Open season is back at Golden Peak
VAIL – TJ Schiller can attest to the power of the U.S. Freeskiing Open. Last January, the British Columbia native was just another name on the list of hopefuls who came to Vail to compete in the men’s slopestyle and big air competitions.After beating out two of freeskiing’s biggest names -Tanner Hall and Henrik Winstedt – in slopestyle and then soaring to a runner-up podium spot under the Saturday-night lights in big air, Schiller’s life changed forever. In just two days, Schiller had turned into a star. His name suddenly became a recognizable one among the sport’s core following.”This definitely was the start of my career,” Schiller said Tuesday in Vail at a mandatory athletes’ meeting for this year’s Open. “It allowed me to go to a lot of other events. Now, I’m qualified for (Winter) X Games and the Gravity Games. It’s just totally opened up so many opportunities – traveling to Europe, more photo shoots, getting with video production companies. I’m all psyched to be here again.”One thing is for certain as this year’s Open, now in its eighth year, gets under way at Golden Peak today with slopestyle-qualifying heats for men and women. There is, for sure, another TJ Schiller in the list of names signed up for this year’s event. Maybe, there are even two or three TJs.Freeskiing’s version of “American Idol” is known for attracting the hungriest huckers and skiercrossers in the world and providing them with the opportunity to shine brightly.
Said Schiller, “The best thing about this is that it is open, and you get to see all these new kids that are coming up. It’s really anybody’s chance. It’s anybody’s competition to win.”Frankie Alisuag, the Open’s competition director, said that he has seen a noticeable shift in the type of competitors showing up to the Open – something that he attributes to success stories like Schiller’s.This year, he said, more than in year’s past, more of freeskiing’s biggest names are staying away from the event.The reason?”The established stars of today feel the changing of the guard coming on,” Alisuag said. “Now, kids all over the country are taking their moves that they originated and taking them to the next level. Since the (Winter) X Games are now inviting athletes to their event – slopestyle skiing and halfpipe events – it seems that a lot of the heavyweights aren’t showing up here. Not as much as they have in the past. They’re still a handful of heavyweights who want to mix it up – some guys who are invited to the X Games – but a lot of them don’t want to take the chance.”Despite some of the big names staying away, the Open’s status as a premier event in the sport has only grown. This year’s slopestyle field of 160 is already completely full with a waiting list of between 25-30 competitors who, time permitting, may also get to compete. Venue director Dak Williams said he expects to see the same numbers in the other competitions being held at Golden Peak through Sunday.”We’ll have a whole other influx of skiers for the skiercross, halfpipe and the big air,” he said.
Open seasonAlisuag said that some of the sport’s big names have a decent excuse to skip out on the Open. In years past before freeskiing became so popular and became a Winter X Games favorite, The U.S. Freeskiing Open was one of the few events where freeskiers could go to get recognition.Now, with freeskiing being such a big part of the Winter X Games and the extreme sports industry, Alisuag said established freeskiers don’t need the Open as much.”Some of them have a lot on the line as far as film careers and videos and that kind of thing and are deciding to save everything for the big two, which are (Winter) X Games and the Gravity Games,” he said.This year’s event is still designed to do what it has repeatedly done year after year which is to give a group of nobodies a shot to be somebody. The big names may not need it as much anymore. The no names, however, still look to the Open as their chance to become a star. “The Open has always truly been for up-and-comers,” Alisuag said. “Anyone who has won this thing or done well here has pretty much become a movie star and taken it to the next level.”Added Schiller, “I come out here and I see 50 new kids I’ve never seen in my life throwing down. For all we know, one of those kids might take it tomorrow. One of them could be the next big name in our sport.”
Staff Writer Nate Peterson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 608, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail Colorado