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Life as Warner

Gilford's Warner Nickerson travels the world with his skis and a smile

Gilford’s Warner Nickerson competes during the World Championships in Garmisch, Germany earlier this year. Courtesy Photo. (click for larger version)
July 25, 2011
GILFORD – In the short amount of time he has off during the summer months, Warner Nickerson lives like there's no tomorrow. Maybe that's because he wants to live that way, or rather "a half hour at a time," as he explains it. His summer is filled with just about any outdoor activity you can think of in the Lakes Region, especially on the water.

But Nickerson's pontoon boat is the apple of his eye, his pride and joy. He shows a picture of the floating amusement park on his cell phone, complete with a full-size water slide you'd be more likely to find in the backyard swimming pool.

"It's the only way to get off," he proudly says of the slide.

There's plenty of reason for Nickerson to enjoy his time back home in Gilford this summer. The 29-year old saw his greatest success as a professional skier come during the 2010-2011 season, scoring World Cup points for the first time in his career and competing in the World Championships in Germany. Those accomplishments helped take some of the sting out of the previous year, when Nickerson wasn't quite sure what his future would hold.

"For me, it was definitely the best year of my career," he explained. "Last year around this time, I wasn't even sure if I was going to continue skiing. I had a big goal of making the (2010) Olympics and I didn't. I was really bummed out. It was tough."

Nickerson's build up to the Olympics saw the Giant Slalom specialist competing for one of four spots in Vancouver, with six skiers in contention. But when fellow New Hampshirite Bode Miller grabbed one of the last slots, Nickerson saw his hard work come up just a bit short. It was about as tough of a moment that he can recall on a ski slope.

"When that ended, I remember sitting on the side of the hill in Kransjka Gora (Slovenia), which was the last place to qualify," he remembered. "I blew out, was sitting on the side of the hill, just shot. I mean, I was completely physically, emotionally shot. And I sat there for like half an hour thinking, 'What is the future of my life?' And I didn't have an answer. So I just went to Cinque Terre (Italy) for a week with a buddy of mine, we had nothing to do so we just went there to hike for a week. I just didn't know where my life was gonna lead me at that point."

With a brutal end to his season lingering, Nickerson decided to change his whole approach to the sport he's dedicated so much of his life to: No more goals. That's where living life a half hour at a time came into his life, and he found himself ready for the next challenge, whatever that would be.

As fate would have it, Nickerson started spending time with his friend and Swedish skier Jon Olsson. Olsson, who owns nine X-Games medals as a freestyle skier, was making the switch to ski racing, and Nickerson accompanied him to New Zealand for training.

"I was helping him produce this reality TV show about him called 'Jon Olsson, Life Upside Down' so he helped out with a lot of my expenses for that trip, which was sweet," said Nickerson. "So I went down there, scored the best two results of my life in New Zealand and then just kept skiing and took off from there. I think the biggest thing for me was just letting everything go. I was just really caught up on goals and now I'm not caught up on them anymore. I've kind of let all that goal pressure dissolve. You want to try and win every race that you start and ski the best you can. If you don't make it, that's fine."

One race in New Zealand saw Nickerson finish first overall, with Olympians Ted Ligety and Miller second and third, respectively. He took another first place before his training time was over, and his season was off on the right foot.

In December, Nickerson scored in his first-ever FIS World Cup race, as he took 24th at Beaver Creek in Colorado in front of his family. He would also score points in Hinterstoder, Austria with a 26th place finish in February. Two weeks later, he competed in the World Championships in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, finishing 35th overall.

"World Championships was really cool," recalled Nickerson. "Only four guys from the U.S. get to go, just like the Olympics. So it was just the wrong year since if I had done that one year earlier, I would've made the Olympic team. But I was really psyched to go. I always want to compete at the highest level and competing for your country at World Champs is as big as it gets."

His points in the World Cup races also made Nickerson happy, as the Top 30 after one run qualify for a second run, where points are accrued and the real racing begins.

"Once you make it to the second run, you really feel like you're part of it," he said. "Before, I'd race and stuff but you don't really feel like you're a part of it until you compete in that second run. I get along really well with almost every skier out there. It's definitely great camaraderie. Skiing's such a demanding sport that we've all been crushed by it before."

On the slopes competing with the best in the world is a long ways away from Gilford. Nickerson grew up racing for the Gunstock Ski Club, attending Gilford High School for a year and a half before transferring to New Hampton School during his sophomore year. Colby College in Maine was the next stop after a year of skiing in Colorado, and while he had thoughts of leaving to pursue his skiing aspirations before graduation, he ended up spending four years as a collegiate, graduating with his degree.

"I realized this life was really what I wanted to do when I was a senior at New Hampton," Nickerson admitted. "Then I took a year off and skied out in Colorado. I went to Colby thinking I'd only be going to school for a couple years then leave to go ski. But I got fired up on Colby skiing and school there so I stayed there for four years and graduated. From then on, I've just been skiing."

Not having been a member of the U.S. Ski program growing up, Nickerson has had an interesting relationship with the organization over the years. Based in Park City, Utah, the association has an age-based system to be included on its roster. Nickerson is currently the 32nd ranked GS skier in the world as a 29-year old. If he was 28, he'd be on the national team. But 29-year olds need a Top 30 ranking to be included.

"It's pretty funny how that works," he explains. "I am definitely a late bloomer in ski racing. As far as the U.S. Ski Team is concerned, what they really like to do is cultivate young athletes, bring you up through the system. Then as they go, they make the criteria more and more difficult as you get older. The Ski Team has some good perks. They pay for everything, all your travel, and you get really good health insurance through the U.S. Olympic Committee.

"But not being on the Ski Team opens up a lot of doors, too," he continued. "I spend most of my time training with my buddy Jon and another friend so we kind of create our own camps. And you meet a lot more people, get to train with a bunch of different groups. So there's definitely a lot of nice freedom in that. But during the season, I end up skiing with the National Team the whole time. So all winter last year, I was traveling with them, using their cars, going everywhere with that team. It's a little frustrating but at the same time, you just have to make the best decisions you can and let them make their decisions and move on."

On his own team-wise, 'Team No Team' or TNT as he calls it, Nickerson holds a yearly fundraiser to help pay for his travel and living expenses when he's competing during the winter. The proceeds go to a number of different causes, as this past year he contributed 20 percent to the Gunstock Ski Club and 50 percent to a sailing foundation for a friend who passed away from cancer. The other 30 percent allows him to tear it up in places like Val d'Isère, France and Adelboden, Switzerland. Nickerson also receives support from the New Hampshire Alpine Race Association (NHARA) and the T2 Foundation, which helps fund athletes in Olympic snow sports.

"And I have some sponsorships but most of them are pretty minimal," he explained. "Essentially, I figure out a way to do it so I get all my costs covered. So I'm basically breaking even but having a great time."

See the full story in the print or online editions on Thursday.

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