MEMBERS of the Abenaki Freestyle Team pose for a photo that was harder to take than it might appear. Joshua Spaulding. (click for larger version)
March 19, 2012WOLFEBORO — Anyone pulling into the parking lot at the Pop Whalen Arena on a Monday evening over the course of the winter was likely treated to a show of acrobatics on the slopes of the Abenaki Ski Area rising up behind the rink.
Monday nights were the practice times for the Abenaki Ski Team freestyle skiers, as members worked on their various tricks and trades in preparation for competitions around the state and the region.
Last year, Wolfeboro resident Aynne deBeer was key in resurrecting the Abenaki Ski Team. With snowmaking helping to make the town-owned ski area a viable option for hosting kids every day of the week, the ski team returned to the hill, with kids of all ages taking gates in races throughout the winter.
However, there was a group of kids who were also interested in the acrobatic side of skiing, the kind where one's skis don't stay on the ground.
So Sarah Hipple, the mother of two such skiers, figured it would be beneficial to the local kids to form a freestyle team as part of the Abenaki Ski Team.
"Aynne had everything created," Hipple said, giving the credit for all the leg work to deBeer. "So I had the easy road."
She worked to get the freestyle team added to the Abenaki Ski Team insurance and then secured renting the mountain one night a week for the team practices.
Since the first week in January, the kids have been on the hill every Monday evening for the freestyle practice, while the alpine team rents the hill on Tuesday evenings.
The plan was originally to get the freestyle skiers out on the hill, but there were some inquiries about snowboarding as well, thus the freestyle team came to be open to both disciplines.
"Originally it was just a ski team, but we had a lot of people inquire about snowboards," Hipple said. "So we figured, why limit it to just the one group."
Hipple admits that at the start, there was concern that there wouldn't be enough kids to field a team, but the response was overwhelming and now a steady stream of skiers and riders hit the hill every Monday afternoon.
This winter, Abenaki's permanent snowmaking system went online, which proved to be a godsend to anyone involved with the mountain. In years past, if there was a winter with little snow like the region experienced this year, the ski area probably wouldn't have opened.
However, with the ability to make snow, the area has flourished throughout the winter and has improved on what it has to offer, which has helped the freestyle team.
"The caliber of the jumps, rails and boxes has really increased," Hipple said. With the caliber of the park increasing, the skills of the athletes have also increased.
"It's the nature of having a better terrain park and better coaching and having better snow and better lights," she said.
Freestyle skiing or snowboarding involves numerous different elements, including the slopestyle competition, which incorporates the rails and boxes into the activity, though the most visible aspect of freestyle is the jumping.
With the start of a freestyle team, a couple of coaches were needed, one for the skiers and one for the snowboarders.
Hipple found Rob Dresser, a coach at Waterville Valley, where three of the Abenaki Ski Team members are also members. He also coaches at Holderness, but comes to Abenaki every Monday afternoon to work with the skiers. John Thomas, who works at Loon Mountain, came on board to work with the snowboarders.
The pair split the group into the boarders and the skiers and spend their Monday evenings doing a lot of different drills, working with the different elements of the terrain park to improve their skills.
The jumping aspect of the sport is unusual in that skiers must complete 100 of a certain trick off the snow (water or air bag) with a certified instructor keeping close eyes out before they are allowed to do the trick on the snow. Abenaki members Jackson Hipple and Luke O'Brien just got certified to do front flips.
This allows parents to possibly rest a little easier as they watch their children hurtle themselves off a jump and flip around in mid-air.
This past winter, Abenaki skiers have traveled to events at Sunapee and Killington, just to name a few, competing in USSA events and Hipple is hoping that in the coming years, she can work to get a USSA event to Abenaki Ski Area.
"My goal is to have a USSA sponsored event, a real event, under the lights," she said. She pointed out that in the big ski areas out west, most of the freestyle events are held under the lights, but on the east coast, most are held during the day.
The Abenaki freestyle kids are certainly off to a great start in their inaugural winter, as six of the athletes qualified for the East Coast Junior Championships, which took place this past weekend at Waterville Valley Ski Area.
John and Jake Vatalaro, Tasha and Jackson Hipple, O'Brien and Tyler Mills all earned the right to compete in the regional event with their scores during meets earlier in the season. Both O'Brien and Jackson Hipple were ranked in the top 10 in their age group heading in.
While ski season is winding down, it's a safe bet that a number of these kids will be out and about this summer, traveling to different locations to get in practice on water jumps or with air bags, preparing for the new freestyle season when it comes around next winter.
Joshua Spaulding can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 569-3126