Ingrid Backstrom & Jessica Sobolowski: Freeskiers we love
Most ski areas in this country would be proud to have even one professional freeskier of Ingrid Backstroms or Jessica Sobolowskis stature. But at Squaw Valley, these two ski superheroines can almost manage to blend into the backdrop of other pro skiers in Squallywood… until they step into their bindings and put on a show, that is.Over the past few years, Sobolowski and Backstrom have appeared in some of the most memorable segments of ski films by production teams such as Warren Miller Entertainment, Matchstick Productions, Team 13 and others, and represent such venerable ski industry brands as Volkl/Tecnica, Helly Hansen, The North Face, Scott USA, Giro, Cliff Bar and more.Coming from opposite sides of the continent Backstrom grew up in the Seattle area and honed her skiing at Crystal Mountain in Washington State while Sobolowski developed a racing background in Vermont as a kid both came to Squaw Valley on their own, determined to pursue a dream of living and skiing in the legendary terrain around this area.And while neither had plans of becoming a professional skier when they arrived, both quickly worked their way up the ladder to become two of the most in-demand skiers in the industry today.For this interview, action editor Paul Raymore sat down with Backstrom and Sobolowski outside the Starbucks in Squaw Valley to talk about how they got here and what its like being on top of the freeskiing world.[Editors note: Since that time, Sobolowski sustained a season-ending ACL injury while skiing in Utah. She is currently back in Tahoe, rehabbing her knee and making plans to come back even stronger next season.]
action [to Ingrid]: So youve recently been in quite a few high-profile ski movies and won some big awards as a skier in recent months. Whats it like getting so much exposure?Backstrom: Well, some of the runs I got to take filming for the movies were the best runs Ive had in my life pretty much. So that was an incredible experience with really cool people. Its always awesome to go on heli trips, and I got to go with some of my heroes and ski with them. And then the awards are just icing on the cake it was awesome to be honored by people I respect, but mostly its about the skiing.action: So is it always great to be a professional skier? Or are there times when you wish you could just freeski without any responsibility and without having to wait for conditions to be right to film?Backstrom: Occasionally, yeah it gets frustrating when youre just waiting for two weeks and you havent skied at all and youre in a hotel room somewhere in the middle of nowhere. And talking to your friends at Squaw and theyre like Its powder every day.But its so worth it when you get that perfect day that comes along once a year. That totally makes it all worth it.action: Is there one perfect day that stands out above all others from the past few seasons?Backstrom: For me it would be two seasons ago in Bella Coola [British Columbia] filming with Matchstick Productions. I just had one day where everything coincided the weather was perfect, the snow was perfect and super stable, and we got to ski lots of cool stuff.How about for you [she asks Sobolowski]?Sobolowski: Ive had a lot of perfect runs, and then for some reason or another weather comes in or you have to go in. Last year in Alaska I had an amazing early morning, and then my friend got hurt so we had to go in. And then in Europe I had a pretty sick one run and the same thing happened weather rolled in, so we had to go in.But Id say a perfect day is probably just right here at Squaw. And last year was so sick we had perfect days one after another.action [to Jessica]: Tell me a little more about living here. Does it influence the way you ski or the way you approach skiing as a job?Sobolowski: For sure. It would be super easy to go live somewhere in Colorado where you would stand out. But in Squaw, everybody is sick. Not to mention its Squallywood, so youve got like 20,000 pro snowboarders and skiers. And a lot of those are the guys and girls who have pioneered what were doing today and where we come from…And so I think its always progressing your level and pushing you. You dont stand out here, which is great youre just a number because everybody here is awesome. Its really cool to see, and it leads to a constant fired-up feeling for everyone.action: Is there a group of you who are all constantly out skiing together here? And does having that sense of community amongst the skiers here help professionally as well as athletically?Backstrom: I think we have an awesome group of friends who are so concentrated here. And everyone wants to do the same thing as you and has the same priorities everyone wants to get out on the hill all the time, wants to train, wants to exercise and get outside and that just pushes you and motivates you and brings everybodys level up.Sobolowski: Its good to have buddies here too because it can get competitive within the field. Yeah, theres room for everyone. But in the same breath, were pretty lucky to be getting paid to ski, and theres not room for everyone in that field. So its good to have Ingrid because we can give each other advice for making it in the ski industry. And you cant really talk to just anybody about that kind of stuff because its private and you just dont want everyone knowing your business. So it is good to have a crew that does what you do and can give you advice about it.action: So tell me a little more about how you both ended up living here at Squaw?Backstrom: I dont know. I just wanted to be a ski bum for a year after going to college [at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.].I had never been to Squaw Valley, but Id been to Diamond Peak for a ski race and I thought the area was really beautiful. And I had just heard lots of great things about Squaw and I knew there was more going on than just an isolated ski town theres Tahoe and lots of little towns and communities. And after going to such a small town for college I was ready to have more stuff going on and maybe not have everybody know your business all the time, meet new people…And I wanted to go somewhere that I didnt know anybody and see if I could do it. See if I could move somewhere, get a job, get a place. I though that would be a good thing to do at least once in my life.action [to Ingrid]: So was skiing professionally one of your goals at that point?Backstrom: Just freeskiing. It didnt even occur to me to be a professional skier. I thought it was cool and I read the magazines and whatever, but thought it was way beyond my ability. But then I came here and skied every day, and I think I improved so much just skiing around with all the skiers here. And then I was encouraged to enter a freeskiing contest at Kirkwood and it just kind of went from there.Jessica?Sobolowski: I kind of have the same story: I grew up back east and went to college back east and ski raced back east [in Vermont to be more specific]. And its a little different back there. I didnt know what heli-skiing was, I didnt know what ski magazines were… Back east its just more uptight I think. I wasnt even allowed to ski off groomers.So when I graduated I knew there must be bigger mountains out there. And coming from a small ski town I thought about Tahoe because it has the lake, and I really love water and didnt want to be stuck in an area that has no water. And kind of like Ingrid, I just wanted to see if I could do it come out here without knowing anyone. So thats what I did. I drove out here after I graduated and didnt know what a pro skier was at that point really, until I moved out here. And that wasnt in my thoughts at all, but friends encouraged me to enter a skiercross race, and from there I did well and got my foot in the door.And I was kind of tired of competing my whole life and wanted to see if I could just film and do photo shoots, and that became my goal after that.
action: Tell me more about the transition you both made from being just a really good skier or ski racer to being a professional skier? Is that just the best thing ever? Or does it come with a host of problems that us non-professional skiers dont have a clue about?Sobolowski: I dont really think about it much, but every once in a while Im like Oh my God. Im super fired up, Im so lucky. But its a gradual thing I think.And its so on yourself, because if you dont have a good year and you dont feel like you got exposure and youre not proud of what you did, then you dont care if youre a professional. For me its all about how I feel inside and if Im worthy enough to be getting paid.So Im pretty stoked on last season and I feel good about it. So this year Im fired up I feel really honored and lucky and worthy. Whereas, in the past, maybe I didnt feel like thatAnd here at Squaw, its not like that big of a deal. You dont ever think of it like that [as unusual] because everybody does the same thing.Backstrom: Well I think about it. Its like a total suspension of disbelief because it takes a while and its gradual and you think Well, Im not really a professional. Youre still working tons of jobs, trying to make it happen, and then all of a sudden youre working one less job or youre only working part of the year, but youre not a professional skier, youre still a waitress. And then the next year its a little closer. And then finally, I guess I became a professional. Its still hard to say because I guess I still dont really believe that its actually happened.action: Is this [being a skier] now the only job for both of you?Sobolowski: I guess both of us are the same in that it is. It is kind of hard to believe. I feel super lucky because there are a lot of people out there who are really good.action: So, we see you both in the movies and in the magazines and winning awards and such, but can you tell me a little more about the behind-the-scenes aspects of being a professional skier? Maybe something that most people wouldnt know about the business?Backstrom: Its not glamorous. Its a lot of traveling and staying on your friends couches or in crappy hotels or whatever. Always being in the airport, missing flights Theres all that type of thing.But then its also just the same as a lot of people around here you just love skiing and want to get out there as much as possible and make it happen. Its just, now I have a lot more free time to make it happen.Sobolowski: I agree. I guess one of the things that a lot of people dont realize is how long it takes to get a film segment. Even one of our mutual good friends was talking the other day about how she might get a real job and she wont be able to ski seven days a week. And I thought, you know what? Half the time were sitting in hotels waiting; theres a lot of down time in what we do. Especially when youre talking about big mountain [skiing]. In the [terrain] park you can go out and build a kicker any time you want, but with big mountain, youre at the beck and call of Mother Nature.There are some times when, in one week youre on an airplane four times. I kind of like to sit back and think, this is cool. You know, when youre a little kid you want to fly around in an airplane and go somewhere specialBackstrom: People are always like, Oh, it doesnt matter if you hit rocks with your skis, you can get however many you want. And thats not exactly true. Yeah, I get skis, but that doesnt mean its an unlimited supply.action: Does having sponsors put extra pressure on you each year to perform at your best and keep improving?Backstrom: Probably not additional pressure on us because I think thats what we want to do for ourselves anyway get out there and challenge ourselves and do better. So I try not to worry about that.Sobolowski: Were lucky in that we both have sponsors who arent like, You have to do this contest, or, You have to do that. Instead, its your responsibility as a professional skier to get exposure every year to keep your sponsorships if thats what you want to do. Its your job to make sure you get that.Backstrom: But its also what you want to do anyway.action: So if its on you to make sure youre getting exposure in the movies and magazines and all that, how do you go about doing so?Sobolowski: Its hard. This is the difference [between us] right now: Ingrid is like the top girl, so shes getting that anyway.[To Backstrom, who is protesting that there are lots of good girls.] You are. There are lots of good girls, totally, but you are.action [to Ingrid]: So production companies are just calling you and want to have you in their films?Backstrom: I lucked out because I have a good deal with Matchstick [Productions], and we have a good working relationship and friendship, and so far its been great for hopefully both of us. I hope theyre stoked, because Im really stoked, and its like that just kind of perpetuates itself. But with Warren Miller, you never know if youll get to do that again.Sobolowski: Speaking for myself, sometimes its harder because, for example, when Matchstick gets a call, Ingrid is their girl. But when youre not in one of those films its more work to get your name out there because theyre not calling you as much.Backstrom: Yeah, Im lucky I have a good part of my year planned out.Sobolowski: Really there are three major ski magazines. And those guys are getting hundreds of thousands of photos every year submitted. And for every issue theyll publish 10 photos. So its a lot more competitive than people really realize, for sure. And even with sponsors you may be with Volkl or whatever, but they might have 10 A-list athletes, but theyre only doing five ads.action: Do you guys still ski in contests and stuff like that, or is it mostly just freeskiing and filming and photo shoots and such?Sobolowski: I would love to I think big mountain contests are so good for your head but theyre never at the right times for me.Backstrom: I competed for four years, and now that I have something else that Im allowed to focus on and prioritize, Im stoked to do that. But I love contests.Sobolowski: Contests are good. And everyone that I know who is doing what we are you have to start with something like that. You have to start in a contest-type environment to get noticed or put your foot in the door, I believe. Its pretty rare that you just go out and get an offer to film with someone. You kind of build up to that.Thats kind of everyones dream you get to travel to sick places and ski awesome lines.action: Do both of you already have your schedules planned out for this entire season?Backstrom: Tentatively. Ive got an idea that around this time Ill probably go here, but things change depending on snow and other things.action: Anything youre particularly looking forward to?Backstrom: I hopefully get to go on a road trip up to Washington State with Matchstick, which would be sweet. Then hopefully go to Europe, and then try to get back to Alaska if I can. And try to stay around here too.Sobolowski: Thats the question everyone asks: What trips do you have planned? Where are you going? And for the first few years you get all nervous and think about what trips youre taking. But then you realize that it doesnt matter what you have planned, were so at the beck and call of Mother Nature and what the snow is doing. You could have the sickest trip in the world, but if the weather goes bad where you are, youll do everything you can to switch it up and go where its good.action: Are you guys both making plans for whats next careerwise after you get tired of skiing for a living? Or are you just living in the moment at this point and enjoying it?Sobolowski: Im from the east coast where everyone was like, What are you going to do after that? And I got so much anxiety hearing that and thinking about it that I just said Screw it. Why do I have to think about what Im going to do afterwards. Thats making me not live in the present. So I havent really thought about it since that little talk with myself. Ill just keep the doors openBackstrom: I definitely try to think about it. But besides this, I dont know what I would want to do. So I just try to make sure Im learning about other things so I can maybe narrow it down later Just like everybody, trying to figure it out.Sobolowski: Shes a journalist though. She does a lot of writing for Powder and stuff.action: Cool. Well, is there anything else you guys would like to say?Sobolowski: Im just fired up to be in this community and have people like you guys supporting us. Its awesome to be in an area where you have so many buddies and friends and everyone is just on the same page Its super cool. Im proud to say Im from Squaw Valley.action: Yeah, thats incredible that you both came here on your own, by yourselves, and have now integrated yourselves into the community so well. Do people around Tahoe recognize you? Are there perks to being one of the professional skiers around Squaw or Tahoe in general?Backstrom: For sure, I feel like thats the only reason Im doing what Im doing because ever since I moved here Ive had so many cool people be so supportive and encouraging and help connect me with the right people or offer opportunities up, just because thats the way people are around here, especially when it comes to skiing. I feel like I couldnt have gone anywhere else and made this happen. Its a function of being here and having the support of everybody.Sobolowski: Yeah, but its not like you go to the airport and people run up to you and say Oh, youre the skier.action: It never happens? Even when youre carrying a ton of ski gear all over the place all the time?Sobolowski: It happens, but not all that often.Backstrom: I had a kid who was probably like 13, a racer kid here, and he came up to me one day and said Youre Ingrid right? And I said Yeah. And he was like, Ive seen you in Matchstick. And I said Cool. And he got off at the top of the chair and kind of waited and he said, So, can I ask you a favor? Can I just see if I can keep up with you for one run? And I was thinking that he was probably going to beat me. So I skied down with him and he was like, That was awesome. And I was like, No way, that was awesome for me. So that was a cool one for sure.
Jessica Sobolowski is sponsored by Volkl/Tecnica, Helly Hansen, Surefoot, the Inn Shop, Kombi Gloves, Go Fast, Marker, Wigwam, Cliff Bar and Squaw Valley USA.Ingrid Backstrom is sponsored by The North Face, Volkl/Tecnica, Scott USA, Giro, Marker, Surefoot, Cliff Bar, Granite Chief and Squaw Valley USA.
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Jaime Alessio took this video of a bobcat wandering around Kings Beach in broad daylight.