Mountain High: Alpine Meadows Freestyle team gets ready for winter
Freestyle skiing has come a long way from its not-so-distant “hot-dogging” relative, which began to appear on U.S. ski slopes in the 1960s.
Though stunt skiing actually sprouted its roots in the 1930s, the sport did not become noticed until the ski industry began producing movies that featured daredevils twisting and turning their bodies or ripping up mogul fields.
The neon-clad bad boys of the ’80s were eventually taken under the umbrella of the USSA (United States Skiing Association) and began to gain legitimacy in the world of ski racing. Once banned because it was deemed too dangerous, aerial skiing made its Olympic debut in Lillehammer in 1994.
The sport of freestyle skiing encompasses aerials, moguls, big air competition and dual moguls – where competitors ski head-to-head on parallel courses.
While some continue to see freestyling as the wayward step-child of ski racing, many see it as the sport of the future, attracting young, thrill-seeking athletes who are looking to push the envelope in competition.
Craig Beck was one of the original hot-doggers, making classic movies in the 1970s like Daydreamers. Following in his father’s path, Clay Beck skied in several movies in the ’80s like Skiing Extreme and World’s Greatest Skiing Bloopers – donning neon ski boots and performing old school tricks like twisters and helicopters.
These days, Clay is the head coach of the Alpine Meadows Freestyle team, a young group of athletes with a different approach to training and competition. Clay began the Freestyle program at Alpine in 1995 after spending four seasons at Squaw Valley coaching skiers like legend Johnny Moseley.
Armed with a video he made with his father, Clay visited Tahoe and Truckee middle schools in the hopes of recruiting a few brave souls.
“The goal was to have 12 kids for the first year, we got 18,” said Clay, who now coaches 46 team members.
The first team members ranged in age from 11 to 13 years old — a perfect developmental age, according to Clay. This year’s group includes 15 girls and skiers ranging in age from 10 to 22. The team practices three days a week and competes and trains every weekend during the ski season. They also do dry land training in the summer months, including trips to Yosemite, where they recently climbed Half Dome and El Capitan to ready for the upcoming season.
In addition to the traditional practice fare of running and stretching, Clay and his team go bouldering around Truckee and take trips to the cliffs of Emerald Pools – to work on aerial form and team camaraderie. They also trained at the water ramps in Park City, Utah, this summer, using water and water skis to practice tricks.
Taking practice outside the confines of weight rooms and ski mountains is part of Clay’s coaching philosophy.
“My goal is to make it as fun as possible while still working out hard,” he said.
The difference between freestyle training and race training for Clay, lies in the psychological aspect of the sport.
“Many programs focus primarily on the technical aspect of the sport and as a result athletes lose their enthusiasm. I work on establishing a coach/athlete relationship as well as developing strong relationships between the athletes.”
Clay and his staff of five assistant coaches work on balancing fun with a strong work ethic – and the results are evident.
The team continues to grow every year and will be sending two athletes to selections in December for a spot on the U.S. National team. Last year, team member Matt Matuskowitz was the first skier to ever pull an off axis jump in mogul competition at the U.S. Qualifiers.
Clay attributes the team’s success to his “benevolent dictatorship” style of coaching – staying open-minded to new tricks while enforcing discipline.
“I have great respect for the parents of all of my kids,” he added. “They realize that their kids are going to do these crazy things anyway, and so they let them get involved in a sport that lets them do that in a team atmosphere.”
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After COVID-19 disrupted events across the Truckee-Tahoe area, the region’s premier competitive events are back in full swing.