A dozen or so teenage racers with Eldora Mountain Ski and Snowboard Club (EMSC) bibs coagulate in one of the last remaining sunny spots at the bottom of a run called Chute at Colo.'s Eldora Mountain Resort, all booted up and wearing POC helmets, face protectors, GS suits, shin guards, and padded shorts. It’s 4 o’clock on a Wednesday, and the shadows have stretched over the slalom courses above and hardened the snow into what looks like polished concrete. The kids are talking and laughing louder with every minute—their energy building like molecules heated under a blow torch.

These kids are part of a nonprofit program at a resort you’ve possibly never heard of in a tiny, prayer-flag fluttering town whose sole claim to fame is a former resident who lies cryogenically frozen and packed in dry ice in a Tuff Shed above town.

Lukas Haug trains on the slalom course

Stefan Haug trains on the slalom course 

“Of all of the world-class competition programs to highlight, why this one?” you ask. Well, if you could hear the smack that reverberates in your chest as these kids shin gates in the blue evening light, you’d understand. This program has something that the faux Bavarian villages of resorts on the I-70 corridor don’t—something they will take with them well beyond the ski slopes.

Sawyer Zeldner and Darian Squires in EMSC's clubhouse.

Sawyer Zeldner and Darian Squires in EMSC's clubhouse. 

For those who know this place and the people behind this program—namely Eldora general manager Brent Tregaskis, EMSC executive director Matt Tomasko—the team’s many podiums are hardly surprising. Historically, EMSC’s junior race program has been in the top three of all the clubs in Colorado, with six kids from the U16 division and five from U14 racing in the junior championships. (Though Ski and Snowboard Club Vail is still the heaviest hitter, with 36 kids in the 2019 U14 junior championships alone.) Eldora also sent a snowboard alpine carver to represent the U.S. at the FIS Championships in Utah last year, which, according to people who follow that sort of thing, is a pretty big deal.

“Little Eldora, look at us go," Tomasko says as the kids line up at the poma, snow crystals sparkling in the sideways afternoon light. Tomasko’s been running this program for 27 years—along with parenting his own five kids, ages 7 to 18, and running SMBA (Singletrack Mountain Bike Adventures) in the summer—and oversees the coaching of kids ages 5 to 18. His calm energy is palpable; he loves this stuff.

The recipe for their success is, counterintuitively, the fact that Eldora is so small. “The small mountain actually works to our advantage,” Tomasko explains, “because everyone here works so well together.” The resort, 20 miles from Boulder, heavily supports the race teams because it’s good for business—kids who race here bring their families to the mountain to ski. “They blow snow for us so we can start training before Vail does,” Tomasko says. “We’re valued customers in their business model. Eldora feels strongly about keeping great kids and families coming to this mountain and creating a community around skiing.”

Big Mountain Freestyle team member Halie Leland boasts perfect mid-air form.

Big Mountain Freestyle team member Halie Leland boasts perfect mid-air form. 

Tregaskis, Eldora’s GM, also has a history in ski racing—he grew up running gates at Sundance Mountain Resort, a similarly small hill in the long shadows of Park City and Snowbird. He knows first-hand how ski-racing families operate. “If you have a kid in the race program, their parents are likely to bring the whole family,” he said in a recent phone interview. “The more time they spend at Eldora, the better off we are.” But Eldora isn’t all about business—Tregaskis believes in the kind of character-building ski racing provides local kids. “A lot of us in senior management have ties to ski racing. We know they’re not all going to be Bode Miller, but learning how to compete in life is important. That’s a big part of why our company is so supportive of ski racing.”

It’s clearly working: Eldora is thriving, with vibrant lift lines and packed lunch tables. It helps that its 680 acres of skiable terrain are meaty enough to satisfy—with steep groomers, untamed trees, zipper bump lines, and sneaky pow days from upslope storms that leave bigger resorts high and dry.

But how does EMSC keep these kids so engaged? Being on the team is a huge commitment, for both the kids and their parents. Racers from schools all across the Front Range—many of whom came up through Eldora’s ski school, the adorably named Eldorables for the littles and TREK for ages 7-14—ride the bus up here to train for four hours every weekday afternoon and most Saturdays too. They manage skiing 20 hours a week with their classes, homework, social lives, and college applications.

While burnout is a hot topic at other similarly demanding programs, Eldora’s kids seem to be self-motivated and energized. What makes this team so special?

“The coaches do a really good job balancing freeskiing and racing,” says Annie Holleman, a 17-year-old senior at Boulder High School who’s been with the program for 10 years. “So we develop a love for skiing in general—not just racing. I definitely want to keep skiing. It’s a big part of my identity.”

Drew Sammond races slalom.

Drew Sammond races slalom.

They load the poma one by one and slide up the hill, their helmets looking like shiny things on an assembly line conveyor belt. One kid standing in line drops an F-bomb, to which a nearby coach who didn’t appear to have been listening shouts back, “Hey, hey, language.”

As the first racers ski the course—the scrape of their edges and smack of the gates so well-timed it has the cadence of a metronome—a 17-year-old girl hockey stops in front of Mary Rachael “MR” Hostetter, who, incidentally, was coached by Tomasko years ago. The girl puts her goggles on the brim of her helmet and holds her bent pole up so Hostetter can see it. “I have two slalom races this weekend. What do I do?”

“Sometimes you can bend it back, but sometimes it snaps,” Hostetter says, taking it in her hands and looking it over. “I have some you can borrow.” She hands it back, and the girl, reassured, skates over to the poma for another lap.

The ski corral strikes me as a test kitchen for adulthood— where the kids can practice swearing, flirting, taking care of their gear—and then come back to the safe apron of the coaches for reassurance or guidance. It’s become a familiar dynamic for me, as my own preteen daughter won’t let me hug her in front of her friends, but she still needs me to talk her down the moguls and French braid her hair, currently fringed with pink temporary dye. And for the older kids who may not go to their parents at all, the coaches can provide the kind of direction that they don’t even know they need.

Another kid cycles through, stopping to talk to Hostetter. “How do you keep your snow contact after the flush?” he asks.

“Set yourself up coming out of it so you’re not rocked back,” she says. “We talked about building energy. You really gotta work for it. Stay grounded. You can do it.” He nods and skates toward the poma.

I hear other coaches, like Jake Dippy, assistant U16 coach, offering tips like, “Breathe. Refresh your brain.” And, “Take a step outside the course and figure out what you did wrong, and then focus on what you need to do to correct it.” 

Perhaps it’s the self-help and parenting books that occupy all the real estate on my bedside table, but it strikes me that this advice is so much more than just ski coaching. Tomasko echoes this sentiment. “The elements—tough work, tenacity, and character—that ski racing builds will help kids be successful everywhere. Kids who work hard always improve. They feel good about themselves and learn a lot about themselves in the process.”

It’s almost six, the sun set an hour ago, and my hands are freezing. And these kids are basically wearing yoga pants.

Freestyle coaches Lex Bennet and Vitek Linhart enjoy a snow shower courtesy of their young athletes.

Freestyle coaches Lex Bennet and Vitek Linhart enjoy a snow shower courtesy of their young athletes.

“I WANNA DO A 270,” says a kid on EMSC’s relatively new Big Mountain Freestyle team. He can’t be more than 10. We’re cruising around on a Sunday, six kids, two coaches, and me, the former of whom are eagerly looking for hits in the trees.

The big mountain team spans an age range of 9–17, and their vibe is appropriately more freeridey, rocking indie skis from brands like Sego and Moment plastered with stickers. The kids line up to follow head coach Vitek Linhart, former Czech slopestyle champ who helped found the program. Dressed in an unbuttoned flannel, Pit Vipers, and pants that sit around his butt, he gets up speed, then flips to ride switch, then flips forward again and butters his tails. It’s like watching a stream pour playfully over rocks—he finds fun hiding everywhere on an ordinary groomer. He stops at the bottom to watch them as they try to emulate one or two of his moves, and as they gather around him one by one, they start catapulting snow at each other with the tips of their skis. Linhart lobs one at a kid’s face and wins the biggest laugh.

I ride the lift up with Lex Bennett, director of the Big Mountain Freestyle program, who has curled blonde ringlets and more energy than fizzy candy in soda. She raced her way through Eldora’s alpine program, became the youngest kid recruited into the Vail Ski Academy, and competed on the Freeride World Tour for three years. “I eventually got sick of chasing gates and started jumping cliffs,” she says. “At that time, there weren’t a lot of women doing that.”

I ask her what she loves about this place, and this program. “We’re building these kids into being balanced adults."

The freestyle team comprises roughly 40 skiers, a handful of whom are pictured here.

The freestyle team comprises roughly 40 skiers, a handful of whom are pictured here.

We get off the lift and cluster at the entrance of a traverse through the trees, which ends with a hit back onto the groomer. Linhart draws in the snow with his pole to show them where it is. Suddenly the banter quiets, and the kids shift back and forth on their feet, resting against their poles as he talks. It’s the first real jump of the day, and the kids are scared.

I ski around beneath the jump to watch, while Linhart stands above to fend off uphill skiers. Some barely pick up their feet, others throw grabs and stomp the landing. One kid in the former group sits down in the snow afterward and laughs, “That was like a pizza moment. I should have shiftied, but I froze.” Another girl says, breathlessly, “I didn’t stomp the landing, but I think that looked good.”

Freestyle teamer Darian Squires airs it out over Hot Dog Alley.

Freestyle teamer Darian Squires airs it out over Hot Dog Alley.

We navigate down to the lift, the kids weaving through the slower recreational skiers. “Tighten it up, guys,” Bennett says, and the kids slow down immediately. This time, I ride up the lift with the kids, and comment about how they all seemed a little bit afraid of that jump, but every one of them did it anyway.

“Well, I think if you’re not feeling it, don’t do it,” Katerina Shabalin, age 15, says, explaining how she stays safe. “But sometimes you do have to push past that fear.” 

They talk about confidence, about how the coaches’ progressive approach builds it. As they get better, they know their skills well enough to assess the risks. “I’ve made huge improvements,” says Graham Dobbie, 14. “My confidence has gone way up. I didn’t think that by this season I’d be doing cliffs, but I am.”

Freestyle coach Linhart shows how it's done in one of Eldora's three Woodward terrain parks. Linhart, originally from the Czech Republic, has been coaching for EMSC for seven years.

Freestyle coach Linhart shows how it's done in one of Eldora's three Woodward terrain parks. Linhart, originally from the Czech Republic, has been coaching for EMSC for seven years.

The next run, we head toward the park, which the kids can lap alone in full sight of the coaches. I’m standing at the top with Linhart, listening to the slap of tails as they hit the ground off the first jump. “They really hold together as a team,” he says. “They help each other, keep each other safe, and support each other. I’m really proud of them.”

Then a 13-year-old girl named Halie Leland slides over to check in with Linhart before skiing down. This dance the coaches do with the kids—continually checking in with them, encouraging them, and also giving them an out if they’re not up for it—reminds me of a book I used to read to my daughter. It was about a baby kangaroo who would take a few hops into the world, get scared, and jump right back into his mom’s pouch. And each time he ventured back out, he would hop just a little bit farther until, finally, he was free.

I ask Leland about competitions, and how other kids perceive their team. She thinks about it for a second, cocking her helmeted head a little. “People underestimate us,” she says. “But it’s so awesome because we make people see that we may be from a small mountain, but we can ride.”

Originally published in the January/February 2020 issue of SKI Magazine. For more great writing delivered directly to your inbox, SUBSCRIBE NOW.

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