Junior freeride team set for European adventure

Whitewater Ski Resort's junior program will compete at an event in Andorra in January

Whitewater Ski Resort is sending five skiers from its junior freeride program to an event in Andorra in January.

Sam Kuch doesn’t know what to expect.

Freeride skiing has taken him across the country and south of the border, but never across oceans. The people, culture and food will be different, of course, but it’s the mountain he’s travelling for. It’s the mountain he wants to see firsthand.

He’s just not sure what kind of reception the mountain will give him.

“I’ve been told that it’s very windy up there and it’s kind of like [skiing] your way through a rock garden,” said Kuch.

Kuch is part of Whitewater Ski Resort’s junior freeride team. He’s also one of seven skiers on the Canadian team set to travel to Vallnord-Arcalis, Andorra for a Freeride Junior Tour event tentatively set for the end of January.

Kuch will compete alongside Whitewater teammates Jeff Ashton, Nigel Ziegler, Haley Cooke, and Savanna Lieshman, while two more join them from Whistler. It’s the next step for the 17-year-old in a freeride career that began six years ago. Kuch, who joined Whitewater’s team five years ago, did a year of downhill racing but said he became bored of skiing through gates.

The freedom of freeride skiing, which uses natural terrain and is judged based on a combination of tricks, a skier’s line and difficulty, was far more appealing.

“I like it because there’s no rules around it really,” said Kuch. “There’s not really a criteria, you can just ski wherever you want, however you want.”

There will be a lot more attention paid to Kuch and other Whitewater skiers in 2016. Nelson’s Trace Cooke is also travelling to Andorra to begin the senior Freeride World Tour. Cooke is the first graduate of the Whitewater program to compete on the world tour.

The junior team, which is a non-profit organization, will focus on North American events once they return from Europe.

Dano Slater is one of the coaches responsible for Whitewater’s freeride success. Slater, who started the program with Peter Velisek in 2009, began skiing freeride competitions in the late 1990s. The sport, he said, has gone through some changes in the interim.

“Back then it was a lot different,” said Slater. “Less organized, just starting, so we could have gone to a lot more events than we could actually afford to go to so we just ended up mainly in North America. There was no support in any other way. There were no teams at that point. You’re all free agents.”

Slater moved onto judging for six years but eventually got sick of watching and not participating. That changed when he got a call from Whitewater about starting the junior program.

Skiers as young as eight have entered Whitewater’s team — although Slater thinks that is too young and prefers kids be at least 10 when they join — while the oldest skiers are 18.

Kuch and Slater use words such as love, respect and relaxed to describe the junior team.

“It’s good for me to give some of my knowledge back to younger kids and see them blossom as skiers and see them be successful and win,” said Slater, who adds he also has a selfish reason for coaching the team.

“My friends are getting old and they’re not ripping very good anymore. Just keeping these youngsters, it makes me feel younger … so it’s a symbiotic sort of thing.”

The upcoming season will be Kuch’s last with the Whitewater team. He said he’s at a crossroads between whether he’ll stay in junior competitions this year or start trying to qualify for the world tour. Either way, he wants the sport to become his career.

Kuch’s future is as ambiguous as what will happen to the sport itself. The anything-within-reason-goes attitude that appeals to Kuch and Slater drives freeride skiing, but also in a way inhibits it from ever joining more mainstream events such as downhill or cross country.

Slater said he doubts freeride will ever join the Olympics in its current form. In the end, that’s probably best for the sport and Slater’s team.

“Right now it’s free,” said Slater. “It doesn’t matter, you don’t need ski poles if you don’t want them. You can ski backwards if you want. There’s no rules really. Other than, ‘don’t go over there.'”