Tahoe skier chases World Tour dream
Repairing the confidence that was shredded with her torn ACL, MCL and meniscus was the tough part for Hazel Birnbaum.
“I went through physical training, therapy and that whole thing, and I trained really hard prior to every ski season, but it took me a whole year to mentally get back to where I was. It took me a year to just be confident in my ability,” Birnbaum said. “Things happen, but you can’t let them define your skiing career.”
Now, three years later, the former Kirkwood ski patroller is more confident than ever. She’s overcome the mental scar her knee injury left, and she’s ready to shred some tough lines as she heads into a pivotal season that could make or break her competitive ski career.
“You’re competing against other people, but it’s mostly just yourself out there who you’re competing against,” Birnbaum said. “There’s only you and your own ability.”
That ability will carry Birnbaum through some of the hairiest backcountry terrain this season as she makes her way through five elite qualifying competitions in hopes of scoring a spot on the 2014 Freeride World Tour. To earn a spot, she will need to accumulate enough points to rank in the top three among women skiers.
Her journey begins in El Colorado, Chile, this week.
The 27-year-old will compete in her first qualifying competition of the season, the North Face Chilean Freeski Championships, on Aug. 9-10. A top-three performance in Chile is crucial, not just in justifying the airfare, but in giving Birnbaum an early jump in points.
But how do you train for a skiing competition of a lifetime without snow?
“You’re going down there and you haven’t skied in like three or four months,” Birnbaum said. “So I’ve just been training really hard. I mountain bike, trail run, backpack, and then also some cardio core plyometric stuff four days a week in the gym.
“The only thing you can really do is be as strong as you can before you go.”
The rest will be muscle memory; something Birnbaum has plenty of after growing up in Moose Path, Alaska. Last year, she also added some qualifying experience to her resume.
She competed in the Freeride World Qualifying series last season and finished in fifth place overall.
“Last year was a learning curve, learning the venue and what the judges want, and this year I have a better handle on that whole situation and the competitive atmosphere because it’s not just about skiing,” Birnbaum said.
Judging is based on overall impression, which takes into account the athlete’s line, fluidity, control, jumps and crashes. Riders are scored on a scale with 100 possible points.
Prior to the competition, judges check the competition pitches themselves and analyze possible lines and snow conditions while imagining what could be a difficult or a safe line on the face, according to the FWQ website.
Riders do the same thing. Birnbaum, and the rest of the field, rarely get to ride the venue before competition. They may get one inspection run if the snow is crusty and needs to be broken up.
The line Birnbaum picks will be mapped out mentally. She will sit and study her line then visually run it over and over again.
“You just have to walk that fine line of pushing yourself too much,” Birnbaum said. “But I’ve picked that line out. I’ve studied it. I’ve thought through every consequence, and it’s all I’ve been thinking about up until that moment, so I’m really excited to go ski that line when the time comes.”
After Chile, Birnbaum will compete in qualifying stops at Taurus in New Mexico, Moonlight Basin in Montana, Crested Butte in Colorado and Snowbird in Utah. To help with travel expenses she set up a http://www.indiegogo.com donation page.
“I’ve been pretty amazed with the support I’ve gotten from the community and friends,” Birnbaum said. “I just wanted to put it out there and see what would happen.”
What’s happened is people donated $1,500 toward her $2,500 goal to get to Chile. She’ll go to Chile regardless, but those donations are huge.
“I couldn’t have done this without that help,” Birnbaum said. “And it’s small donations like $10 from such-and-such that are really adding up.”
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