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A ski challenge worth celebrating

JP Baralo and his vision for kids The comic book says it all. Sure it’s a bit corny. And yeah, it’s not all that sophisticated. But the kids loved it! They loved seeing their own mugs in it.
The North Face Ski Challenge Tour

JP Baralo and his vision for kids

The comic book says it all. Sure it’s a bit corny. And yeah, it’s not all that sophisticated. But the kids loved it! They loved seeing their own mugs in it. Loved comparing their action shots in the park and on the slopes. It was like they were all rock stars or something…

And wasn’t that the goal of this enterprise in the first place?

It’s pretty simple really. To actually see themselves as part of the story — to understand that the contest really was all about them — well, for the 73 young athletes gathered in Val Thorens from all across Europe, that home-produced little comic book showed more than anything that JP Baralo’s ski challenge event was the real thing.

It’s not like he was the first to think of it. The idea of creating a continent-wide contest for young New School skiers had already been thoroughly explored by Jack Turner in the U.S. with The Next Snow Search (see Alta States Dec. 6, ’07). Still, when French ski-impresario Jean-Pierre Baralo decided to launch his own pan-European circuit last season, the wily old events pro decided to take a much different route than did his American counterpart.

“The situation in Europe for young skiers is not the same as it is in the U.S.,” says the much-travelled Baralo. “Over there, it’s a lot easier to become a rock star. But not here. In the Alps, for example, every mountain town boasts dozens of kids who should be ‘sponsored’. Yet few of them will ever get the chance to showcase their talents...”

That’s why, he says, he decided to take a more “roots” approach with his new freeskiing series. “I really had no choice,” he explains. “I knew that the financial demands of teaming up with a big media partner would be too big a burden to bear,” — (as Jack Turner found out to his bank manager’s ongoing chagrin) — “so I decided to find an event sponsor who understood the importance of developing young skiers’ overall talents. Somebody who really got it, you know. Who really appreciated how crucial this new generation of kids was to the continued growth of our sport — and didn’t mind investing a little bit in the future...”

There’s nothing all that sexy to working with kids. They’re unruly, chaotic and totally unpredictable. At the end of the day, you’re never really sure what kind of “product” you’re going to get. That’s why most big sponsors would rather stick to Olympic or X-Game or World Championship promo packages. That’s also why Turner, despite all the big talk in our industry in support of The Next Snow Search , lost his shirt trying to deliver suddenly-invisible sponsors to his voracious NBC Sports partners.

“I pretty much lost everything in that deal,” says the rueful (but still optimistic) promoter. “I thought we could take this kids’ event and break into the big time with it. But when the bills came up for payment, I realized just how small-time the ski business really is…” He laughs. “But I haven’t given up on the idea. I still think it’s the right thing to do.”

Baralo agrees. “It’s totally the right thing to do,” says the long-time mover and shaker. But there’s even more to it than just “doing the right thing,” he adds.

“I think the snowsport industry has kind of lost its way with this new generation of kids,” he argues. “I think they’re being re-active instead of pro-active. The goal here should be creating life-long skiers. Yet with all this recent attention on park-and-pipe riding, we’re seeing a growing number of incredible young hill-gymnasts who can’t link two turns together in the powder. So what happens when their knees and backs give out and they can’t play in the park anymore? Will they still remain skiers? I’m not sure…”

His solution? Create a contest that rewards both big-mountain skiing skills and rail-and-kicker skills. Better yet, create a series of events that celebrate and teach at the same time. “I wanted to keep it simple,” he explains. “Just two disciplines — freeride and freestyle, equally weighed and equally judged. One run in a wild mountain environment and the other in the urban surroundings of the park: best overall skier wins.” Baralo smiles. “And I needed to find a long-term partner who was willing to grow the event with me. And you know, you just can’t find those under every rock…”

Fortunately for Baralo, he was able to attract a “big-name” player who actually believed in grassroots development. “I think this is one of the most important initiatives we’re involved with,” says Patrik Frisk, VP/general manager for The North Face Europe (as well as the Middle East and Africa). “And I believe in it 100 per cent. But I’m always surprised to see how much resistance I get from my colleagues around the boardroom table. Most of them, of course, are looking for immediate returns on our investments. And this is one event where the investment has to be amortized over a much longer period.”

He stops speaking. Sighs with only just a hint of impatience. “I don’t really think we have a choice in this,” he says. “If we’re to prove to consumers that The North Face’s commitment to mountain sports and culture is as serious as our advertising says it is, then we have to make sure that the next generation of enthusiasts is well served too. We can’t afford to wait for these kids to grow up. We have to provide them with the kind of inspired leadership today that will keep them in the sport for the rest of their lives.”

Maybe it’s because he has young kids of his own. Maybe it’s because he’s a Swede and lifelong participation in sports is a given in his country. Whatever. This guy Frisk is no shrinking violet when it comes to supporting the projects he believes in. “Why hold back?” he asks rhetorically. “This is something that is very near to my heart. Something I’m willing to fight for...”

And so was launched The North Face Ski Challenge. Targeted at young skiers from across Europe, spanning the ages of 12-18 — open to both boys and girls — the Challenge series offered up the ultimate incentive to an aspiring pro wannabe: the overall winner of the final event would get a two-year, all-inclusive sponsorship with The North Face, Dynastar skis and Lange boots!

“As I already mentioned,” explains Baralo, “a skiing sponsorship is much harder to get in Europe than it is in the U.S. There’s way more competition for far fewer spots. So it’s a really big thing to hold a competition series with that as the overall prize.”

And Baralo and his merry team of event organizers certainly weren’t afraid to log some serious kilometres in their quest to bring the Challenge message to the four corners of Europe. Indeed the road to Val Thorens and the finals took all winter. They started in the indoor domes of Landgraff and Manchester, (imagine doing a freeride contest in a dome…) in the late fall, moved on to Zermatt, Garmisch and Livigno in the Alps in January, then went north to Scandinavia — Äre in Sweden and Ruka, a few kilometres below the Arctic Circle in Finland — before finishing off the preliminaries in Chamonix in March.

“It was a long, long winter,” admits event manager, Romain Raisson. “But it was also a very inspiring winter too. To see how keen these kids were — whether they skied under a dome in Holland or in the deep freeze of Finland — it really made me appreciate how special a sport skiing is…”

As did certainly the 73 young athletes from a dozen different countries who arrived in Val Thorens last week to contend for that much-desired sponsorship contract. “I can’t believe I’m really here,” said 12-year-old Molly Summerhayes, who spends most of her skiing time in an indoor facility in England. “These are REAL mountains. Makes me nervous to even think I’ll be skiing freeride here…”

Like real mountains everywhere, however, the ones around Val Thorens usually wait for a big event to pour on the nasty weather. Alas, The North Face Ski Challenge proved to be no exception. First it snowed. Then it got cloudy. Then it snowed some more. Then it got really cloudy….

Sound familiar? Well, Whistler isn’t the only mountain place where it storms.

So stormy, in fact, that by the first day of the contest, the young skiers were showcasing their skills in winter-deep powder — over 40 cm of cold, new snow had fallen over the previous 30 hours or so. Sadly, the lack of visibility made it impossible for the judges to properly perform their work.

Everything would have to be postponed to the next day. And what a day that would be: freeride on the Portette Face in the morning and freestyle in the Val Thorens terrain park in the afternoon. Kind of like a New School Combined event — over 150 judged runs on two completely different venues. It would be a test of epic proportions. Could Baralo’s team pull it off? Would the young riders be strong enough to see it through? Would the weather finally co-operate?

Sometimes the gods smile down on us and everything goes smoothly. Sometimes they don’t. For whatever reason, the final day of the Val Thorens event was everything that everyone had hoped for. Bluebird skies and fresh snow; beautifully prepared rails and impeccably clean landings. By the time the powder had cleared and the victors had been announced — Swede Tom-Oliver Hedvall won the sponsorship — it was obvious to everyone that there were more winners in Val Thorens than losers… by far!

“This is the way ski competitions should be all the time,” said a beaming Patrik Frisk. “This is what ski culture is all about…”