For most of us, standing at the top of a mountain looking down at a run, you see the snow, the sun, the trees. You see the magnificent and majestic mountain ridges that line the horizon, and you see all the way down to where you will eventually end up at the end of the run.
But that’s not the case for freestyle skier and Pemberton native Brenden Kelly.
When Kelly steps up to the start gate ready to drop in during a competition, he doesn’t see what we see. He sees art; he sees music about to be created.
To him, the top and bottom sections of his run are the verses, slightly different but following the same pattern, the middle section is the chorus, a repetitive and catchy hook to draw the listener in, and the jumps are his solo, Kelly’s chance to be unique, show his art and separate himself from the pack.
“Skiing is music. You’re skiing with a rhythm, you’re in the air for a certain amount of time. And when you hit the ground, it’s like when you hit the bass drop of a song and the way that those two things sort of relate to each other is something that I found really inspiring and that just kind of deepened my love for music,” said Kelly.
“I think that realization came just in my thinking process. I don’t think it really changed my outlook when I’m training, but when I’m looking at my own skiing I definitely notice those things. A lot of pop music or hip-hop music is very formulaic: it’s four bars here, four bars there, and so on. So they do sort of start to work together in the same way in that every mogul run has these sections and every song has these sections.”
Kelly started skiing when he was just three years old. Over the years, he went through all the different levels and programs Whistler Blackcomb had to offer, such as the Mountain Adventure Program, the Whistler Freeride Club and eventually the Blackcomb Freestyle Club.
As his love for the sport grew, Kelly found he had an affinity for hitting jumps, but wasn’t a great technical skier between the jumps. So at around 11 years old his dad made him choose between ski racing or moguls to learn the technical skills required to go further in the sport.
Kelly chose moguls—and the rest is history. He picked up the sport quickly and over the coming years rose through the ranks in moguls while still competing in park and pipe competitions.
At 16 Kelly found himself with a choice to make as he had made both the B.C. development team for park and pipe, as well as B.C.’s mogul team.
Due to that being the first year in existence for the park and pipe development team, Kelly decided to make the full-time switch to the more established mogul team, which turned out to be a good decision, as he won the Canadian Series that year.
The following year, Kelly went on to become a member of the Canadian Sport Institute, which was founded after the 2010 Winter Olympics to increase the number of athletes competing in freestyle moguls on the West Coast.
“Whoever kind of lobbied that deal was a lifesaver for me because when I was invited to join that team at about 17 years old, I was funded through the summer; we were able to do tons of training, go to Switzerland,” said Kelly. “When I look back, that was definitely one of those moments that if I didn’t have that level of support when I was just kind of on the come-up, I don’t know if I would have been the athlete that I am today.”
From there, Kelly made the National Team in 2014 just after the Sochi Winter Olympics. And after a reconstructive elbow surgery kept him out most of that year, he began moving up the ranks of the national team. By 2018, Kelly was promoted to the World Cup team where he competed for the next few years, qualifying for and finishing fourth at the 2021 World Championships.
Coming off his fourth-place finish, Kelly is heading into this Olympic year with a lot of momentum and excitement, hoping to be one of the few skiers representing Canada at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
“I’m bringing an insane amount of excitement, that’s for sure,” he said. “I’m always quite energetic and excited on the hill, sometimes to a fault. But for the most part, it’s just smiles. I chose mogul skiing because it’s fun to me and when I [look at it] as just a job and very serious I find I don’t ski as well
“I think the momentum will come, but at this time, I feel super confident with the runs that I’m working on here in Sweden and I think if I bring the same energy that I brought all of last season with my improved abilities, there’s no way but up.”
While Kelly’s passion for skiing was evident from a young age, even he didn’t see how deep that passion ran until his love for music began to grow and he started noticing the connections between the two.
His passion for music all started with the “wave of euphoria” Kelly felt while learning the piano. Among the random and jarringly out of place noises he made while messing around on the piano, every now and then he would string together a few complementary keys and make music, which only added to his excitement.
Years later, through working with a sport psychologist to get down to the core of his love for skiing, Kelly realized that feeling of euphoria he felt while stringing together notes on the piano as a kid is the same feeling he gets when he puts down a smooth run in a freestyle competition.
“I did 12 runs today and some of those runs, you make little mistakes and you’re like, ‘Oh you know, this could be better, that can be better.’ But then I had like a couple of runs where when I was skiing the middle, it was just flow and smooth and it felt easy,” said Kelly.
“And that feeling comes when you get to the bottom and you go like, ‘did I even really try that hard on that run?’ And you find that you were faster, and you jumped bigger, and everything was better about it, but you didn’t really even notice yourself trying that much harder. That’s where I draw the parallel with skiing.”
Since his discovery of the parallels between music and skiing, Kelly started to view lining up to the start gate for a competition similarly to someone like David Bowie stepping onstage to perform. Sure, there is excitement and anticipation and adrenaline all happening at once. But there is also a sense of calmness that you can only get when you know that this is where you are meant to be.
And thanks in part to his love of music, Kelly now understands that to him, skiing is like Jimmy Hendrix playing guitar or The Beatles writing songs—it’s what he is meant to do.
“When I step into that start gate there has to be that calmness if I want to do my best performance because if I step in there, and I’m antsy, and I’m excited, you know, it’s never going to be as good as when I get in there and I’m calm,” he said.
“I hear the crowd go and I know that it’s my time to shine. Each run is my opportunity to make art.
“Growing up, it was just a pastime that I loved to do. But when I look back at how much time I spent skiing and the things that I gave up to ski, I think it’s very fair to say that even from a young age, without even recognizing it, I knew it was something that I was put here to do. So I would definitely say that skiing is my purpose.”
With his World Cup season getting underway soon in Finland and Sweden and the Winter Games right around the corner, Kelly’s got his sights set on one thing: a podium finish at the Olympics. But regardless of the outcome at the end of season, every time Kelly steps up to the start gate, you can bet he’ll be looking to turn his run into a work of art and display his passion for the sport to the judges.
“I’m excited and I just feel lucky,” he said. “And I think if I keep that sort of modesty and bring authenticity to the course, I think the judges will see through people that are just doing it for a medal, they’ll see the people that really have passion for the sport.”
This article is part of a series of profile stories highlighting athletes heading to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games, or those who hope to make it there.