Big mountain junior skiers wrap up season in Snowbird at North American Championships
The North American Championships of big mountain skiing and snowboarding wrapped up for juniors on Sunday, April 15, an International Freeskiers & Snowboarders Association event commonly known as IFSA Junior NorAm Champs.
Making it to the event is hard, and takes at least four good performances at qualifying events throughout the season. This year’s IFSA Junior NorAm Champs took place at Snowbird Resort in Utah, and six Ski & Snowboard Club Vail skiers qualified.
Local standouts included 13-year-old Caroline Ungar who won the 12-to-14 age division event and finished the season ranked seventh overall in her division, and 14-year-old Sam Heller who finished the season ranked fifth overall in the 12-to-14 age division.
“There’s probably 300 to 350 kids in the 12 to 14 boys division, so it’s really competitive,” said coach Justin Holder. “For Sam to finish fifth overall is a great achievement.”
Big mountain skiing and snowboarding is a judged competition, where competitors take on natural terrain — steep faces and cliff drops — and attempt to exhibit control and fluidity while selecting a challenging line down the mountain. Technique, style and energy are also among the judging criteria.
Athletes compete in a large qualifying round first, which is narrowed down to a smaller field for finals.
Competitions happen in all conditions, but competitors hope for the same conditions most skiers and snowboarders are hoping for when they hit the slopes: fresh powder.
At the IFSA Junior NorAm Champs, the athletes dreams came true when Snowbird received a 20-inch blast of snow on April 12-13.
“It was a massive power day for the 12-to-14 year olds’ qualifiers,” Holder said.
Ungar capitalized on the conditions.
“She skied really well and won that day, and then ended up winning the event because finals didn’t happen,” Holder said.
Cloudy conditions made things tricky for the qualifiers, so a split judging panel was called in, where one set of judges assessed the top of the run from on course, and a second set judges watches the bottom of the run from the bottom of the venue.
It was a learning experience for the athletes, as many had not ever seen a split judging set up, but it was not as much of a learning experience as what would come next.
As weather continued to plague the venue, finals were eventually canceled, meaning qualifiers would stand as the final results for the IFSA Junior NorAm Champs.
While the cancellation benefited Ungar, it frustrated Heller, who qualified in 23rd.
“All year Sam has been qualifying in the back and then making up for it with really great skiing in finals,” Holder said. “So when finals were canceled he was a little bummed. It was a good lesson for him to learn, though, the strategy is usually a two-day strategy but you can’t always count on having a final.”
Despite taking 23rd at the NorAm Champs, Heller still finished the season in fifth overall.
Also competing in the 12 to 14 age division, Molly Reeder finished 14th, Travis Mills Jr. finished 32nd and Finn Griffith finished 52nd.
McKayla Meyers finished her age, 16th, for the 15 to 18 year old girls division, notching her in at 21st overall for the year.
“This is the first year McKayla has really competed at a national level,” Holder said. “She was skiing unbelievably well, and probably would have qualifying top 5 or 6, but washed out on her bottom and subsequently fell and lost a lot of points. But even in 16th, the result helped her move up a couple of spots and finish the year 21st overall, there’s probably 200 to 250 15 to 18 girls who compete in the IFSA so seeing her in that position I think shows her she has what it takes to compete at the national level.”
The season is now over for Ski & Snowboard Club Vail’s big mountain skiers, but they will continue skiing as the conditions allow.
“We’ll spend a little time at Breck before that closes and then mostly A-Basin,” Holder said.
Then it’s on to water ramps in Park City, Utah, and there’s even a Chile camp available for big mountain skiers in August.
“Interest has really grown in big mountain skiing in recent years,” Holder said. “So we keep the options open over the summer months for those who want to keep skiing.”
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.