Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Flying high with Whistler's women freestylers

In an historically male-dominated sport, Maia Schwinghammer, Jessie Linton, Skye Clarke and Maya Mikkelsen represent the future of Canadian freestyle

Tami Bradley recalls competing at a particular FIS World Cup event in Mont-Tremblant, Que. early in her career. She figures it was 1996, and she won a bronze medal—her second piece of World Cup hardware—two years before her inaugural Olympic Games in Nagano. She also remembers the fact that, out of 12 women in that specific moguls final, she was the only one doing a 360. 

Let’s be clear: a 360-degree rotation off of a jump is more than the majority of people on any given ski hill are capable of. Yet it’s rather tame as far as world-class freestyle skiers are concerned, especially compared to how far the sport—and women within it—have progressed. 

By 2010, the landscape of ladies’ moguls had already transformed as Jennifer Heil punctuated her silver medal run in Vancouver with a backflip iron cross. Backflips were illegal in moguls competition throughout Bradley’s career, and they did not feature in the Olympics until Torino 2006. Everyone began doing them: Justine Dufour-Lapointe won gold at Sochi 2014 with a big back layout in her run, while Justine’s older sister Chloe took silver with her own backflip. 

Fast-forward to last year’s Winter Games in Beijing and you’ll find tricks that were out of the question in Bradley’s era. Reigning Australian Olympic champion Jakara Anthony claimed her prize by throwing down an off-axis 720 followed by an iron cross backflip featuring a mute grab. 

The evolution of women’s moguls mirrors the advancement found in other freestyle skiing disciplines. Estonian phenom Kelly Sildaru became the first female slopestyle athlete to land a switch 1260 with a mute grab back in 2017. Three years later, Mathilde Gremaud of Switzerland upped the ante with a switch double cork 1440. 

Chinese triple threat Eileen Gu raised the stakes even further, riding an atmospheric 1620 to Olympic big air gold days before she conquered the Beijing halfpipe with 900s and alley-oop 540s on both sides of the pipe. 

Fans could have scarcely imagined women pulling off such insanity two decades ago, but that day has passed, and this day ushers in a bright future for the sport. 

“Now these girls are doing misty flips, they’re doing cork sevens, they’re doing everything,” Bradley says. “It’s crazy. It’s amazing. Lots of times, I’ll see girls now when I’m watching [moguls] World Cup and … a few of the top ones? They’re as good as the guys. Their technique is impeccable.” 

Whistler, of course, has contributed its fair share to the youth movement. Four childhood friends now find themselves on the cusp of the highest level: moguls athletes Maia Schwinghammer, Jessie Linton and Maya Mikkelsen, plus slopestyler Skye Clarke. 

‘Such a sick crew’

Historically speaking, young girls haven’t exactly begged their parents to sign them up for freestyle skiing. Roughly a decade ago, only 25 per cent of Canadian Freestyle Ski Association (CFSA) members were female, and they tended to drop out at a significant rate. The University of Alberta conducted a 2011 study to find three main reasons behind such turnover: a lack of role models, a lack of friends and insufficient confidence in their own skills. 

The Olympians have done their part to remedy Problem No. 1. 

“When Jennifer Heil finished second at the Games, that was my big ‘aha!’ moment,” recalls Schwinghammer. “I actually drew her a card that said: ‘You won gold in my heart,’ and I mailed it to her. She was my biggest inspiration.” 

Schwinghammer also shouts out recently retired Sea to Sky athletes Brenden Kelly and Sofiane Gagnon as role models. She fondly remembers watching them compete in youth events as a preteen and appreciates having been on the national team with them later in life. 

Bradley has made a tremendous impact in her own right through many years of coaching. She initially joined up with Whistler Blackcomb at the insistence of local veteran coach Ken Rhodes, who says she was “a kid’s dream” as an instructor. Then, they got to work. 

It was a male-dominated landscape at first, but the girls stuck with it. 

“There weren’t that many of us … and so we were all really close and skied together, and pushed each other,” Clarke says. “We had such a sick crew, and that’s where I met a lot of my friends that are still my friends to this day.” 

As the first female coach that many of her students had had, Bradley made sure they felt included. No doubt she pushed them—she thinks, as many good coaches do, that hard work beats talent that doesn’t work hard. At the same time, she took a group-oriented approach in prioritizing team cohesion and positivity. 

“[Tami] was literally there to make everyone excited for skiing,” remembers Mikkelsen. “It would be the gloomiest morning, and she’d be like: ‘Yeah, this is so fun!’ She was the one that got me doing my first flips. 

“It was great to have a female coach. Honestly, I think she’s one of the only female coaches I’ve ever had.” 

Bradley aims to be a role model for as many girls as possible, and that went beyond her own pupils. 

“She always helped me get involved with her posse,” says Linton, who grew up skiing with Freestyle Vancouver. “At competitions, usually I was one girl from this other club where there’s this pack of really strong Whistler girls, but [thanks to Tami], I always felt so welcomed.” 

Problem No. 2—a lack of friends—dealt with. 

As the young ladies aged out of Bradley’s Freestylerz program, they encountered Jeff Fairbairn. Nowadays at the helm of Great Britain’s national moguls team, Fairbairn is a seasoned coach whose three-decade career has taken him as far away as China and as close to home as Whistler. He treats his athletes equitably, age and gender notwithstanding. 

“I spoke to [the girls] like I speak to adults,” Fairbairn says. “I always treated them no differently than anybody else, and I think they respected that, for sure. Obviously, there’s times when I could push and get a little aggressive, and there’s a lot of times when I knew to back off. If you know how to handle those situations with different personalities, you’re going to get a lot out of the athletes.” 

He certainly did. When asked which coach has had a particularly salient impact on their careers, Schwinghammer, Linton and Mikkelsen all named Fairbairn right away.

We ride together 

In 2018, Schwinghammer became the first of her group to crack Team Canada and swiftly earned silver at the FIS Junior World Championships. Five years later, the Saskatoon native became the reigning national dual moguls queen and placed fifth at the 2023 World Championships. 

Linton was named to the Canadian NextGen squad in 2022 and nipped at Schwinghammer’s heels for second this March at nationals. The two have been dear friends for some time, and their shared podium is a treasured memory. 

“It was so, so much fun to be in the gate with such a close friend,” remarks Schwinghammer. “We gave each other a fist pump before we went and said: ‘Yeah, good luck, let’s go hard,’ and we had a great duel. Sure, you want to win and you’re competitive, but … at the end, you hug and if the other person wins, you’re just so happy for them.” 

Linton feels the same way. “Maia is an amazing skier and we’ve grown up together,” she says. “She was on the World Cup circuit for the previous part of the year and I was on Nor-Am, so it was nice to finally come together. Maia had been doing so well at the World Cup, and I got to literally put my skiing beside hers and see where it stands with her level. 

“It’s just so cool that we could have that fire on the run, but then when we got to the bottom, it›s all fun and games.” 

Mikkelsen and Clarke have just made the NextGen roster for this present season, and both are raring to strut their stuff. As a slopestyle and big-air specialist, Clarke credits Freestyle Whistler program director Chris Muir for helping her fall in love with park skiing. Even so, time spent with her moguls peers have formed her into the athlete she is today. 

“They obviously went the moguls path, [Maia, Jessie and Maya], and I went slope, but they made me want to continue to ski moguls until I was 15, which is longer than I probably would have on my own,” Clarke says. “I just enjoyed skiing with them and hanging out, learning from each other.” 

Bradley remembers a nine-year-old Clarke placing last at a local competition. Her parents, Simon and Louise, were a tad skeptical about their daughter’s freestyle future, but Bradley convinced them otherwise. Sometimes, judges—especially amateur judges—get it wrong, and the two-time Olympian saw loads of potential in her student. 

“Skye is going to be a star,” Bradley insisted back then. She was right. 

As for Mikkelsen, her NextGen berth means one more item crossed off the bucket list.

“It’s basically been my life goal,” she admits. “Well, maybe not my ultimate life goal, because it would be nice to go to the Olympics and World Cup and everything like that, but the second I got onto the provincial team, I was like: ‘OK, now I want to make the national team.’ I’m just extremely honoured and so happy that I made it.” 

Inspiration and guidance 

Canadian women have made quite a mark on the freestyle scene. Heil led the way with two Olympic moguls medals: gold in Turin and silver in Vancouver. Justine Dufour-Lapointe repeated that pattern by winning in Sochi and placing second in Pyeongchang. Canada has produced greats in other disciplines as well, like seven-time X Games medallist Roz Groenewoud, Olympic gold medallist and two-time Crystal Globe winner Cassie Sharpe, 2014 Olympic slopestyle champ Dara Howell, and the late, great Sarah Burke. 

Fairbairn believes that the presence of a healthy community has always been vital in developing tomorrow’s talent. 

“Let’s say there’s a freestyle program that’s got 30 girls and they all come up together. Out of that 30, I bet you there will be five Olympians, something like that, if they all stay the path together,” he opines. “If you have a good culture where they’re out having fun everyday, while they’re learning something, they’re going to keep going.” 

Recently, there’s been a changing of the guard on the moguls scene. With Gagnon retired and Justine tearing up the Freeride World Tour (FWT), Schwinghammer is now her country’s senior female moguls athlete. In fact, she’s the only female World Cup-level skier currently listed on Freestyle Canada’s website. 

“What does it mean to fill the boots of these strong women leaders that have come before you?” Schwinghammer wonders aloud. “I don’t think of it as having to do as good as they did. I’m taking inspiration and guidance from these amazing, strong women who have led before me and trying to lead as best I can. I’m going to be the best skier I can be, the best person I can be, and inspire people everywhere to go for their goals.” 

“I learned this past year that—not to be selfish or anything—but if I do really focus on my own technical and personal goals, then I end up doing a lot better,” adds Linton. 

Similarly, Clarke and Mikkelsen manage not to compare themselves to past standouts. Instead they’re trying to build their own legacies, using those currently around them as measuring sticks. After years skiing on various regional circuits, all four athletes look forward to uniting in the national development pipeline and going for gold together. 

If you’ll recall, Problem No. 3 that the CFSA has dealt with in retaining female freestylers in the past was a dearth of confidence among said girls. Fortunately, Whistler’s highflyers have given their peers a reason to believe. Time will tell if Schwinghammer and company will ever stand on world and Olympic podiums themselves, but what they’ve already done is help lay groundwork for future generations.