From competitor to a judge
May 11, 2018
SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. — Judge or be judged — Steele Spence has been on both sides of the equation.
The Silverthorne athlete has tested his mettle as a freeskier at X Games in Aspen, and he's also watched with a critic's eye as a judge at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
"The first thing we love to look for in a judge is competition experience," Spence said. "No one can understand the pressures that the competitors have and appreciate the true difficulties like the competitors themselves."
Spence's own personal freestyle skiing journey tracks the sport's growth from fringe activity to having a place on the world's biggest stage.
Back in the '90s, Spence fell in love with freeskiing back at his hometown resort of Aspen Snowmass. Skiers like Spence still weren't permitted to hit the halfpipe like their snowboard peers. That didn't stop Spence and his friends.
"So we'd start sneaking in there," Spence said with a laugh.
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Two decades later, Spence is now the sport's international judging coordinator for the International Ski and Snowboard Federation. It's a pressure-packed, part-time job on top of his time running High Country Ice and working as a licensed mortgage broker for County Mortgage Colorado. And in February, his side gig required the former freeski competitor, Spence, to travel across the globe to South Korea.
As the world's foremost freestyle skiing judge for slopestyle and halfpipe competitions, it could be argued few people have as much power as Spence does in shaping the future of the sport he loves. However, Spence believes his chief duty is to empower athletes. If they have a question, he's there to answer it. If they have a concern, he listens.
But it's up to the competitors to steer the ship.
"Anytime any athlete or whatever asks me, I say, 'Well, you tell me what you think?,'" Spence said. "And I think that's the most important part about that relationship … to keep that open-minded communication open and really trying to encourage that. And for younger athletes, they don't know it or they might be intimated by judges."
Spence said being a good judge is all about transparency and trust.
"After almost every competition, I have competitions with many coaches or athletes that would have questions," Spence said, "or people back home, people in Aspen, have questions like, 'Why didn't (Olympic freeski slopestyle silver medalist Alex) Ferreira win the gold?' And if you're a confident judge you can answer those with confidence on why you scored it the way you did."
"But tensions can run high," the Silverthorne resident continued. "These athletes can get emotional. They are literally risking their lives at this, putting themselves out there with the best that they can do. And sometimes they are upset or sad or fired up at the end of the competition.
"Still," Spence added, "no matter what, I am open to speak with them."
Although the relations between he world's top freeski athletes and judges might have less tension than one might expect, that doesn't mean the job isn't without its share of work-life balance tensions.
Two years ago, Spence and his wife, Justine, found out they were having twins — just around the same time he was nominated to be the lead freeski slopestyle and halfpipe judge at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.
In the 12-month lead up to the Olympics, the newly minted father wrangled his international crew of five Olympic judges to score as many FIS World Cup events as possible, such as the halfpipe competition at December's U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain Resort in Summit County, Colorado.
Heading into the Olympics, Spence was most nervous about the slopestyle competition because he knew the atypical course at Phoenix Park lent itself to creative approaches, a notion that was confirmed when he watched Silverthorne snowboarder Red Gerard win gold in the snowboard competition.
Arriving to the Olympics a week before competition, Spence and his crew watched every moment of practice. Then on the day of competition, Spence and his crew watched live while taking notes on steno sheets, attempting to jot down as much info as they could. It all happens in a flash.
"The 30 seconds on TV when they are showing the replays?" Spence said. "That's us comparing our notes given the score that we see fit and getting it out there."
Looking back on his time as both a judge and competitor, Spence sees an almost symbiotic relationship between the two.
"I actually didn't think about judging probably as much as I should have as a competitor," Spence said. "I never really put myself in the judge's shoes. The first competition I ever judged after retiring from competition I said to myself, 'Wow, I would have been a completely different competitor if I put myself in the judge's shoes a little bit more.' But that was the way things were back then."
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