I don’t know what Steven Nyman looks like. I Googled him earlier in the day after I learned I would be following him around the GoPro Mountain Games, but most of the photos I found online pictured him behind his U.S. Ski Team-issued goggles. So I am a little surprised when this barefoot hulk in a tie-dye T-shirt saunters up to me in front of the Lodge at Vail, grinning ear to ear.
FORAY INTO FILMMAKING
We are meeting so I can interview him for a movie I am making in the Adventure Film School, the first activity of my 10-week gig having America’s Best Summer Job. Hardly a filmmaker before I started the film school, I am already down two videos when I meet Nyman. I think I am getting the handle of movie making but I have no idea what to expect from a pro skier.
He explains that someone stole his shoes earlier in the day when he was surfing the Glenwood wave with his buddies Kai Lenny and Ken Hoeve in preparation for the Stand Up Paddle Sprint. I ask if we can go somewhere quiet and he takes me to the parking lot and plops down on the back of his Toyota pickup, eager to answer my questions.
The 2006 FIS Alpine World Cup gold medalist says he got into stand-up paddling while visiting a girlfriend in Hawaii. But it wasn’t until he met Hoeve that he ever took his board on a river. Now he is competing in the SUP race for the fourth consecutive year.
GETTING READY FOR THE RACE
“Top 10! That’s all I’m aiming for,” he jokes to no one in particular the following morning.
Nyman is in a playful mood as he’s putting on his wetsuit. He tells me that when he got to his hotel the previous night the front desk was no longer open. “So I just went camping instead,” he says, like it’s no big deal.
In the hour leading up to the SUP Sprint start, Nyman chats up the other competitors, shirtless and willingly indulging the other members of the media in attendance.
Everyone who knows him seems genuinely excited to see him. He’s a friendly face and his confident, laid-back energy turns even the hardened of race officials into ardent fans. Seconds after he starts his race, I hear the one of them squeal, “World Cup ski racer right there!”
Nyman says the only race he ever got nervous about was the Olympics. “Because the gondola stopped,” he clarifies. But, in the few minutes before the start, Nyman’s ever-present smile turns to stern focus.
Though SUP is just an off-season hobby for the athlete, he admits it is a lot like ski racing. “You have to charge down the current because if the current is going faster than you, it controls you and moves your board just like on skis,” he explains. “If you move back, everything goes away from you and the mountain has control over you.”
HOW A PRO DEALS WITH DISAPPOINTMENT
At the finish line, Nyman emerges from the freezing Gore Creek frustrated. But he is a pro and subdues his disappointment, congratulating a few of the other finishers still milling about. Only after sitting down and catching his breath does he admit he isn’t happy with his performance.
I’ll admit, even I had a hard time watching his GoPro footage later that night. In it he is struggling. And then he falls off his board. Twice. Sure, this race might just be for fun, but Nyman still likes to win. And I can’t help but want him to be superhuman.
An hour after the SUP, Nyman is signing autographs at a 2015 Alpine World Cup tent. It’s a race on his home turf. He says he can’t wait to ski it.
Without any sign at the table most people eye Nyman from afar instead of approaching. But those who do recognize the ski racer run over to express their fandom or introduce him to their family.
There he chats up wheelchair skier Zach Korbel like an old friend, while young mothers send their children over on their behalf while swooning in the background.
When Nyman tells me that he loves what he does I really believe him. He’s a competitor who, at 32, understands it won’t last forever. But until that happens, he won’t stop smiling.
Benjamin Solomon is the winner of America’s Best Summer Job, a 10-week, all-expenses paid summer job exploring what summer in the Vail Valley has to offer. A freelance writer based in New York, Solomon has contributed to publications such as Vanity Fair, New York, Travel + Leisure and is the former editor of Next Magazine. Follow his journey on Blog.Vail.com as well as on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #VailBen.