Chris Waker named US Snowboard Coach of the Year
Christopher Waker’s snowboarding journey is a quintessential Summit County winter sports story.
At its heart, the story includes an engagement at the same chairlift at Breckenridge Ski Resort where Waker first met his fiancee. It’s one that includes days at the county’s terrain parks coaching some of the world’s best young talent. And it’s one that added its most recent chapter last month when Waker was named U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Domestic Snowboard Coach of the Year.
For a guy who has made a lifetime out of teaching and hucking tricky inverted rotations on a snowboard, it was in the lead up to his acceptance speech at the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Congress in Park City when Waker experienced some of his life’s strongest nerves.
“There was a list and you could kind of see when you are going to go up on stage,” Waker said. “And I knew I was within two people to go. And, all of a sudden, my heart was racing like crazy. It was pretty funny, I’ve never had my heart rate spike by sitting still.”
Waker, originally from Vermont, moved to Summit County 13 years ago for the same reason so many others do: to progress his snowboarding career on the state-of-the-art terrain parks. Waker saved up money during a few summers while working for his father’s plumbing and heating business to boost the budget he’d live off of while training in Summit.
Leading up to 2010, Waker competed on the Grand Prix and World Cup circuits with an eye on qualifying to compete at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Though he missed out on representing Team USA, Waker stuck with the snowboarding community, pivoting to coaching. Luckily for Waker, he had a previous connection with Ian Kirk, one of his coaches during his teen years attending Stratton Mountain School in Vermont. Kirk was able to help Waker coach an Australian development team based in Summit County, an experience that not only enabled Waker to get his feet wet as a coach, but one that also made him realize he could make a career out of it.
The wheels didn’t come in motion for Waker to become a year-round resident of Summit County until a fateful moment on the 5-Chair lift at Breckenridge Ski Resort. While lapping the two-person chair along Breck’s Peak 8 park and pipe terrain, Waker filled into the lift’s singles queue. Moments later, he found himself riding up with an aspiring Swiss snowboarder, Darien Giedd. The two hit it off.
Then, when Kirk founded the Kirk’s Camp snowboard club in 2013 under the philosophy of providing “a support system for radical lifestyles,” Waker followed. Based in Summit County, the club attracted some of the top young freestyle snowboarding talent, like Nik Baden of Steamboat Springs, Luke Winkelmann of North Carolina and eventual Olympic gold medalist Red Gerard of Silverthorne.
In his time with Kirk’s Camp, Waker has passed on quite a few young riders to the U.S. Rookie Team. Waker’s riders have also represented the nation at FIS Junior World Championships, such as Will Healy, Eli Mcdermott, Alex Atno and Winkelmann.
Winkelmann is at the top of Waker’s coaching success stories. The young slopestyle rider relocated to Summit County to train in the winter, a far cry from riding dry slopes and a little hill in North Carolina. But with an adept background on rails, Winkelmann worked with Waker over several winters to improve his jump skills on slopestyle courses, to the point where Winkelmann finished in an impressive fourth place at this year’s Burton U.S. Open at Vail Mountain.
“He’s kind of been the next up-and-comer, which has been amazing,” Waker said. “I’m super happy for him. …I really try and build up a program of athletes who are motivated and who push each other and have fun. I feel like with me personally growing up as a competitive snowboarder, I always excelled when my friends and peers were pushing me.”
Waker also emphasized keeping it fun for young riders like Healy and Winkelmann. Waker said the pressure of constantly taking the next step as one of the country’s best young Olympic snowboard hopefuls can prove exhausting at times for the riders he coaches. Doing things to prevent the kids’ mental burnout is perhaps the most important part of Waker’s job. That’s why Waker said it’s a point of emphasis for him to cultivate rewarding, fun, full-team moments when on the mountain by filming milestones for the young riders. And, of course, filming the fun of powder days.
“They do a lot of dangerous tricks,” Waker said, “going upside down twice, now — double- and triple-corks — so it’s about providing the right environment and making sure they have the correct fundamentals to make it to that next step. Because if you have other friends, close competitors next to you, telling you ‘you got this,’ when they see their fellow teammates pushing the envelope and pushing their skills to the next level, that’s kind of when they get fired up.”
Waker doesn’t shy away from the fact that he’s an emotional person, and he said that’s a main element of his coaching: to maintain excitability while out on the mountain. And, sure, there is excitement when understudies such as Winkelmann win, say, this year’s Rev Tour slopestyle circuit. Despite all of those successes with Kirk’s Camp, though, Waker’s best moment while on the snow in Summit came last spring on the 5-Chair.
“I made the lifties stop the chairlift, and I proposed,” he said. “It was six years since we met on that chair, lapping the park, two singles going up.”
Now engaged to Giedd and rooted here in Summit County, Waker will launch his own snowboard club next season. Dubbed “Tru Snowboarding,” the club will be based in Summit and build off of Kirk’s Camp’s foundation after Kirk signed a three-year deal to coach China’s international team. For Waker, it’ll be the next chapter in his Summit County snowboarding story. Under a new team name, Waker will continue to coach elite young talent with his same fun-loving verve.
“I feel like that kind of emotion feeds them,” Waker said. “They want to excel because they get that rise from me. They get so stoked and, when they land a trick, it’s like I landed a trick.”