Planting freestyle roots | SierraSun.com

Planting freestyle roots

Seth Lightcap
Sierra Sun

Seth Lightcap/Sierra SunTruckee local Cole Harriety, 8, styled 180s off the flat rail to earn first-place honors and a new pair skis at the Jeep Terrain Park Challenge at Saturday's 48Straight festival. The rail jam featured 6- to 8-year old skiers from Squaw Valley's Mighty Mite ski program.

With X Games gold medalists as young as 13 years old, one has to wonder where these fresh-faced preteens learn world-class athletic skills so early in life. Do these wunderkinds throw 900s coming out of the womb?

The Jeep Terrain Park Challenge held Saturday at Squaw Valley’s 48Straight festival shed a little light on this youth freestyle phenomenon, as the contest hosted a rail jam for 6- to 8-year-old skiers from Squaw’s Mighty Mite ski program.

Now in its third season, the Jeep Terrain Park Challenge is an educational and competitive event focused on teaching aspiring Winter X-Gamers both terrain park and podium skills. The Squaw Valley stop marked the contest series’ first of 45 nationwide dates this season, and was the first ever for Tahoe.

The nearly 50 boys and girls that entered the contest started the day with a rail clinic from PSIA Demo team skier David Oliver. By demonstrating rail tricks step by step, Oliver reinforced proper technique for both style and safety. Terrain Park Challenge director Kate Danaher emphasized that the pre-contest lesson was the foundation of the event.

“The goal of the Jeep Terrain Park Challenge program is to educate kids on how to safely ride the park features,” Danaher said. “We want to teach the kids that they need skills before they go big.”

After the clinic, the pro-style, jam-format contest got underway with each skier getting several opportunities to impress the judges. The top 10 boys and girls from the qualifying heats advanced to the finals.

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The contest arena consisted of three rail features ” a flat rail, a flat-down rail and a rainbow box to finish. Every competitor hit the rails confidently with the best sliding sideways and backwards. Contestants loved the variety of features.

“I like the flat rail,” said Liam Nolan-Bowers, a 7-year-old competitor from Incline. “It was hard at first because if you press your edges on it you slide out.”

Sofia-Elena Alekna, an 8-year-old competitor from Tiburon, Calif., said the flat-down rail was her favorite feature.

“The flat-down rail is so cool because its straight and then angled. You get kind of scared and then you just do it and it’s amazing.”

Between the qualifiers and the finals, competitors got an extra treat when former Olympian and Squaw legend Johnny Moseley brought the finalists up to the starting gate to film for a TV broadcast. Setting up the shot of himself in the middle of a train of kids hitting the rails, Moseley inspired Olympic pressure, exclaiming, “Nobody falls! But if your gonna fall, go behind me!”

Despite Moseley’s ultimatum, several kids confidently led the way, styling the rails arguably better than the gold medalist.

Moving into the finals, the contestants stepped up both speed and style, attempting such tricks as 180s off the rails and clearing jumps that launched over the entire rainbow box. Every competitor knew what awaited the winner ” a brand new pair of skis from Rossignol.

When the judges tallied their final scorecards, it was 8-year-old Cole Harriety from Truckee who won the boys’ competition and 7-year-old Ava Seelenfreud of North Tahoe who took home the skis on the girls’ side. Rounding out the podium spots were nearly all local rippers.

Charlene Harriety, Cole Harriety’s mother, felt her son’s first freestyle contest victory was a memorable experience.

“Winning will really charge him up,” she said. “It puts a whole new spin on skiing. He was excited about the X Games, and this gave him the opportunity to go for it just the same.”

Added Harriety: “I like that the contest allowed the kids to expand and try new things other than the race course. Cole and his friends prefer freestyle skiing. It’s a lot more fun for them.”

Stepping onto a podium identical to those used in the Jeep King of the Mountain events, the winners received massive trophy plaques made out of chocolate chip cookies ” and, of course, the proverbial bubbly, which in this case was sparkling cider.

Having just seen men’s boardercross winners Shaun Palmer and Nate Holland casually douse fans with champagne without getting even a drop on their own clothes, watching an 8-year-old shake and spray cider all over himself suddenly cleared all curiosity about youth freestyle dominance.

Practice makes perfect, as usual.

1. Cole Harriety, Truckee

2. Phillip Baldwin, Incline, 8

3. Kaz Sosnkowski, North Tahoe, 6

1. Ava Seelenfreud, North Tahoe, 7

2. Ally Laidlaw, Australia, 8

3. Catherine Powell, Bay Area, 7