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This weekend marks the first official stop of the Junior Freeskiing Tour's big-mountain competition series, which is open to girls and boys aged 12 to 18. The first event takes place at Crystal Mountain, Wash., followed by junior contests at California's Squaw Valley, Wyoming's Grand Targhee, Colorado's Crested Butte, and a finale at Snowbird, Utah.
Although junior freeskiing competitions have been around for a number of years, the demand for them has exploded this season, with this year's five official JFT stops selling out within 20 seconds of opening for registration online last December. The Crystal Mountain stop this weekend as well as another junior competition at Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada, will host over 150 competitors each, with many more on a waiting list. The junior component of the 2012 Salomon Extreme Freeride Championships, taking place this weekend at Taos, N.M., is the largest in the contest's eight-year history.
"Juniors are the fastest growing division in freeskiing," says Rob Greener, the president of the International Freeskiers Association, which runs the junior series.
"It's been growing like crazy," added the IFSA's junior series points director Nicole Greener of the junior freeskiing contests. "There are too many talented junior athletes and not enough events. So a lot of ski programs have added regional events, which we're now counting as part of the national point system." With help from local freeski programs, coaches, and athletes, this year there are nationally-ranked junior stops at Red Mountain, Lake Louise, and Winter Park, among others.
The Ski The East Freeride Tour added a junior program this year, as well. "We've helped establish three junior qualifier events for our younger competitors, 13 and under," says STEFT co-event director Tim Fater. "A limited number of qualifying spots at the main events will be reserved for the juniors, which will ensure the highest level of big mountain talent."
A majority of the kids competing in these contests are now part of youth freeride programs, with coaches, established at ski areas around the world. Frenchman Greg Liscot coaches a group of Chamonix-based junior freeskiers called the Young Rider's Crew, which he started in 2002 to help young riders break onto the next level. What started as a group of seven skiers now has four coaches and more than 50 athletes. In additional to teaching skills for freeride competitions, Liscot's program also has an emphasis on mountain awareness: Athletes get training in avalanche safety and rescue protocol.
"The main way is to coach them to become proficient skiers, with fundamental technique to be secure on the mountain," says Liscot. "Our second but very important tool is the safety program we include for every team: transceiver research, snow information, and the French avalanche avoidance and rescue program."
Similar junior programs that focus on big-mountain skills and backcountry safety exist all over North America now too, with well-developed programs at places like Snowbird, Vail, Squaw Valley and Sugar Bowl.
"Our Vail team has doubled in size," says Elana Chase, director of Ski Club Vail's freeride program, which started in 2000. "We attend more events to keep up with the competition demand, and there are many athletes as young as 10 or 12 years old who want to participate in the junior big mountain competitions."
Similarly, the Vail program focuses on safety. "There is risk involved in this sport," says Chase. "And having the proper training and guidance is something people, especially parents, are looking for."
The IFSA's Nicole Greener says that smart skiing is rewarded in the IFSA competitions. "The goal is long term sustainability, safety, and growth," said Nicole Greener. "Judges are looking at technique and control, they don't want this to be a stunt show. We want skiers to be responsible."
At Sugar Bowl, Calif., the resort's big-mountain program now hosts more than 50 kids. "It's growing for sure," says Sugar Bowl head freeride coach Sean Carey. "I think there's a big future for the sport. There is so much variety in big mountain skiing, with the venues on the tour today, there's so much room for improvement in the level of what we are going to see. These kids are pushing it. You look at the Winter X Games and how far it's gone in the last 10 years. We're going to look back in five or 10 years at big mountain competitions and we're going to feel the same."