Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down ski areas nationwide last March, then-14-year-old Elyse Byrd and 13-year-old Julia Byrd had just qualified for the United States of America Snowboard and Freeski Association (USASA) National Championships. Their family had plans to travel south to Copper Mountain in Colorado to compete in April, but those plans abruptly changed when officials announced the event’s cancellation on March 11 as the world braced for a lockdown.
Even though last season was only the sisters’ second season on the Whitefish Mountain Resort Freestyle Ski Team and their first year traveling to competitions, Elyse and Julia each won Slopestyle and Rail Jam events in the USASA Inland Northwest Regional Series, which includes Great Divide Ski Area, Montana Snowbowl and Silver Mountain in Idaho. They both qualified for nationals. Elyse also won a Teton Gravity Research “Grom Comp” video contest for her age group in 2019. Their little brother, Liam, who was 10 years old at the time, didn’t get an opportunity to compete at all last year after breaking his right arm for the second time on Feb. 1 while skiing down a sticky mogul field at Lookout Pass, right before his first event of the season.
Elyse, Julia and Liam are just beginning their careers as competitive skiers, but they are already proving themselves as athletes while maintaining a carefree and fun attitude on Big Mountain.
After the abrupt end to last ski season, the tight-knit Byrd kids in October were eager to ski and compete in the 2020-2021 season. With a healthy La Niña snow forecast in a naturally socially distant sport, they were looking forward to the season after preparing all summer and fall. They have a rail setup with six features and fake snow in their backyard in Coram so they can practice year-round.
“They are so fired up for the season,” Grace Byrd, the kids’ mom, said in October. “They couldn’t wait for dryland training to start.”
But the Byrd family’s lives haven’t always revolved around skiing. They had only just started dabbling in the sport as a family seven years ago. They have already shown high-level potential on the freestyle team, and all three kids have their sights set on national freestyle competitions, which they hope to qualify for this year.
Growing up in Bad Rock Canyon, Grace’s husband, Steven Byrd, had skied a few times with his school’s program, but the family didn’t consistently start heading up to the mountain together until their kids started skiing with the same school program at West Glacier Elementary.
“That’s how we got on the freestyle team — it was through the school,” Steven said. “The kids did a couple stints through their program. After that we went all in and fell in love.”
“We just all fell in love with it together,” Elyse added.
Grace, who had grown up skiing in Whitefish, was the only Byrd with notable ski experience when the family started learning in 2013. Steven recalls having concerns that the kids would progress at different rates and speculated they all might drive to the mountain together only to scatter once they got there. But despite their age gaps, Steven says they all learned at the same pace, a rarity in a sport with a steep learning curve.
Fast forward a few years and Elyse, Julia and Liam are all participating in Slopestyle and Rail Jam events both at home and traveling to ski areas like Big Sky Resort and Silver Mountain in Idaho. Whitefish Mountain Resort Freestyle Ski Team Head Coach Connie Parks describes the Byrd kids as “exceptional athletes.”
“I’ve been coaching for a really long time,” Parks said. “Very rarely do you find one kid that’s just really athletically talented and learn things really easily, let alone three that are all related.”
Parks has worked with a lot of siblings throughout her coaching career and says usually when one athlete is successful, the sibling often struggles. She also notices a trend of competitiveness with other siblings she’s coached. And while the Byrds are top competitors, she doesn’t see a competitive dynamic between them.
“They are all really supportive of each other,” Parks said. “They all have similar riding styles and they all have strengths in different areas. I often watch them and think, ‘I wish me and my sister were like that.'”
Steven speculates that his kids’ mutual supportiveness contributes to their success. Ever since the kids were young, the Byrds did everything as a family. After fully immersing themselves into skiing with Liam as a 4-year-old, Julia at 6 and Elyse at 8, “skiing Saturdays” became a weekend ritual.
As the kids’ skiing progressed, their ski instructor suggested that they join the freestyle team. The Byrd siblings began to transition from family weekends at Big Mountain to skiing and competing on the team. While Steven and Grace were reluctant to lose “skiing Saturdays,” they knew it was time.
“They were skiing beyond our capabilities,” Steven said. “The last couple of years they were way beyond where we ever hoped to go. It’s been super fun.”
Now, their weekend ritual happens with the entire freestyle team, which has become extended family for the Byrds.
At the end of last season, there were 122 athletes on the team, divided into skiers and snowboarders, and juniors, ages 8 to 12, and seniors, ages 12 to to 18. This year, Parks says 142 kids were signed up as of October, with 69 brand new athletes.
Parks has been head coach of the freestyle team since 2012 and starts each season with dryland training in the fall, which involves plyometric and calisthenics training for skiing and snowboarding-specific muscles, drills and cardio followed by ultimate frisbee, football or soccer. After daylight savings, they go indoors to practice on trampolines and do aerial and balance once a week until the mountain opens.
While there are more than 100 kids on the team, there were only about 11 athletes last year who traveled consistently to competitions, including the three Byrds. Some kids only compete at home on Big Mountain while others don’t compete at all.
“We don’t push kids to compete,” Parks said. “Some kids just don’t have competition in their heart, but I do encourage them to compete in at least one event. From a coaching perspective, it helps you grow and develop when you’re put into a competitive atmosphere, and I think it helps to see the inner workings of yourself.”
Between the encouraging coaches and supportive teammates, Steven calls the atmosphere a “perfect learning environment.” While the skiing aspect of the program is the main attraction, the team camaraderie is also a huge component. The team spends all winter training, hitting the terrain park and skiing powder, and their friendships continue beyond the winter season.
“It’s very fun to be a part of,” Steven added. “It’s fun to watch as parents. It’s the kind of healthy environment you want your kid to group up in and push themselves.”
Parks maintains a low-pressure atmosphere on the mountain while still managing to produce top competitors.
Olympian Maggie Voisin graduated from the freestyle program and later headed to Park City to train with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA). While a few athletes have gone to compete professionally, Parks says she’s seen a handful of other kids who could have easily followed suit.
“Unfortunately, it’s less about the athlete’s talent and more about finances in going professional,” Parks said. “It’s very expensive and it’s a rough road. Maggie Voisin, Jack Lam and Dylan Schneider all had to quit school, and that’s a really big decision to make.”
All three of the Byrd kids have dreams of competing in the X Games and idolize Voisin, who is a two-time Olympian and X Games gold medalist who makes guests appearances every winter to ski with the freestyle team.
“We love Maggie,” Elyse said. “She is such an inspiration and a phenomenal skier and totally our hometown hero. I love seeing her up on the hill, and it’s good to know she has a place in her heart for Whitefish.”
With a solid team naturally embedded in the Byrd family, along with coaches and 100-plus teammates behind them and natural athletic talent, it’s no wonder Elyse, Julia and Liam are progressing into fierce competitors. But what sets their success apart from many athletes is their fun, easygoing approach to competition and a tight sibling bond.
COVID canceled the USASA national championships last year, but the Byrds are already looking forward to this year’s event while still preparing for its possible cancellation in the age of pandemic unpredictability.
“That was a real bummer when it canceled,” Julia said. “We’re really hoping nationals are still on this year.”
But no matter what happens, the Byrds are skiing powder this winter.
“Every powder morning, you ski down and you’re either happy, or you’re extremely happy,” Liam said.
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