Wasatch Freestyle building on award
If Wasatch Freestyle director Jon O’Brien has been dreaming the last six months, then he is not ready to wake up.
What started out as a seemingly rocky season, mired with personal tragedy and injury, ended on Friday as O’Brien made his way up to the podium to accept the Freestyle Developmental Program of the Year award at the United States Ski Association (USSA) convention banquet.
"It was a very nebulous season," O’Brien said.
The shock for the Deer Valley and Snowbird-based program didn’t stem just from overcoming obstacles to win the distinction, it was also based on the humble operation that is Wasatch Freestyle. Although its athletes are kings on the moguls hill, the team operates out of a small office in the basement of O’Brien’s townhouse. The small program beat out California, East Coast and Colorado freestyle teams that boast private schools, start of the art technology and large numbers.
"I never thought we’d win the award," O’Brien said. "We’re so small and the budget is so small. I have a very nuts-and-bolts operation."
Bill Marolt told O’Brien that the award was earned not on flash, but on commitment.
Wasatch Freestyle spent much of the winter helping at various events, including the Freestyle World Cup stop at Deer Valley and the Intermountain Freestyle Cup series. Also taken into consideration were the numerous podiums garnered by Wasatch Freestyle athletes. The small program made a big splash at the Junior Olympics, the Junior Worlds, the U.S. Open and the Freestyle National championships.
"These are local kids competing against Olympians," O’Brien said.
Jay Bowman-Kirigan is living proof of why O’Brien’s minimalist operation works. Bowman-Kirigan, a high-schooler in Salt Lake, lost his father at the beginning of the season and questioned whether he wanted to continue his freestyle career. In a behemoth program, such a kid might have been lost, but Bowman-Kirigan knew that he could go to O’Brien with his concerns and get a sympathetic ear and a caring heart in return.
The teen went on to finish second in dual moguls and third in moguls at the Junior Worlds and first at the Junior Olympics.
Bryon Wilson was injured on Nov. 20 and took fourth at Junior Worlds. AJ Burton was able to rise from a spring 2005 ACL injury to taking fifth in the U.S. Open in slopestyle after generous encouragement from the coaches and the program as a whole.
Olivia Akerly also contributed with titles in the dual moguls and the slopestyle competitions.
Now that Wasatch Freestyle has been dubbed the best, O’Brien is looking to raise the bar a little higher. This summer they will head to the water ramps at the Utah Olympic Park (UOP), and then the snowcapped crests of Mt. Hood, Ore. In the fall, the program will add a "new school" element of halfpipe skiing at Park City Mountain Resort.
Water ramping has always been a part of the Wasatch Freestyle off-season, but this year O’Brien is hoping bring in new interest by offering the program to younger children, ages 8-14. This will include mini-camps for any child that is interested, as well as offering a more comfortable environment for skiers just starting on the water ramps. In past years, only the full-time, experienced athletes would see time at the UOP pool.
"We’re really concentrating on those younger people," O’Brien said." Our new philosophy is to have younger kids grow up in our system."
It makes sense, with national and international podium winners, Wasatch Freestyle is hoping to continue to grow and become more successful with fresh, new talent.
O’Brien says that the progression of water ramping to the snowy hills of Mt. Hood have proven to be an ideal way to teach youth the careful progression needed to learn the difficult tricks and turns involved in freestyle skiing.
O’Brien also wants to continue to concentrate on community involvement with his program. Already, the Deer Valley marketing department reports on the team’s happenings in its newsletter, but O’Brien sees being a part of the community as being much bigger than a piece of paper. Tapping into the model set by other U.S. development programs, like Team Summit in Colorado, O’Brien produces well-rounded skiers by using all the area has to offer. Team Summit Is a multi-discipline ski team in Summit County, Colo. that takes all the youth from all of the ski areas in the county and allows them to train together at all of the venues. That is exactly the way O’Brien likes to operate. Summer is spent at the UOP. Late fall is spent training at Snowbird. December, the other resorts have opened and Wasatch Freestyle moves onto the 2002 Olympic mogul hills at Deer Valley.
"We are working for a common goal for youth in the community," O’Brien said. "This is where I’ve been so fortunate."
O’Brien wants what’s best for his athletes and draws all of the facilities the community has to offer.
"I don’t need to build these things, because these facilities are already here," O’Brien said.
He also worries that too much competition between resorts or youth development teams only drains funds and hurts the overall quality of programming as a whole.
"We’re all in this industry together, working together is better for the community," O’Brien said.
His multi-venue structure can mean a commute for the most dedicated of athletes, but it’s a sacrifice that O’Brien thinks only makes the athlete stronger.
"These are the sacrifices these kids make," O’Brien said.
Wasatch Freestyle will maintain its weekend and full-time winter freestyle program as well. O’Brien says that the addition of PCMR for the new school programs, will allow Wasatch Freestyle to offer a little bit of everything and being new energy and excitement to the team.
After being recognized at the banquet O’Brien, drew on the lessons of all the USSA departments gathering in one room to share their experiences.
"It was great to spend time with people from other disciplines and see what they are about and what their energy is," O’Brien said. "It gave me a bigger overview of the operation."
He was also able to see how the U.S. Ski and Snowboarding Team uses their broad base to market to a wide sponsorship audience, from the most conservative to the wild and crazy.
It’s these financial lessons that O’Brien’s hopes to use for his program. O’Brien comes from a competition background having skied and then coached freestyle for the U.S. Ski Team, so the spreadsheets can be a bit daunting when everything is generated from his basement office. O’Brien hopes to become better at fundraising, so that the legacy of Wasatch Freestyle can continue, but admits its existence is still year-to-year, despite their success.
"The technical part is easy. The hard part is keeping it going financially," O’Brien said.
With any luck, the new programs and proven results of Wasatch Freestyle will be an advertisement in itself for O’Brien and they can be named Team of the Year for many seasons to come.
The summer programs will kick off with an informational meeting on Wed., May 24 at the UOP Day Lodge at 7 p.m. For more information on the Wasatch Freestyle Foundation, call (801) 272-7177.
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Buses, trains and gondolas doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but they make up the transit alternatives for the mountain transportation system the Central Wasatch Commission is trying to create, mostly in the Cottonwood canyons.