Abby Winterberger’s earliest memories of skiing involve a pacifier and baby blanket.
In a region like Truckee/Tahoe, it may seem as if kids here are practically born on skis. Our area is rife with young ski and snowboard talent, and hundreds of kids compete on resort teams around the area. Tahoe is also among the top regions represented on professional skiing and snowboarding circuits, be it alpine racing with the U.S. Ski Team or in big mountain competitions like the Freeride World Tour.
But there’s more to skiing and riding competitively than landing on the podium. The kids here who are chasing gold-medal dreams learn a lot about life for their young ages, from mastering a positive mindset to supporting teammates and appreciating the value of commitment to a goal.
The Winterberger kids count themselves among the youths in Tahoe with their eyes on the Olympic prize, and they have the hardware to show for their efforts. Abby, 9, and Mack, 11, leave school at Glenshire Elementary and Alder Creek Middle School, respectively, early most days of the week, and head over to Squaw Valley to train with the Olympic Valley Freestyle and Freeride Team, better known as Squaw Free. Many local ski and ride teams offer midweek training for local kids dedicated to their sport.
Mack has been a member of the Squaw Free team for three years, while Abby joined last winter season. A typical day on the slopes with their team could include everything from ripping down the steeps of KT-22, hitting kickers in the terrain park or working on their form in the mogul course. Skiing is a family affair for the Winterbergers, from competitions to the homemade booter and rail setup in their Truckee backyard.
“I wanted to be like my brother,” Abby said about her reason for joining the team, and so both kids followed their parents Jim and Rosemary’s shared passion for skiing. Although a head injury kept him from placing at USASA Nationals last season, Mack is no stranger to the podium, and his sister also got the hang of it quickly. Abby placed first in skiercross in her debut at the national competition, and third in the country in slopestyle this past season. She said that her favorite moment during competitions is “when you stand on the podium and it feels like all of your hard work paid off.”
Like many Tahoe families involved in competitive sports, the Winterberger clan hits the road almost weekly to attend competitions. Their travels take them anywhere from other resorts within Tahoe, to as far away as Colorado or Whistler, B.C. They keep things fresh by competing in a variety of events, including moguls, slopestyle, half pipe, and skiercross. Traveling provides benefits beyond racking up competition points. Going to new mountains gives the kids the experience of skiing somewhere different and often getting to try new features that don’t exist at the terrain parks in Tahoe. They also meet kids and coaches from other teams with whom they form friendships.
For Abby and Mack, one of the coolest parts of being an athlete on their team is the coaches they get to work with. Many Tahoe ski and ride teams are coached by former elite athletes — some teams even count Olympians among their staff — so the kids get to ski with their real-life role models every week. For Mack, being able to watch kids he used to ski with on the team making it to the elite level is also a source of inspiration.
“I look up to my coaches a lot,” Abby said. “It’s really cool watching them on TV and thinking that I can do that one day.”
And the skills that these young athletes learn from their coaches go far beyond ski technique. Since injury is a real risk — just last year Mack broke his foot and got a concussion — they need to learn how to push past fear and maintain a positive mindset when faced with obstacles or struggles. Mack said that one of his coaches has them meditate at the top of the ski run, while Abby said she likes when her coaches break a task down into smaller goals to achieve.
“You have to picture it in your mind,” Mack said. “And if you don’t know how to do it, you can’t just say you’re going to do it, you have to know your boundaries. But if you’re really set on something and you think you can do it, then you can do it. It helps to have confidence — but not too much confidence.”
Abby and Mack agree that people who aren’t familiar with their sports probably don’t realize the amount of work that goes into the tricks they land. Freeski athletes start by learning new tricks on a trampoline, and then skiing off of a jump onto an airbag or into a pool. Once they have the technique down, managing the fear and having a good mindset are also important to creating success.
“Especially with social media, [what we post is] like just our best stuff,” Mack said. “But they don’t see that we probably had like 100 tries to get that trick. But once you get it right it’s like the best feeling.”
Many youth programs incorporate goal setting as part of their mental training for athletes. Mack and Abby both have goals that they are working toward this season. Abby’s focus is on the short term; she wants to land an aerial trick on snow now that she nailed that in the pool. Mack’s focus is on his long-term goals; he will work this year and next year to try to secure a place on the U.S. Revolution Tour, a freeski competition series that serves as a stepping-stone to the elite level.
The competitive atmosphere and Olympic dreams mingle with fun, social aspects for the Winterbergers. Mack recalls his favorite competition moment was during the rail jam at Nationals last season, but it didn’t have to do with results.
“There’s loud music and it’s at night and your friends from different teams are there,” he said. “It’s just super fun.”
Main Image Caption: GETTING AIR: Nine-year-old Abby Winterberger decided to follow in her brother Mack’s footsteps, joining the Squaw Free team last winter. A competitive gymnast, Abby took first place for vault in the California state finals in December. She finds that her gymnastics skills translate well from the mat to the mountain. Photo courtesy USASA