Professional Ski Bums
Lifestyle Shift for International Freestyle Skiers; An Exclusive Interview with an Industry Expert
In freestyle skiing, the professionals rarely have a town they can call "home," at least not in the traditional sense. They live on the road, constantly traveling to the next competition, or advertising opportunity, for their sponsors. It’s a fact of the profession in an era of climate change.
This is unusual in winter sports. Or at least it used to be. Young skiers grew up on the mountains they knew; each country trained its own.
Thomas Rollie, a manager of a team of freestyle skiers, has watched this shift take place. From 210 cm long skis and no sponsors, to 178 cm twin tip skis and sponsorship even by large corporations like target.
"Skiing has become a somewhat nomadic sport," says Rollie. "You follow the snow."
With all the chaos of constant travel, the lost bags and living out of a suit case for months at a time, most of the pros seem to cope well enough; some even say that all this has simply become a way of life.
On first meeting off the mountain, he seems like any other American traveling around Europe in a loudly decorated car – in fact, his Subaru is pasted with massive die-cut stickers from the companies that he promotes, the sponsors who keep his team on the road and in the competition.
On the mountain, he is one of the most influential figures on the European freestyle skiing today. He is bedecked from head to toe in the latest sports attire – from his custom goggles mailed straight from the factory, to his boots, custom fitted with state-of-the art shock absorbers, insulating him from the bumps in the slope. More interesting, perhaps, is that he actually helped design everything, and he will sometimes offer a new acquaintance a free pair to test.
But even after meeting people, he is reluctant to show people his passport. He is "from Planet Earth, no pun intended." With the company, that is. He is a nomad, and isn’t sure any longer where he really belongs.
The facts are clear though: he was born and raised in the United States and moved to Germany with his parents when he was eighteen, where he took a job with an American hotel company in Europe, and began his new life. At the age of twenty six, he got his foot in the door of a ski company, where he got his first job shaping the jumps of a summer ski and snowboard camp in Germany.
He now spends all his time on the road traveling from country to country in Europe attending ski competitions to shape the jumps and rails and to monitor his riders.
"In free-skiing, you are constantly traveling, to competitions or to photo shoots for your sponsors. You may very well return, but unless you are attending school, you will never be in the same place for more than a month."
He has been known to attend a ski expo or two every winter depending on snow conditions, to promote his company’s newest products. Rarely in the same country for more than two weeks, he finds himself unable to consider anywhere his home.
"In America, the skiers will ski Colorado in the early season, then move between there and the East Coast for the normal season skiing, and then for the end of season, most skiers will migrate to northern California and British Columbia for the last portion."
But not everyone feels as uprooted as Rollie, and many find their way back when it matters.
"They will always have a home town and will return there for Christmas and other important holidays" [where their families are]."
Other than that, though, they are on the road. In the summer, they take second jobs on glaciers, coaching younger skiers on jumping techniques. Traveling constantly, they have no true town that they live in.
But they can choose.
"Most skiers actually enjoy [the travel]," he said, "because when you have traveled as much as we do, you see a lot, and to have to pick one of those towns, each with its own beautiful features, would be so difficult. So in a way, this just makes it easier for us."
Perhaps. Although Rollie’s tone suggest otherwise; being a nomad is a life of distraction and often of longing, a world of disengagement and lost identity.
What also seems clear is that the growing trend of detachment amongst freestyle skiers is an effect of the growing need for promotion in an increasingly competitive market, as well as, perhaps, the ever worsening snow conditions in Europe and elsewhere. And looking ahead, a change in this trend seems unlikely. The "nomadic lifestyle" movement seems to have gained more momentum over the past few years, changing reality for professional skiers.
"If you want to succeed in [freestyle skiing]," says Rollie, "you have to follow the times.
"And to follow the times, you have to follow the snow."