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Monday, June 11, 2012
Finding a way in

It's no secret that freeskiing is in the midst of a popularity boom and that park and pipe skiing -- the sport's newest Olympic disciplines -- are largely responsible for that boom. Last winter, the Association of Freeskiing Professionals (AFP) World Tour included 66 slopestyle, halfpipe and big air competitions -- up from roughly a dozen sanctioned contests just five years prior. More than 1,300 skiers entered at least one AFP event, which ranged from regional contests to the Winter X Games. Add it all up, and you get a daunting takeaway for aspiring stars: It has never been harder to break into the elite level of competitive freeskiing.

In spite of those odds, each year a promising few find a way in, and last season was no exception. To qualify just how hard it is to break in -- as well as detail the various routes they follow -- we examined two 17-year-olds' roads to the big leagues: where they came from, what it took to reach their current positions, and where they're headed.

Miss Consistent: Emilia Wint

Going into last winter, high school senior Emilia Wint had never made a pro event final. By the end of the year, she was ranked fourth in the world in slopestyle. Her secret? Consistency. She podiumed at the World Skiing Invitational, Killington Dew Tour and U.S. Grand Prix at Mammoth (which was also a FIS World Cup) and took fifth in her Winter X Games debut in Tignes, France. In a span of six months, the Denver, Colo., native transformed from a promising teenage park skier into a leading contender to represent the U.S. at the 2014 Olympics.

And what did Wint think of all that? "It really helped solidify the fact that going out and trying your hardest every day pays off in the end," she said.

Wint came on so fast that she was only invited to Aspen's Winter X Games as an alternate, and no spots opened up. She got on the official invite list for Tignes last March.

Emilia Wint made her Winter X Games debut this year in France.

Her journey has been conscious and earned, with no room for distractions. A product of 1999 XG gold medalist Chris Hawks' freeride program at Breckenridge, Wint, like many of today's stars, made her name competing in USSA and USASA events. Her approach, even before she caught fire, was simple: "I focused on doing the tricks that scared me instead of the easy ones I was already good at. That way, when I went to contests, I was used to being a little scared and doing all my tricks on different features and in all sorts of conditions."

It has never been harder to break into the elite level of competitive freeskiing. In spite of those odds, each year a promising few find a way in.

As she tells it, the turning point in her career actually happened when she was 16, the season before she broke through. "At the last Dew Tour stop at Snowbasin, I stomped the best run of my life in qualifiers and was waiting for my score," she said. "When it came in, I missed finals by two spots. After that, I went home and worked super hard to improve my skiing because I realized that my best run still wasn't holding up against the pros."

She eventually put together a contest run that includes some combination of switch 540, 720, 900, all grabbed with style. She also graduated from high school in May. Underdog or not, her ambition endures. "You can't get on the podium and then keep doing the same tricks that got you there," she said.

Lyman Currier, 17, has Olympic dreams for 2014.

On the cusp: Lyman Currier

One step behind Wint on the freeskiing career path, but no less determined to achieve the same goals, sits Lyman Currier. His best result last year was sixth place in pipe at the Mammoth Grand Prix, where he finished above a number of likely Olympians. He won qualifiers at both the Dumont Cup and World Skiing Invitational, but a bib snafu and injured knee, respectively, kept him from competing in either final. Despite the bad luck, his consistency in slope and pipe secured him eighth place in the AFP overall rankings.

You could argue Currier enters this summer in an enviable position. He throws double cork 10s both ways and double cork 14s to his natural side, and he's been working on the daunting unnatural double cork 1260 in the pipe. Yet the way he tells it, he's on a never-ending chase of the established guard. "It seems like every time I put on my skis I have to learn something new," he said. "As a younger kid, everybody's learning new tricks and you're still trying to learn the tricks that they already had a while ago. You're trying to catch up at a faster rate than they're able to learn their new tricks, which is really tough."

Currier's journey to the doorstep has been unusual from the start. His father, David, an ex-Olympic downhiller who runs the international division at Smith Optics, didn't allow Lyman to ski center-mounted skis until he was 14. "And I thank him so much," Lyman said, "because edge control is everything in the pipe." Of course, Lyman helped expedite the process by stomping a 900 on borrowed skis in front of a K2 rep, who promptly offered him a sponsorship.

Three years later, Currier is as busy as anyone chasing the sport's big prizes. He works out three days a week with a trainer who slam dunks medicine balls; hammers through 150 crunches each morning at the top of his stairs; and carries less than five percent body fat. He also completes three to four hours of schoolwork every day, no matter where he is, through the international academy at George Washington University. "I have online chats with the teacher and some of the students, but I've never met them outside of the Internet," he said.

The whirlwind demands of trying to crack the elite level and eventually make the 2014 Olympic team can be "overwhelming at times," Currier said. But the big picture never fades from view. "I want to show people I'm ready for this."