Local free-heeler wants to make mark among freeskiers
Dropping cliffs for a living is a risky way to earn a dollar in the best of conditions, but what about freeskiiers such as local legend Steve Leeder who choose to compete on telemark skis?
Telemark skiing or "free-heeling" dates back to the origins of skiing when mountaineers only clamped their toes into their skis and used them, mostly, for going uphill rather than straight off a mountain.
But this week at the Canadian Freeskiing Championships in Whistler, Leeder will attempt to use a modern version of an historic ski technique to make a name for himself against some of the best skiers in the world.
While Leeder has a different method of competing, his struggle for sponsorship and recognition in an industry that does not have a lot of disposable income is a common one.
His methods of mental preparation for a big competition and his strategy should also serve as an inspiration for those hoards of locals who have contemplated competition.
"My plan is dont fall, dont stop and give er like a skidoo," Leeder said on the eve of qualifying.
Leeder admitted the runs he had chosen for this competition were dominating his thoughts every day, and also in his sleep.
"I havent been sleeping too well but Ill probably go partying and then Ill definitely get some sleep," he said.
Leeders comments about competition might sound blasé but his story changes rapidly when he talks about winning.
Leeder spent all summer painting houses just so he would have the money to ski full-time. Hes been training in Whistler all season while his wife is in Australia.
He came fourth last year in qualifying. To save money, he lives in a recreational vehicle on Blueberry so, for many reasons, Leeder harbours an intense desire to improve this year.
"If I do well here this year my sponsors might finally start to realize Im not just a chump trying to get free gear," he said.
Leeder conceded he probably would have missed the Freeskiing Championships had local shop Escape Route not paid for his $300 entry fee.
"The first year I travelled on the world freeskiing tour it cost $3,200 in entrance fees, thats not including the money I needed to just get to contests, and I got in so much debt its ridiculous.
"A lot of companies dont account for the (skiers) everyday costs or the money it takes to get to things like photo shoots.
"I havent won any money yet, but I think if we all try and do better as competitors then there will be more money from the sponsors, which will mean more money for the sport."
While Leeder is hoping to get a foot in the door with a good performance this week, some of his opinions are shared by established competitors that are expected to place in the top five.
Jamie Burge from NorthStar ski resort in California has won several freeskiing events in the U.S. and overseas and is one of the top female skiers here this week.
NorthStar, Spyder and Dynastar sponsor Burge but she agreed that making money in the ski industry is often a catch-22 situation.
"You have to do well so people will hopefully notice you and sponsor you; but to do that you have to have the money to practice full-time," Burge said.
"Theres not a lot of money is skiing in general, its just that people love it so much that they have to do it.
"You dont really make money skiing, most competitors are just looking for that free trip so they can ski and when that happens you really dont have to get paid."
The one big advantage that freeskiing has for appealing to sponsors is the skill of the competitors.
Burge previously raced in FIS competitions but she is adamant that freeskiers must possess more skills than other types of professional skiers.
"Its pretty easy to build a big kicker and get good at jumping over it and most people can ski fast, but on some of these mountains if you make a mistake you can fall to your death," she said.
"These competitions are stressful and its hard not to think about it at night.
"Its good to think about it a little bit but if you do too much of it then you can freak yourself out and you have to be really mentally on it."
Burge added that to be a good competitor, youve got to be a little cocky.
"Not cocky in the bars afterwards but when youre standing at the top of something, youve got to be able to look at it and think, yeah, thats easy, I can do that."
In the womens competition Burge said she expected most of the pressure for the top positions to come from countrywomen Ingrid Backstrom and Canadians Meg Oster and Jen Ashton.
In the mens division Dack Williams, who is the events announcer, said the French have sent another strong team.
"Last year they were calling it the French invasion and they look like theyre going to storm it again this year," Williams said.
"Guys like Manu Gaidet, Thomas Diet, Roman Maitre and David Allemoz are all skiing well.
"But weve got skiers from France, Norway, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, the U.S. and Japan and weve had a huge contingent just rock up so you never know where the competitions going to come from."