By Kelly Bastone | Photograph Dave Cox
The private school that 13-year-old Benji Bloch attends in Colorado sets high academic expectations, and last year bullies made his days there miserable. So strapping on a snowboard just to enter another pressure-cooker of competitive athletics seemed like more than Bloch could bear. But still, Bloch managed to win six snowboarding medals last winter. Credit for his athletic prowess goes to Extreme Pink Team, an unofficial name for the freeride and freestyle program that the Eldora Mountain Ski and Snowboard Club’s Competitive Freestyle/Freeride Program launched last season.
For decades, highly structured racing and freestyle programs were the only ways passionate young skiers and snowboarders honed their skills. But if a 12-year-old ripper didn’t aspire to the national gate bashing, halfpipe, or moguls scene, he had few options to join an on-hill community. Plus, traditional ski racing is ruinously expensive and can be flat-out grueling. “We’d get kids to develop this great skill set, yet they’d drop out because they weren’t having fun,” says Jon Nolting, athletic director for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. “Traditional race programs sometimes bleed the joy out of the sport.”
It’s been widely reported that kids today are stressed out. A survey by the American Psychological Association shows that one in three youngsters experiences stress headaches, and 44 percent report difficulty sleeping. Unless your kid is self-motivated to seek out high-stakes competition, the pressure to perform can lead to eating disorders, substance abuse, and depression. That’s where these new on-mountain offerings that emphasize participation over winning come in.
The Steamboat club recently developed “All Mountain” programming to give kids 12 and older the chance to ski on a team. Elsewhere, the Big Mountain Team that Squaw Valley founded in 2007–08 has grown from 100 to 300 athletes. Loveland Ski Club launched a noncompetitive All Mountain program last winter that’s designed to hone all manner of mountain savvy and strength. Since established in 2010, The Ski the East Freeride Tour has seen explosive growth, particularly among teenaged competitors. Even in the ski-racing stronghold of Sun Valley, the new Mountain Adventure Curriculum offered through the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation teaches big mountain skills. “We’ve adapted our programming to promote the holistic mountain kid culture,” says athletic director Phil McNichol.
A big part of that approach involves simply having more fun. The Extreme Pink Team appeals to kids like Benji Bloch because, “instead of doing one-legged drills all day, we get to choose what we work on,” he says. Not only does he credit Extreme Pink for helping him overcome the bullying, but he says the team also taught him to be kind, humble, and hardworking. They should give out medals for that.
From the Early Winter 2016 issue.