On a recent Friday afternoon as the light faded on Big Mountain, members of Whitefish Mountain Resort’s Freestyle Ski Team sprawled on the snow to stretch, limbering up in a semicircle and waiting for the chairlift to start spinning.
For the hordes of recreational skiers and snowboarders who converge on the slopes of Whitefish Mountain Resort every winter weekend, riding the chairlifts under the Friday night lights is a highly anticipated occasion, an escape from the workaday grind and the entrée to a fun-filled 48 hours of play.
But for the 121 athletes who count themselves among the growing ranks of the freestyle ski team, Friday night is when training begins in earnest.
With that said, the line between play and practice blurs mightily.
So when a power outage in town threatened to postpone the team’s weekly session jibbing, sliding and sailing off the rails and jumps in the Fishbowl Terrain Parks, the skiers and snowboarders wasted no time before shouldering their skis and boards and boot-packing up the first pitch to the park’s freestyle features.
“They are ready to charge,” Freestyle Program Supervisor and Head Coach Connie Parks said with delighted laughter. “They’ve been waiting all week for this.”
One by one, the athletes proceeded to hit the features with an unwavering concentration as the coaches offered support and guidance ranging from technical tips — “Push your boots out!” — to gentle post-crash affirmations.
Even with the power restored and the lifts spinning, a handful of athletes opted to continue lapping a particular rail, laying down a staircase of boot-steps as they made their way back to the top, determined to stomp the next landing.
Liam Byrd, 10, and Max Polumbus, 11, encouraged one another at the top of a “waterfall” rail that features a cascading series of kinks, their competitive spirits friendly but fierce as they offered assessments of their closely matched skills.
“He beat me by a half-point at the New Year’s Eve Rail Jam,” Max said of his peer. “It was really close.”
If there seems to be an unusually high number of talented skiers and riders under the age of 12, it’s because there is, in large part due to Parks.
Parks is responsible for much of the program’s growth, and in particular for its ability to attract a growing segment of younger skiers and riders whose natural talents and abilities are leagues above their peers. Many of them have graduated from the resort’s ski and ride school’s development program and are out-skiing their parents, so their rocket-like progression on the snow bumps up against a ceiling unless another level can cater to their growth.
When Parks and her husband moved to Whitefish in 2012, the resort tapped her to step into the role of supervisor. Having previously coached youth athletes in Utah and Oregon, she turned her eye toward attracting a younger cadre of skiers and snowboarders, and has since grown the team from 39 kids during her first season to 121 athletes this year, ranging in ages between 8 and 17.
Consisting mostly of local youth, the team competes in a variety of events from traditional moguls and aerials to big air, slopestyle, superpipe, and skier/boardercross. Additionally, a growing segment of “freeriders” — skiers and snowboarders who compete in “big mountain” events in which they race down steep runs, cliffs and chutes — has taken hold both on national and Olympic-caliber teams as well as the one at Whitefish Mountain Resort.
To be sure, the competition is stiff among freestyle athletes in Whitefish, but it doesn’t overshadow their emphasis on having fun.
“Not all of our athletes are part of the team to be competitors, but we do encourage competition as I believe having experience in a competitive environment helps their growth and development, not just as an athlete but also for life,” Parks said. “Having the opportunity to compete in low-intensity local events is a privilege for our young athletes and helps them feel rewarded at the progress they have made as skiers and snowboarders.”
Those rewards were on prominent display last weekend at the first event in the 2020 Biggie Banked Slalom Series, in which 37 freestyle ski team athletes competed, earning a mess of podium spots in an event that features a twisting, serpentine course with manmade and natural features, banked berms and notch jumps.
Brayden Jenkinson, 13, recently moved to the Flathead Valley from California, and said this winter marks his first in years where he could snowboard regularly and hone his skills. Prior to competing in the Biggie Banked Slalom, he showcased his burgeoning talent in the terrain park while trying to calm his race-eve nerves.
“I’m already way better than when I started,” Jenkinson said. “The team pushes me. I’m still nervous but I’m a lot more comfortable.”
Whitefish Mountain Resort’s Freestyle Ski and Snowboard Team boasts a growing roster of illustrious alumni, including Maggie Voisin, a current member of the U.S. Freeski Team, a two-time Olympian and X Games gold medalist. A little more than a decade ago, Voisin, now 21, was one of the youngest athletes to join the freestyle team, competing and progressing for four years while her coaches realized she could compete on the Olympic level.
At age 14, Voisin left her family in Whitefish to live and train in Park City, Utah, where the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) is headquartered.
The four-time X Games participant and two-time medalist has been preparing to return to Aspen for the 2020 Games on Jan. 23-26, even as her support for the freestyle team from which she traces her roots continues to grow at home.
“I want to show kids that you can achieve your wildest dreams with passion, dedication, hard work, and gratitude,” Voisin said this summer when announcing a new scholarship to cover an athlete’s fees for joining the Whitefish Mountain Resort Freestyle Ski and Snowboard Team. “Also, and most importantly, always have fun!”
The scholarship also covers the cost of a season pass for the upcoming year and is awarded to one athlete, male or female, skier or snowboarder.
Voisin awards the scholarship to an athlete who, in a written essay, best portrays those traits in his or her skiing or snowboarding life.
Professional freeskier Parkin Costain, 20, also got his start on the freestyle team, and has since established himself as an elite big-mountain skier. Jack Lam is another Whitefish wunderkind who now competes internationally for the United States.
“We currently have four alumni who have moved on to train in Park City, Utah to pursue their skiing careers further, and we have two that are traveling the world competing as professional athletes,” Parks said. “Go Maggie and Parkin!”
The current slate of athletes on the Whitefish Mountain Resort Freestyle Ski and Snowboard Team includes members who travel to and compete in regional and national events for the International Freeskiers and Snowboarders Association and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.
Under Parks’ tutelage, the team has sharpened its competitive edge and dominated the podium at local and regional events.
Last year, Whitefish Mountain Resort hosted nine freestyle competitions with a total of 154 podium possibilities, of which members of the freestyle team occupied 114.
“I was looking back on these statistics and I’m just amazed,” Parks said.
More than podium spots, however, Parks measures success based on progression, tracking athletes as they move from “dryland training” at a local gymnastics studio before moving to on-snow training and competitions.
With an emphasis on safety first, Parks says most graduates of the program won’t go on to ski or snowboard professionally, but all of them leave with a reservoir of skills that will help them enjoy snow sports safely and enthusiastically as young adults.
“It’s really satisfying watching kids grow up through this program,” she said. “That’s definitely what I enjoy the most. What a great place for the local youth to spend their wintery months.”