August 01, 2016 Features & Images » Feature Story

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Momentum Ski Camps celebrates a quarter of a century of big-air moves

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Freestyle skier Alexandre Bilodeau did more than become the first Canadian to ever score a gold medal on home turf when he tore down the moguls at the 2010 Olympics in Whistler. With that triumph, he also won over the hearts of people all across the country. The Montreal native's victory was all the more sweet when he dedicated his medal to his brother, who lives with cerebral palsy.

Bilodeau, who went on to defend his title at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, has dozens of other titles to his name, including 19 World Cup golds. It takes years of intense and relentless training to reach that level of athletic ability, and Bilodeau's own development was shaped by the many summers he spent training right here in Whistler. He wasn't even a tween when he started going to Momentum Ski Camps.

It's a momentous year for Momentum: Then known as Smart Mogul Skiing (SMS), Momentum has been operating summer ski camps on the Horstman Glacier atop Blackcomb Mountain since 1992. Celebrating its 25th anniversary, the largest ski-only terrain park on the glacier is built on six lanes of space that include a full mogul course, half-or quarter-pipe, two giant air bags, and numerous bumps, rails, and jumps — some as high as 80 feet. It draws people from all over the world whether they're highly competitive athletes or highly motivated recreational skiers who are keen to keep skiing long after the snow has melted elsewhere.

"I wanted to be Jean-Luc Brassard," Bilodeau says of the 1994 Canadian Olympic champion. "I wanted to follow in that cool sport and asked my parents if I could go to SMS.

"When I would finish school in June, the first thing I would look forward to was going on the snow out west, having fun on the slopes, being with great athletes on the glacier," he says. "There was nothing better when you're young and passionate about skiing. It was a tremendous experience. Being able to ski in T-shirts made it an amazing experience as well."

Momentum founder John Smart is a two-time Olympian himself and 10-year member of the Canadian freestyle team. He says the operation's unique location is one reason it draws people from around the globe: few places on the planet allow for summertime skiing. During last year's worldwide snow drought, Momentum was the only ski camp in North America to be fully operational. This past season was the first on record where the camp had to shut down for part of the first day — because of too much snow.

What also distinguishes Momentum, Smart says, is the calibre of its coaches. When Smart started the venture, he brought in his ski-team buddies to coach, the only proviso being they had to have won a World Cup medal. These days, the criteria for coaches, whether they're teaching kids or adults, moguls or freeride, is this: they must be ranked among the best in the world and be able to motivate and inspire. 

"That's been our formula for 25 years: we bring in role models who are inspirations from their skiing and from their energy," Smart says, explaining that campers get teamed up with a different coach every day. "They're not told to teach a certain way. Everyone is unique, and everyone has been on a different path. I want the kids to connect with each one of them. They are all talented skiers, no question, but they have different personalities; they think and teach slightly differently and see things a little bit differently.

"A lot of kids are used to being in clubs or training camps where every day becomes routine, and what can get lost in that is fun factor," he adds. "For these coaches, this is not a routine. We get these top coaches because their passion is right here; that's their love. They want to ride that park. Fun is definitely a huge part of this camp."

For Bilodeau — who now works at accounting firm KPMG and supports many charitable causes — that meant the chance to learn from another one of his idols, Janne Lahtela. The Finnish athlete is a five-time World Cup moguls champ who took gold in the 2002 Winter Olympics.

"It was amazing that he coached me," Bilodeau says. "They [the coaches] challenge you, but you're all just there to have fun. There are so many good memories. I've kept in touch with Lahtela. I made lifelong friendships."

Bilodeau himself returned to the camp for a couple of years in a coaching role. The late Sarah Burke was a beloved instructor; her husband, former moguls Junior World Champion Rory Bushfield, has coached there since 2004. Last year alone the camp had 27 Olympians on its roster, including six Olympic medallists from the Sochi games.

This year's coaches include Mikael "Mik" Kingsbury who won the silver medal in 2014 — Smart describes him as "without question, the best moguls skier in the world by far" — and Philippe Marquis, who is also poised to be a future Olympic medal winner.

Each hailing from Quebec, the two started skiing as toddlers and have been friends ever since joining the national team. "I love the feeling of freedom I have when I'm skiing," Kingsbury says. "When you're in the bumps and jumps you have the feeling of flying.

"I started coaching here at Momentum when I was 18," he adds. "I had never been as a kid but when I look back, you always looked up to your coach or the best athletes in the world, and it's nice to see yourself in the kids. They want to learn from you, and it's nice to give back."

Adds Marquis, who's been coaching for the last five years: "It's a dream for all those kids to do what they love, what they're passionate about, to ski in June and July. Whistler is one of the most famous and special places in Canada. Coaching is about giving back to those kids and that's something that was really important to me."

A quarter-century of changes

The world of skiing was much different when Smart started out on his Olympics medal quest. Having fallen in love with mogul skiing when he discovered the black-diamond run Chunky's Choice on Whistler Mountain, the Gold River, B.C. native went on to join the Canadian Freestyle Ski Team in 1987. He stayed until 1996, managing to complete a business degree at UBC during that time.

Freestyle skiing was only a demonstration sport at the 1988 Winter Olympics, with moguls becoming an official medal sport at the 1992 games in Albertville, France. Smart competed there at age 27 and then at the 1994 games in Lillehammer, Norway.

For years prior, Smart trained at Grouse Mountain because Whistler didn't have a freestyle program. Blackcomb didn't exist. Neither did twin-tip skis, which enable skiers to take off and land backward while jumping and to ski backward. Park features like rails and training equipment like air bags were unheard of.

"The sport has evolved, and we wouldn't still be in this business if we didn't evolve too," says Smart, who runs Momentum with his wife, Julia. "Every year, we change the park in some way — adding new features or shifting the course design to be more conducive to learning acrobatics, because that's a big part of mogul skiing right now.

"Big air bags changed the safety of the sport in a huge way and also changed the learning curve — you can learn to safely jump into a big pillow. The scariest thing is teaching somebody their first flip. To do it on snow has huge consequences. Some people get upside down and they don't have any air sense — they get lost. You can't take that risk."

Momentum uses air bags as well as water ramps and trampolines to teach campers various in-air moves, the camps meeting the Canadian Freestyle Skiing Association's safety protocols. Campers must do five flawless jumps on an air bag or water ramp to qualify to take it to the snow. "They've got to be perfect jumps," Smart says. "If they make one wrong, they start again. There's a safety margin built in."

While Momentum draws those who have their sights set on Olympic gold, it's also for those who are simply passionate about skiing. They have to be strong enough to ski into the glacier and do parallel turns, but they can be beginners when it comes to moguls or park — first-timers, say, for 180s or 360s.

Earlier this year, 65 people did the Adults camp, ranging in age from 20 to 68. Twenty of them learned how to flip; eight of them had never inverted before.

Frank Marinella first came as a camper two decades ago as soon as he graduated from college. He had been on his school football team, and players weren't permitted to ski for fear of injury. "After that, I got into skiing," says the 44-year-old Killington, Vermont-based homebuilder. "I saw an ad for SMS at the back of a magazine and flew out."

Marinella went every year for about 10 years, then took some time off while he and his wife started a family. He, his spouse, and his daughter have all since returned. His six-year-old has started competing in moguls out east. Visiting Momentum will likely become part of her training and an annual family holiday. "We always have a blast," he says.

Campers come mainly from throughout Canada and the United States, but about 10 per cent of Momentum's participants travel from abroad. It has hosted skiers from Greenland, Poland, India, Hong Kong, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Mexico, China, and elsewhere. The Chinese Slopestyle Team trained with the organization this year.

A day at summer camp

Momentum runs several programs in June and July: Park + Pipe, Moguls, Adults (geared to all levels of park and mogul skiers), Exposure Film + Video (where participants get to hone their shooting and editing skills in this camp directed by renowned action sports photographer Blake Jorgenson), and Girls Week. They all involve activities that take place on and off the glacier.

Before the campers have even had their morning coffee, "diggers" are already up the hill, taking the 7:15 a.m. lift. They're the ones who check the park each morning, inflate the air bags, remove hazards, and do other safety and maintenance work till late morning, then get to ski the glacier for free for the rest of the day. Many campers, including Bilodeau, return to Momentum just for this job.

A day in the life of campers looks like roughly this:

7:30 am: Buffet breakfast at Merlin's.

8 am: Campers head up to Horstman, a 45-minute journey that involves three chair lifts (look for bears!), a bus ride, and a ski entry into the glacier.

9 am: Group stretch and warm-up before campers are divided into groups to hit the hill, using the highest T-Bar on the glacier.

Midmorning: Quick snack and juice break.

12 pm: All-you-can-eat lunch at Horstman Hut.

2 pm: Last run before campers ski back down to the base.

4 pm: Campers meet for afternoon activities, a choice of water ramp, trampoline, mountain biking, disc golf, kayaking, sailing, bungee jumping, yoga, soccer, paintball, climbing, paddleboarding, and more.

6 pm: Dine around Whistler. Campers eat together at a different Whistler restaurant each night.

Post-dinner: Video review. Campers meet up with their coach for a personal review session. Every camper receives copies of their footage at the end of the program.

Participants stay at the Blackcomb Lodge & Spa, which has kitchenettes, a pool, and a hot tub, in the heart of Whistler Village. Campers who want to make their own arrangements for accommodations can also opt to pay for the ski-only package.

Full packages (which started at $2,365 in 2016) include round-trip bus transportation to and from Vancouver International Airport.

Girls on the glacier

When Edmonton, Alberta native Dania Assaly first attended Momentum Summer Camps at age 15, her jaw dropped when she found out who some of her coaches would be: Sarah Burke. Rory Bushfield. Dana Flare. Those were just some of the athletes she looked up to as a kid and who would soon become personal mentors and friends.

"They were the people you had posters of up in your room," says Assaly, who has worked as a digger and who continues to coach at Momentum. "I couldn't believe I was hanging out with these people."

Assaly, who still skis professionally and who also runs Freestyle Fit, a personal-training business in Vancouver, has several titles to her name. She placed 1st at the North Face Open Halfpipe 2011, the Halfpipe Winter Dew Tour 2010, and the 2009 World Ski and Snowboard Festival, in addition to competing and placing in many other international events.

During her early years of training and competing, however, Assaly was used to being outnumbered.

"This sport has always been quite male-dominated," she says. "When I started on a team I was the only girl; it was just me and eight guys."

Part of her motivation for joining the Canadian Halfpipe Team, in fact, was to have the chance to ski with the late, beloved Burke, who died in 2012 at age 29 after sustaining a serious brain injury in Salt Lake City, Utah at a personal sponsor event. The freestyle skier, who was a four-time Winter X Games gold medallist, lobbied the International Olympic Committee to have the women's halfpipe added to the program for the 2014 Winter Games.

Burke was a Momentum camper from 1997 to 2000 and a coach from 2001 to 2011.

"That was the person I wanted to push me — a girl, someone in my field I could relate to, someone that I could catch up to," she says.

Burke was passionate about getting more women involved in freestyle skiing. "That was one of the biggest things Sarah stood for when she was here — getting girls into X Games and getting them equal prize money," Assaly says.

The late champion was also instrumental in getting Momentum's Girls Week off the ground. Assaly says Burke inspired her and many other young women not only through her remarkable skiing ability but also through her kindness, modesty, and positive outlook.

The annual Girls Week camp gives aspiring female skiers the chance to learn and have fun in a non-intimidating, supportive environment. Aside from technical training, there's a focus on building self-confidence.

"It can be just more intimidating for a girl to a summer camp with a full group of guys, so for Girls Week it's 'why don't we put you with all your friends and you can push each other without feeling any pressure,'" Assaly says. "You're with all these girls at your level and you get each other stoked. It has really worked, and the camp is slowly growing.

"It's not a day-to-day competition against each other but 'let's push each other and go bigger today and do a better trick than yesterday or try something different,'" she adds. "We keep it going in Sarah's name and we hope to get tons of girls out."

In partnership with the Sarah Burke Foundation, Momentum offers the Spirit of Sarah Scholarship. One free summer camp is awarded to a female skier who embodies some or all of Burke's strengths and characteristics.


Brain surgery

This is the name for one of the afternoon activities campers can sign up for, a sports-psychology session led by Smart and other Olympians. It gives people insight into how to gain a mental edge when it comes to competition and performance. The information people glean from it can be used on and off the slopes: "I've had corporations ask me to do this same talk," Smart says. "It's all about performing when it counts, and that applies to everything, right?"

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