Junior Goes Jibbin'

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Magazine By Tom Winter) Team Veatch is in Vail. And it's a juggernaut: athlete, driver, translator, chaperone, sports psychologist and luggage-hauler. They're here for the U.S. Freeskiing Open, which is only the team's second competition. The first was in Lake Tahoe, but this event is the 5-year-old "granddaddy" of slopestyle and big-air competitions. And Team Veatch is here to win.

In reality, the team isn't that big. In addition to the athlete, Tyler Veatch-a ripping skier who doesn't seem slowed down by the fact that he has no hearing-it consists of his dad, Jim, former ski patrol director for Alaska's Alyeska Resort, who handles all the aforementioned support duties. They're here because Tyler has already accomplished a lot when it comes to skiing. He's won races and jumped big backcountry cliffs. But compared to the Open, such feats hardly matter. The Open is the big time, where heroes are made overnight and unknown 14-year-olds get sponsored out of the blue. Jim, who is no slouch of a skier himself, stands near the start of the slopestyle course. He takes in the kinked rails, the kickers and the banners fluttering in the wind and smiles. "This is cool," he says.

I have come to the U.S. Open to see some of the world's best young new-school athletes strut their stuff and wow the crowds. But more important, as I check out the mayhem, I hope to get a chance to meet the parents. As a kid, I did the ski-racing thing with my dad, heading off to slalom and GS races throughout Colorado. It was hard work-the training, the travel, the endless running of gates under the lights at Eldora. So tough, in fact, that I didn't last. I burned out on racing. But my dad didn't care. As long as I had fun skiing, that was all that mattered. My memories of other, less relaxed parents, however, are vivid. They drove their children hard. Fun was what you'd have after you won your Olympic gold. Skiing wasn't supposed to be fun; it was supposed to be serious. And to make it as a ski racer, you had to be serious. Very serious.

The big question I want to answer during my trip to the Open is: What are these parents thinking? After all, the Open is an event where one of the favorites, a kid expected to win big-Tanner Hall-openly speaks of smoking pot. An event where raucous parties last all night, and where the vibe is all attitude and punk-ass kid. The U.S. Freeskiing Open, like the ESPN X Games, is a celebration of all things youthful and irresponsible. While the kids in the U.S. Ski Association race program are tuning edges and analyzing video, the kids at the Open are sneaking beers at the welcoming party and talking a lot of smack.

I meet one of these underage drinkers my first night at a Bridge Street bar. Stefan Thomas is a lanky 15-year-old who has a reputation as a solid pipe contender. He hails from the home of the U.S. Ski Team, Park City, Utah, and he's here with his dad, Jack, who, in an amazing display of "my dad is the coolest," has bought his son a Budweiser. While I set up an interview for the next day with Jack, I keep my eye on Stefan. He nurses his beer. He knows he's competing tomorrow, and it's strictly a one-beer-and-early-to-bed night. This is my first inkling that maybe the Open isn't as much of a party scene as it's reputed to be.

The next morning I meet Jack Thomas at the top of the halfpipe. We're joined by Paul Booth, an outgoing Aussie who runs a ski shop Down Under and has brought his son Chris to the Open. The three of us comprise a geriatric ward at the edge of the action, a scene dominated by kids who have just learned to drive but can't yet vote. As we watch the competitors lap the pipe, I sense that this is my chance to get some straight talk out of the older crowd: Why would they expose their kids to a scene that is reminiscent of freestyle skiing in the early '70s? After all, these guys are old enough to have been a part of the excesses of that era. The freeskiing revolution that fuels thepen has historical roots in those carefree days. But the big difference is that while the hot-doggers of yore were young adults, most of the kids at the U.S. Open are just that: kids. They have to travel with their parents, if only to have a legal guardian to sign the liability wavers when they pay their entry fees.

This situation is particularly true for Chris Booth. At the tender age of 14, Booth has already gone pro in Australia. He's at the Open to bolster a résumé that includes top-three finishes in each event he entered in Australia last season, where he hung tough against top-notch talent from Japan, New Zealand and Canada. He's also scored a top 10 result at one of freeskiing's biggest events, the Whistler Pro, where he finished fifth. "I came along to help Chris get around," Paul admits. "At 14, it's kind of hard to check into a hotel on your own."

So, does this talented 14-year-old owe his premature success to a father who has pushed him into being one of the best Aussie exports since Fosters lager? Not really. "He's the one who is pushing himself at the moment," says the older Booth. "I'm just here to help him, to be supportive and see what happens."

Booth's laid-back attitude is echoed by Jack Thomas, who readily admits that at first he wasn't too hip on young Stefan's transformation from a budding mogul skier to free-spirited jibber. "It took a little nudging from his mom to convince me," Thomas says. "But Stefan found mogul skiing restrictive and dictatorial. He likes the freedom of this; the freedom of expression. I can identify with that, but it has still been a bit hard for me to digest. Now, after seeing it, I'm blown away."

Thomas' awakening to the freeride vibe, he says, is starting to be shared by other parents. "I see other families wanting to know what we're up to, when the events are, what's going on," he says. And according to both Booth and Thomas, it isn't a case of the parents pushing the kids; rather, they're playing catch-up, trying to figure out the scene and understand what's happening to the sport that they call skiing.

What exactly is happening is that while I chat with Thomas and Booth, Tanner Hall is winning. Again. He'll walk away with $6,000. It's a big chunk of change, but paltry compared to his annual compensation, a sum that hovers around the six-figure range and is derived from event winnings, manufacturers' sponsorships, photo incentives and appearance fees. At 19, Tanner is a rock star, and he's living the rock-star life, traveling VIP-style around the world to the hottest events and biggest resorts.

"I don't think we were prepared," admits Tanner's dad, Jerry Hall, when I ask him about his son's sudden rise to the top. "I don't think we expected it, and I don't think anyone expects so much success at such a young age."Tanner's example is one of the reasons kids compete in the Open. You can be the new king overnight. And it's the very trappings of Tanner's success that have Jerry concerned.

"I have a hard time telling him 'no' when he is making the kind of money he makes," Hall says. "The partying bothers me a lot. But Tanner is making more and more good decisions as he gets older. And his sponsors and his agent help a lot. But I really worry about some of the kids who don't have that kind of backing or people like that watching out for them."

The decision to let Tanner turn pro was painful, particularly since it involved Tanner's postponing high school. (He's working toward a General Equivalency Degree.) "We talked to every school counselor we could," Hall says. "But by doing this, he's getting an education that few others can get. The degree can come when it comes; the key is that it comes."

But while Hall has endured "many, many sleepless nights," for most parents at the Open, the event is a chance to relive the freshness andvitality skiing had when they were young. The hot-dog vibe is alive and well here. And while the rebirth of freestyle can lead to riches for the kid, for parents it's more about being there, hanging out, letting the athletes do their thing and taking it all in.

"I have this observation," says Jack Thomas as he watches yet another skinny teen launch high over the pipe, spinning skyward. "The typical parent wants to live through his child to a great extent. I think we all do that. It's hard for a parent to pull back, to say, 'no, this is their experience, this is their thing' and to follow their lead, to let them ride the horse in the direction that it's going." But letting Stefan hold the reins is exactly what he's trying to do, even to the point of considering climbing on himself. "I might try the pipe this year," Thomas says. "It could be time."

"It's the freeride thing," Booth adds. "The kind of personality this sportattracts is more laid-back, and these traits are reflected in the parents."Later, after the dads have headed off to check out more of the action, I collar Stefan and Chris. What's it like, I ask, to show up at the Open with a chaperone? "Having a dad like mine doesn't really cramp your style," Chris says. "You have to be a pretty chill parent to bring your kids out here."

"It's cool that my dad is bringing me all these places," Stefan adds. "I'm super-stoked. My dad is a sponsor." Dad as sponsor. It's a new one to me, but apt. Because no matter what you think of new-school skiing, it really is, after all, just skiing. New-school, old-school, freestyle or racing, it doesn't seem to really matter, as long as the kids are staying out of trouble and having a good time. As it happens, Neither Stefan nor Chris nor Tyler makes it to the money round today, but they don't seem to mind that a bit. The Open is more of an expression session than anything else, and the kids are here to ski hard, mingle with their heroes and have fun. "It's about being a part of something cool and progressive," Stefan says.

Toward the end of the day, I run into Jack Thomas again. He's been thinking about skiing, about families, about kids and growing up, and he has one more thing to say. "One of the main reasons we are involved in this sport with the kids," he says as he looks out at the snow-covered peaks of the Gore Range, "is that skiing fits us all together. It binds us. In today's era, the family unit is going a million different directions, and skiing is the glue that holds us together."

I think back on the road trips and cheap motels, the races I didn't finish and the ones I did, and I realize that he's right. I don't remember the places as much as I remember my dad: taking us to buy gear, teaching us how to carve our first turns, standing at the finish. Skiing was, and still is, a glue that binds. And the U.S. Freeskiing Open, for all the hype and marketing and parties that surround this particular circus, is really just a side note to the real thing. Thomas looks at me and grins. "You know what?" he says. "If I could come back one day as one of my children, I'd be really happy."

hes for the kid, for parents it's more about being there, hanging out, letting the athletes do their thing and taking it all in.

"I have this observation," says Jack Thomas as he watches yet another skinny teen launch high over the pipe, spinning skyward. "The typical parent wants to live through his child to a great extent. I think we all do that. It's hard for a parent to pull back, to say, 'no, this is their experience, this is their thing' and to follow their lead, to let them ride the horse in the direction that it's going." But letting Stefan hold the reins is exactly what he's trying to do, even to the point of considering climbing on himself. "I might try the pipe this year," Thomas says. "It could be time."

"It's the freeride thing," Booth adds. "The kind of personality this sportattracts is more laid-back, and these traits are reflected in the parents."Later, after the dads have headed off to check out more of the action, I collar Stefan and Chris. What's it like, I ask, to show up at the Open with a chaperone? "Having a dad like mine doesn't really cramp your style," Chris says. "You have to be a pretty chill parent to bring your kids out here."

"It's cool that my dad is bringing me all these places," Stefan adds. "I'm super-stoked. My dad is a sponsor." Dad as sponsor. It's a new one to me, but apt. Because no matter what you think of new-school skiing, it really is, after all, just skiing. New-school, old-school, freestyle or racing, it doesn't seem to really matter, as long as the kids are staying out of trouble and having a good time. As it happens, Neither Stefan nor Chris nor Tyler makes it to the money round today, but they don't seem to mind that a bit. The Open is more of an expression session than anything else, and the kids are here to ski hard, mingle with their heroes and have fun. "It's about being a part of something cool and progressive," Stefan says.

Toward the end of the day, I run into Jack Thomas again. He's been thinking about skiing, about families, about kids and growing up, and he has one more thing to say. "One of the main reasons we are involved in this sport with the kids," he says as he looks out at the snow-covered peaks of the Gore Range, "is that skiing fits us all together. It binds us. In today's era, the family unit is going a million different directions, and skiing is the glue that holds us together."

I think back on the road trips and cheap motels, the races I didn't finish and the ones I did, and I realize that he's right. I don't remember the places as much as I remember my dad: taking us to buy gear, teaching us how to carve our first turns, standing at the finish. Skiing was, and still is, a glue that binds. And the U.S. Freeskiing Open, for all the hype and marketing and parties that surround this particular circus, is really just a side note to the real thing. Thomas looks at me and grins. "You know what?" he says. "If I could come back one day as one of my children, I'd be really happy."