FEATURE: The Teton torch

By on November 17, 2015

Does Jackson Hole have an appetite for Olympic glory?

Bredal, who competed with the JH Ski and Snowboard Club, is currently attending ski school and training for the Olympics in Meraker, Norway. (Photo: Courtesy)

Bredal, who competed with the JH Ski and Snowboard Club, is currently attending ski school and training for the Olympics in Meraker, Norway. (Photo: Courtesy)

As the Tetons tower in the mid morning against a stark blue winter sky, the air is clean and clear, and the untouched snow promises possibilities. The setting is a seemingly perfect platform for those who aspire to greatness on skis and snowboards.

In Jackson one can aim for World Cup fame, TGR infamy or Teton Pass legend.

Interestingly enough, however, Jackson Hole is not a breeding ground for Olympians. Perhaps only time will tell if the Tetons are poised to mine gold in the form of medals. Jackson has been slow out of the gate while other mountain towns have developed programs and initiatives that foster Olympic aspirations. Still, some say Jackson wears its own crown, and its jewels are not necessary set in gold.

In recent years Jackson has made incredible strides to begin to realize its golden potential, but it still falls behind other mountain towns that were able to develop Olympic training tools early on. Sun Valley, Steamboat Springs, Park City and Aspen are among the roster of mountain towns that have established official U.S. Olympic standard training grounds.

During the 2014 Winter Olympics, almost 10 percent of the 230 athletes on the U.S. Team were from California, followed closely by Colorado and Minnesota. Vermont carries the brightest torch, as one out of every 48,000 people there will make it onto a U.S. Winter Olympic team at some point in their lives. New Hampshire comes in second with one out of every 147,000 people securing a spot.

Remote realizations

“We aren’t excelling like other small towns because of our remoteness,” said U.S. Ski Team member and Jackson resident Resi Stiegler. But Stiegler says she sees this as a potential benefit, too.

“Growing up in a remote and wild area is the reason why I made it to this level in my career,” she said. “Growing up in those rugged conditions with very few resources and growing up skiing for the Jackson Hole Ski Club, I wouldn’t have changed it. We cross-country skied to school and to work, and I grew up loving the mountains and never being scared and uncomfortable in the mountains.”

Stiegler is the daughter of Pepi Stiegler, the famed Austrian Olympian who settled in Jackson after his competitive years and raised his daughter on the long slopes of the Tetons. She is currently training for her second winter Olympic competition — the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

The challenge in the Tetons isn’t finding good ground to train on. But other mountain towns are ahead of the ski curve when it comes to training. They provide young athletes with night skiing, and in the fall, snowmaking helps them get a head start on training — sometimes their athletes start skiing a full month ahead of Jackson skiers. Some of these towns are also providing ways for public school students to complete schoolwork during ski season without falling behind or missing classes.

This was unheard of when Stiegler was competing in high school, but things are changing in the valley. “Back then the [Jackson Hole] high school didn’t accommodate ski schedules for travel,” she said. “Now their [policies] are different, and there are a lot more options for kids to go to private schools that will accommodate a ski schedule.”

Stiegler also acknowledged the new executive director for the Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club, Forest Carey, a world-renowned ski coach who takes the helm in 2016, as yet another step that the Jackson community is taking to up the ante on the competition.

“The goal is to produce a number of D-1 college skiers,” Carey said in June to local press. “You’ll have your occasional real talent that will make the national team. But if you’re running a good program, where the kids are being rewarded for hard work, and they’re having fun, and their parents want them to be there and they want to be there, and we provide a good system … kids should elevate up to being able to be D-1 ski racers.”

Carey is currently coaching abroad and was not available for an interview at press time.

Talent + terrain + ?

Former ski team coach Jonathan Selkowitz agrees that Jackson has the potential to produce more Olympians, but also does not want to undercut the incredible talent who learned on the lifts and snow of the Tetons.

“This place is a combination of an A-plus training facility — with Snow King and its hard snow and great terrain, it’s the best in the world,” Selkowitz said. “And then you combine that with some of the best terrain in the world at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Sure, other ski clubs have night skiing and training facilities, but there are not too many other places in the country that have the kind of terrain that the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort has — 4,200 vertical feet — and kids encounter three or more snow conditions in one run.”

The mountains have produced a number of rising stars, said Selkowitz, among them, Stiegler and her brother Sepi, Max Hammer, Geoffry Stephenson and Kristen Bybee — all of whom are Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club alums who went on to ski with the U.S. Ski Team. Then there are skiers like Crystal Wright, who was a champion big mountain and extreme competitor; and Jess McMillan, another ski club alum who was a champ on the extreme tour and continues to dominate the ski film world, as well as being a very busy ski mountaineer.

And, of course, Kit Deslauries is in a class by herself, being the first person to ski from the Seven Summits, not to mention winning the Freeride/Extreme tour and her plan to head back to the Himalayas to ski Makalu.

Mike Hammer, the interim director of the Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboarding Club, agrees that while the Olympics are a goal for some, the number of options for students wanting to excel at skiing and snowboarding is almost as limitless as the powder in the Tetons.

“In Jackson there is the pure skiing and then the Olympics,” Hammer said. “Although the opportunities are there — our coaching and facilities are as good as any place — you may find athletes like Resi getting so far and then going somewhere else. That’s not unfair. What Resi got in Park City, she couldn’t get here in terms of fellow athletes pushing her. But on the other hand, my son [Max Hammer] got plenty of pushing. It’s different from one year to the next.”

Hammer said a lot can happen in a four-year stretch between Winter Olympic competitions. The goal, Hammer suggested, shouldn’t be a total focus on Olympic competition, but rather the bigger picture of ski competition.

“Everyone I know gets excited about the Olympics and watches them, but they get equally excited with the World Championships, and they enjoy watching the World Cup and following those kids,” he said. “It’s not just a one-time event. If you can walk away with an Olympic medal, that’s something special, but I don’t know how many have that objective.”

Beyond competition

Erich Wilbrecht moved to Jackson as a teenager. Strapping on a pair of Nordic skis, the cross-country runner naturally fell for the snow-laden trails of the Tetons.

Former Olympic skier Erich Wilbrecht, pictured here, at American Birkibeiner in early 2000s. (Photo: Courtesy)

Former Olympic skier Erich Wilbrecht, pictured here, at American Birkibeiner in early 2000s. (Photo: Courtesy)

Wilbrecht was introduced to the sport at Trail Creek Ranch, established by former Olympian Betty Woolsey, and watched fellow racers Martin Hagen and Pete Karns train on the same tracks. While he would agree that there are so many positives to living, training and preparing for the Olympics in the Tetons, he said it’s timely for Jackson to ask, ‘Are we doing enough?’

“We see skiers from Jackson leave here, and we have lost some kids to other programs,” Wilbrecht said of students with Olympic aspirations. “We’re trying to address that now. Kids have the potential here of being national caliber skiers, but they may not see Jackson as the place to be.”

Wilbrecht competed in the 1992 Winter Olympic Biathlon team for cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship. Before retiring from racing, Wilbrecht carved out an illustrious ski career that included winning multiple national championships, five Summer Biathlon National Championships, and the first European Summer Biathlon event in Ruhpholding, Germany.

He readily admits that Nordic and alpine skiers differ in how they train and when they peak as racers. He maintained that the biggest influence a young skier needs is an example of greatness.

“A lot of it is simply exposure,” Wilbrecht said. “Over the years, we have lost that as other programs have grown. Jackson was always a place where Nordic skiers did well, nationally, but … other communities have surpassed Jackson. Sun Valley, Park City, Bozeman — from facilities development to the budget size to the size of the program — these places focus on high-end, high-level racing in the Intermountain West, and all of these programs have spawned a lot of high-end racers.”

Wilbrecht says to have Olympic aspirations in Jackson is to move to a place that will foster Olympic growth.

“We have huge mountains with off-piste skiing and a lot of different options for skiing,” he explained. “We saw that with our kids — would they rather ski powder or bang gates? We have a lot of kids who want to huck and be on TV. I think there is that as a contributing factor. Is it the coolest thing to be the fastest through the gate or be Travis Rice and travel around the world in a helicopter dropping into powder? The community and ski community has a challenge.”

Speaking of famed Jackson native Travis Rice, hailed by many as the best snowboarder in the world, snowboarders continue to remain in a class of their own. In Jackson, snowboarders often earn respect by ripping technical, big mountains lines, appearing in snowboard films, or sending massive airs and tricks in the terrain parks and half pipe. But as for the Olympics, Jeff Moran says the relationship can be complicated.

“Jackson is an amazing place to create an elite snowboarder, but it’s not a place to pump out Olympic snowboarders,” said Moran, director of advancement for the Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club, and an 11-year veteran snowboarding and free ski coach. “You have to have the facilities to train on, and we just don’t have them. The kids that come up through free skiing and snowboarding and are chasing higher-level competitions, they move to Park City. A lot of families that have the means, send their kids to school or move, or the kids move down there after high school.”

For Moran, the issue is two-thirds facilities and one-third culture. The first issue can be controlled, the latter, not so much in Jackson Hole. Moran explained that in order to really train for Olympic competition, a snowboarder needs a 22-foot half pipe. Those are expensive to install and maintain. Moran says he is grateful that Jackson Hole Mountain Resort creates an 18-foot half pipe every year, but it is not 22-feet. Additionally, terrain parks that provide for big air and 80-foot jumps before landing are not found in the Tetons. While the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Snow King offer solid terrain parks, Moran said using features that meet Olympic regulations are key to training.

“The Jackson Hole snowboarder tends to be technically advanced with their skills, but those skills are being used in the backcountry,” he said. “Snowboarding tends to shift from competitive focus to media focus.”

Media focus, Moran explained, is landing parts in movies, coming out of the backcountry with photography and film, much like how Rice and snowboard veterans such as Bryan Iguchi and Rob Kingwill maintain their visibility along with the area’s younger snowboard luminaries like Alex Yoder, Blake Paul and Cam Fitzpatrick.

The other deterrent that isn’t really easily controlled, according to Moran, is the lifestyle and culture of Jackson, which tends to produce more dynamic riders.

“The kids in Jackson grow up, and they aren’t pipe jocks. If I had a kid that was so in love with half pipe, my realistic suggestion is that they would have to move to Park City. But if a kid wants to be the best possible athlete they can be, then Jackson is the perfect place. You can get such a well-rounded opportunity here.”

Moran, center, poses with 2014-15 JHSC Freeride Program coaches. (Photo: Courtesy JHSC Freeride program)

Moran, center, poses with 2014-15 JHSC Freeride Program coaches. (Photo: Courtesy JHSC Freeride program)

Moran added that while the Olympics are a noble pursuit, in the snowboarding world, it’s not an obvious path.

“From a snowboarding perspective, from my perspective, a small percentage of snowboarders are on (the Olympic) path,” he said. “Not many people understand that if you are not on this competitive path that there is still a bright future for hard-working snowboarders out of Jackson. Travis is the perfect example of what a Jackson Hole snowboarder can end up doing.”

Medal dreams across the pond

Local students Mariah Bredal and Jaelin Kauf had to make a decision in their young athletic careers as they pursue their Olympics dreams. Bredal is a Nordic skier from Teton Valley, Idaho, training in Norway. She came up through the Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club and lived with the Wilbrechts while she went to school in Jackson.

Kauf grew up in Alta at the base of Grand Targhee Resort. A freestyle skier, she moved to Steamboat Springs to continue her Olympic pursuits. She is currently in Switzerland training.

Both athletes said they received their start in the Tetons. While they have realized their dreams differently, they agree that the Tetons had a tremendous impact on their love of their sport.

“Jackson Hole is an amazing place to train,” Bredal said. “Especially for endurance athletes, as it lies 3,000 meters over ocean level. In the summer there are miles upon miles of running trails, and in the winter the snow comes early and leaves late. I competed for the Jackson Hole Ski Club for three years and enjoyed every minute of it.”

Bredal now lives on her own in Meråker, Norway, famous for its cultivation of Olympic athletes such as Petter Northug and Tora Berger. “Both [Jackson and Meråker] are full of active people and great training opportunities,” Bredal said. “Both are fairly small as well. The difference between the two is that Jackson Hole has a big focus on alpine and freeride skiing, while Meråker has a big community of cross-country skiers. There are a lot of the teachers that are trainers for elite skiers or even former professionals themselves. Cross-country skiing is life here. In addition, the atmosphere is very supportive and encouraging for athletes. There are a lot of serious athletes here that want to pursue skiing.”

Kauf agrees that no place quite compares to the Tetons, but still, she needed to move on to realize her Olympic dream.

“Steamboat has a huge ski club with over 1,000 athletes,” she said. “They produced 88 winter Olympians. Steamboat is Ski Town U.S.A. – everything is about the Olympians and encouraging all the upcoming athletes in that direction. The community support and encouragement of the winter sports club is astounding. There are few places with such camaraderie and expectations of excellence.” But the Tetons, Kauf acknowledges, are different. “It is the type of place that will always bring skiers because of the backcountry and big mountain terrain offered.”

But can Jackson aspire to Olympic gold? “In my opinion Jackson/Targhee is not going to be an ‘Olympian hot spot,’” Kauf said. “As Resi suggested, this place produces some amazing big mountain and rugged mountain skiers because that’s the makeup of the Tetons. Targhee is home to some astounding big mountain skiers like the Mackenzie boys and Sage Cattabriga. Targhee currently doesn’t have the amenities that produce other types of skiers. Jackson has a great alpine training hill at Snow King, but I think many local athletes are more drawn to the big mountain skiing.”

Bredal added: “If Jackson Hole was to become a place to foster Olympic athletes, such as places like Aspen and Sun Valley, I think the first step would have to be a ski school that supports this pursuit. It is important to be in an environment where those around you support and inspire you. This also makes contact with one’s coaches and teammates a lot easier.” PJH

SIDEBAR: Hopeful Olympians sound off

Mariah Bredal and Jaelin Kauf offered a few words of wisdom to young skiers seeking gold in their future — from commitment, to work ethic to disappointment — they said above all, a top athlete must remain focused. Having fun never hurts either.

“The big dream would be to compete in the Olympics one day,” Bredal said. “I am far from close, but I am willing to put in my time and effort to give it my best shot. I love skiing and that is the ultimate secret to success — to love what you are doing.”

For Bredal, learning to prioritize her goals has been key to her training. “I have always been competitive,” she said. “One of my struggles has been accepting that I cannot be the best in everything. I have had to learn how to prioritize my goals and how to say no to things that don’t help me toward my main goal: to be the best skier I can be.”

Bredal lists her top priorities as skiing, school and support group. “I do my best to put my energy into these three areas of my life,” she said. “Anything else is not given nearly as much time or energy from me.”

Kauf’s focus has always been the pure love of the sport. Through the love of her pursuits she says she realized her Olympic dreams. Of course there have been some low points for Kauf, just as any athlete experiences. But these points, she says, are places of great growth and development.

“It doesn’t ever come easy, and you don’t always get the results you want,” Kauf said. “You have bad days no matter who you are. There are days when I can hardly do a straight air, but all I can do is push through the tough days and work harder the next day to make up for it.”

Last season was a tough start for Kauf, who said that the pressure she placed on herself hampered her performance.

“My first time in the gate last season I was hardly even there,” she said. “I didn’t have any confidence in my jumping. I couldn’t land my top air. I broke down and cried. I’d never done that before — had a breakdown in skiing.”

Kauf catches air during a free skiing competition in Switzerland this season. (Photo: Courtesy Kauf)

Kauf catches air during a free skiing competition in Switzerland this season. (Photo: Courtesy Kauf)

Kauf said that sometimes the only one who can remind you of your goal is yourself.

“The first half of that year was horrible. I couldn’t put anything together and was far from consistent,” she admitted. “I would have a good run here or there, but one run isn’t enough. After the first half of the NorAm Tour we had a two-week break. I was at the gym every day. I worked my butt off on and off the hill. I realized that skiing is my everything. I really wanted this. I had to refocus on doing my very best every run and not worry about the results.”

Similar to what your mother taught you, Kauf also emphasizes how important it is to take care of yourself.

“My advice to younger skiers would be to learn how to prioritize your training above everything else,” she said. “Make time to train, eat healthy and get enough recovery. Also if you realize you can’t do it all alone, it is important to build a solid support group of family and friends that you can rely on and that will be there to help you reach your goals.”

Kauf added that you’re only as good as your next run, not your last. “One competition doesn’t matter, so don’t put pressure on yourself,” she said. “It may seem like the end of the world if you don’t win this one race, but it’s not. Give your best every day in training and competition and the results will come. Don’t put undue pressure on yourself for a specific competition. Be willing to work harder than anyone else, stay focused and believe in yourself. It’s about your journey to being the very best you can be.”

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