All Trace Cooke wants to hear is the sound of his own breath.
He doesn’t want any distractions as he thinks about what line he’s going to take or what tricks he’ll do. Even when he’s surrounded by other skiers, Cooke wants to feel alone with the mountain.
“It’s the kind of feeling that I strive for and I love that feeling,” says Cooke. “Just being alone, hearing only my breath. A lot of people ski with music and I don’t really like to. I just like to hear my breath and hear my mind think and that’s what I really love about it.”
Years of quiet deliberation are about to pay off for Cooke. The 20-year-old from Nelson is set to make his debut on the Freeride World Tour in January. The five-event competition will take Cooke to Andorra, France, Austria, Alaska and Switzerland. It’s a trip Cooke has dreamed of, and one that didn’t always seem possible.
Cooke, who counts Whitewater Ski Resort, Village Ski Hut and Nelson Brewing Company among his local sponsors and has been on skis since he was two years old, has always been a freerider at heart. He prefers a hill without fences, gates or sculpted jumps. Freeriding is nothing new, but it was only in 2004 that skiing and snowboarding was integrated into one tour that is judged by a skier’s chosen path and tricks attempted down a mountain. That makes the sport, which isn’t included in the Olympics, officially a novice compared to FIS events like cross-country or downhill.
That doesn’t bother Cooke. His options were limited growing up — he notes he had no moguls or park jumps nearby — but the mountain gave him all he needed.
“Freeskiing is what I grew up doing,” he says. “There’s not really that feeling of standing up at the top, visually inspecting a run and getting to the bottom happy. It’s not really about sponsorships or any of that for me. It’s just the feeling of doing it.”
This is how he does it: first Cooke sizes up the mountain as he rides up the chair. He looks for different lines, makes note of any natural landmarks and considers possible jumps. Most of the competitions he’s done allow for a couple practice runs down the course. In the Tour, however, he’ll only get to inspect the hill from the bottom with binoculars.
He also tries not to think about injuries. Cooke says he’s been told he looks scared before he starts down the hill, but that he’s actually just trying to stay calm.
Peter Velisek coached Cooke for five years when he was part of the junior freeride program at Whitewater Ski Resort. He saw right away how talented Cooke was, that he was a natural athlete, but Velisek was also impressed by his protege’s fearlessness.
“When you’re in the competition situation, some people will choke up and just not ski how they normally can, not ski to their potential,” says Velisek. “Or they might drop in and have a few funny turns and then they get it and they start shredding.
“Trace is like, when you are in the start gate with him, he’s already there. He’s in the zone and he’s so focused, and it’s like he’s able to focus even more under that pressure. He really gets in the zone. He’s a really great competitor.”
Focus hasn’t saved him from every injury. Cooke skied into a boulder hidden by snow during a competition and tore up several knee ligaments in January 2014. He took two weeks off, but had previously committed to a competition at Chamonix, France, and didn’t want to back out and lose sponsorship money.
Instead, Cooke taped up his knee and entered the competition. As he prepared prior to a run, he realized his leg wasn’t going to make it to the finish line. “So I mentally switched all my other muscles into full-on hold-the-knee-together mode and rode mainly on one ski for the entire thing,” says Cooke.
He figured when he was done he’d either end up with a mangled knee or a victory. He limped away with a first-place finish.
It was a good moral victory, but it still ended his hopes of qualifying for the Freeride World Tour. This year, Cooke told himself he wouldn’t miss out on the Tour again. He won two of the first three events, but started to slip in the standings with several poor finishes.
With two events to go it became clear Cooke would need some mathematical help. He secured the required seventh-place finish in Crested Butte, Col., meaning he’d need a second-place result at Wrangle the Chute in Golden in April. He also needed American veteran Andrew Rumph to finish worse than 16th.
Cooke qualified third before his final run. He stood at the start gate, listening to his breath and the cheers of the crowd unseen at the bottom of the hill. First place was out of the question — he was too far back in the points to win — but second was still a possibility.
“That run was the most scared I’ve ever been at the top of a competition venue,” he says. “Just because I knew if I crashed it was all over, if I won it might not be enough. It was a lot to go through my head.”
Cooke landed a 360 on his first cliff and realized all he needed to do was stay on his feet after that. He’d planned another trick near the bottom, but pumped his fists in the air instead. He knew he’d made it.
Cooke finished second and Rumph ended up 20th. Still, he needed to wait more than three weeks for the results to be made official. “It was really awesome, probably the best day of my life, and I still didn’t know if I’d made it,” he says.
When the wait was over, the numbers were on Cooke’s side. He was finally in.