver to Summit County with Axl and their eldest son, 14-year-old hockey star Max. Within a few months Axl was on skis — and he’s hardly looked back since. He joined Team Breck at 6 years old and the Hawks Freeride program at 7, led by 1999 X Games gold medalist Chris Hawks. The coach and pupil still train and travel throughout the season, with Axl now competing slopestyle and halfpipe in the U-12 division.
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“It wasn’t really scary. It was fun,” Axl says about his first time in the terrain park with Hawks, which he admits feels like a very long time ago. “It was something different for me. I tried alpine for a year and hated it. It just sucked.”
Axl is a freeskier to the core. It’s one of the first things I notice as we ride the chair: When he’s on skis, his mind is on literally nothing but skiing. The day was oddly gorgeous, with a few rogue flakes glimmering down from beneath a bluebird sky, and that meant conditions were just right for a midweek park day: cool but not cold, forgiving but not powdery, and absolutely no wind. When we passed the lower three jumps, he trails off and hones in on the skiers rolling through the line. There’s a massive straight air, a stylish 180, a 360 or two, and an impressively slow, lofty cork 720.
Axl doesn’t say a single word. His head is on a swivel to take in the scene and soak it all up, maybe predict how the speed will be when we finally got to the top and it’s his turn to drop.
“It’s so much easier to land tricks on the big jumps, so much smoother and floaty,” Axl says after we pass by the lower jump line, the big jump line, with kickers from about 40 to 70 feet. “Well, sometimes it’s easier. Other times it’s just slow and you can’t get speed.”
Axl tells me the jumps were “pretty slow” on his practice lap, but by the time he was ready for photos they’re running a little faster. His first run through the upper jump line is a doozy: handrag, left 360, left 720 (a preview of his typical slopestyle run, minus a right 720). Somewhere, in the gaggle of snowboarders and skiers waiting for a turn, someone said, “Dude, did you see that?”
It’s the kind of reaction Axl usually gets when he’s training or competing. He’s already qualified for the USA Snowboard and Freeski Association National Championship in Copper — it’s one perk of taking the overall U-9 title last season — but he still travels to as many comps as possible. This weekend’s pipe competition at Breck is his first of the year and he’ll hit it hard, with back-to-back 540s, a handplant and a few more tricks he can’t unveil quite yet.
Jenni and I meet Axl at the top of the lower jump line, where he takes a break just long enough to catch his breath before dropping into jumps ranging from 40 to 75 feet. It’s just another day in the park and Axl goes huge, throwing a left 360, right 360 and left 720. How does mom feel watching this?
“The coaches do a great job with progression, but he’s also very smart and knows what to do,” says Jenni, who was a little surprised (not worried) when she first saw him working on 720s in the big line. “Sometimes he’ll call me and say, ‘I’m heading home, not feeling it today.’ He knows when to call it a day.”
Jenni also trusts her son to follow skiing for as long as he wants. If he decides competing isn’t in his future, that’s fine. If he decides to follow in the footsteps of X Gamers like his coach and Bobby Brown, that’s fine too.
“I just really hope that he continues to enjoy himself and love the sport of skiing long-term,” she says. “It doesn’t matter to us if he decides next year he doesn’t want to compete. The only person who pushes him is him, and I hope that’s something that stays with him for his lifetime.”
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