- Devon O'Neil, Writer, Action Sports
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One of John Teller's stated goals this year is to make Winter X Games history by winning his second consecutive Skier X gold medal on Jan. 29 -- a feat none of the previous 13 champions achieved.
But you could argue the 6-foot-2, 215-pound bruiser from Mammoth Lakes, Calif., will impact the sport even more if he continues what he started last spring when he led two camps at his home mountain for junior ski-cross racers aspiring to be the next John Teller.
The irony of ski cross, which debuted on the Olympic stage in 2010, is that most of its history has been made by ex-World Cup Alpine racers who only turned to ski cross after they'd exhausted their Alpine potential. In essence, it grew as a top-heavy sport: full of premier talent on the elite level but lacking its own farm system.
Now, however, that appears to be changing. Thanks to thriving junior programs from Austria to Australia, the sport is exploding in popularity everywhere, it seems, except the United States. Which is precisely what Teller aims to change.
"Even though this is kind of a U.S.-invented sport, it's way bigger in Europe," Teller said. "In order for anything to happen with American racing, it's got to start from the bottom up."
In conjunction with Mammoth Mountain -- Teller's No. 1 sponsor last year -- he served as host for two camps in May, attracting 19 athletes to the first one and 17 to the second. Their ages ranged from 6 to 42, but most of the racers landed in the target demographic of 6 to 18. As Mammoth's Alpine coaches watched from the sidelines, Teller showed the participants how to hit jumps most efficiently and maintain speed through the long, uneven course, among other basic skills. He also taught them how to maximize their power out of the starting gates, which is key in ski cross.
"I like teaching kids stuff that they don't know," said Teller, 28, who also coaches high school football.
At Mammoth, Teller's influence didn't end with instruction. Because the sport is still in a grassroots stage in the United States, far fewer knowledgeable ski-cross course builders are available than, say, park or pipe builders. As such, "I was up at 3, 4 in the morning riding around with the Cat driver building the jumps," Teller said. "I had drawn a layout of what I wanted and I had a vision in my head, but once you're out there it's a lot tougher than you'd think. You're considering speed, jumps, banks, giving everyone enough room through the course."
The Mammoth camps are part of a small-but-devoted group of junior ski-cross programs around the country. Three-time Skier X competitor Brett Buckles started one in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and this fall she launched a similar program just south at Copper Mountain. There is also a program at Killington, Vt.
"If we grow the depth of the talent pool in the United States and start getting people ready to fill John's shoes, then we'll start to close this gap (with other countries)," Buckles said.
Daron Rahlves, the 2008 Skier X gold medalist who founded the four-race Banzai Tour in California, hailed Teller's efforts but acknowledged more kids are interested in learning the sport than there are programs to teach them. "The best thing kids can do to get a head start in ski cross … is train GS, freeski and get used to hitting park jumps working on sucking up and scrubbing the lip, flying low trajectories and skiing around others in a controlled environment," Rahlves said.
Teller, meanwhile, hopes that the next camp he runs will be on the heels of his second X Games gold medal in a row. He receives minimal funding from the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association to augment his income as a full-time auto mechanic, but this summer he signed a contract with Red Bull, which should help him leading up to the 2014 Olympics.
He spent his offseason lifting weights (and vehicle transmissions) to bulk up to 215 pounds from his prior weight of 200. He got married over the summer and remains driven in the wake of his 2011 gold medal, which he won on a last-second pass of 2010 champ Chris Del Bosco. "If anything, John's actually more humble now," said Mike Fiebiger, his uncle and the owner of Alpine Garage, where Teller works.
Part of that comes from his blue-collar roots. But part of it also comes from his mental approach to the sport -- the same one he conveys to the kids he teaches.
"Don't go out there to kill yourself," he tells them. "Have fun with it."
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