THE 2018 WINTER OLYMPICS are slated to start Feb. 9 in PyeongChang, South Korea, and will welcome athletes from around the world. That includes, of course, skiers and boarders from our very own Sierra Nevada. Qualifying events were still rolling as we went to press, but we believe these four homegrown heroes will make the cut—and reading their backstories will make watching them, and cheering them on, all the more exciting.
By Matthew Bieker and Whip Villarreal
MOST 2-YEAR-OLDS are still learning their colors and ABCs, but Maddie Bowman was learning to ski. She spent her second birthday at Sierra-at-Tahoe with her parents, who are both skiers themselves. (Her father was on the professional racing circuit and her mother raced in the Far West division and later became a coach.)
Bowman would go through every ski racing program at Sierra-at-Tahoe, the mountain she now represents, but eventually knew she loved freeskiing the most. And when she burst onto the halfpipe scene in 2012, her skiing career took off. She picked up sponsors and started traveling more for competitions, which took over a large part of her life. Through her teenage years, she was continuously training and competing.
So before Bowman’s first Olympic appearance in Sochi, Russia, in 2014, it didn’t feel like she had to train harder or longer. And when the South Lake Tahoe native ended up in the history books and took home the gold medal in the women’s halfpipe event that year, it felt like another day in the office—until, that is, she had the gold medal dangling from her neck.
“It’s a crazy feeling,” Bowman says, as she reflects on her win. “It’s definitely this insane high that you get and everything feels right. Everything feels like it clicks and it feels like it was meant to be. I think that a lot of athletes get addicted to that feeling and that’s why we keep going. It just feels like that fairy tale that you grew up hearing about with other athletes that came true. It’s like you’re living in one of those fairy tales.”
Heading into the qualifying rounds this time around, at the age of 23, Bowman says the pressure from sponsors and attention from the media was much more intense, but she calls it a learning experience. And she is determined and confident she will end up competing in the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea, where her family will be onsite to cheer her on.
And no matter what happens, she still has her day job: Skiing professionally pays for her expenses and allows her to be free from a regular 9–5 existence. When she isn’t training or competing, she enjoys being outdoors and taking part in the recreational activities the Tahoe Basin offers, whether it is mountain biking or hiking the trails.
Bowman also works with Protect Our Winters, an organization of professional athletes and industry brands that raises awareness about climate change and how it adversely affects mountain resort communities. She lobbies representatives on Capitol Hill to take productive action to protect not only her sport, but her hometown of South Lake Tahoe, which largely depends on snowy winters to generate tourism revenue.
But at the end of the day, free skiing defines who she is. “I just really, truly love skiing,” Bowman says. “For me, it is somewhere I can be myself and where I have made some really good friends who love me for who I am, and that is really special for me. So to continue to do that and be in that environment and make a career of it is pretty special.”
AT THE AGE OF 3, David Wise began learning how to ski with the help of his parents, who were involved with the Sky Tavern junior ski program in Reno. As a child, Wise joined the racing circuit, but as he headed into his teenage years, he convinced his father to let him try freestyle skiing. His father compromised and let him do freestyle skiing as long as he kept racing, which is what Wise’s father did himself as a college student.
But Wise soon realized he wanted to spend as much time as he could off the ground—and he devoted more and more of his time to freestyle. “For me, honestly, I think it was just a good outlet because I was a wild kid,” Wise says. “I finally found something that spoke to who I was as a person and I was able to (satisfy) that need to be off the ground and flying in the air through my skiing. Dropping off cliffs and hitting jumps structured my whole existence and now I couldn’t imagine my life without all those things, without being able to live this fast-and-free lifestyle.”
As a youth, Wise played football and baseball and always thought he would one day be a professional athlete. But because of his small stature in high school (5’1” and 105 pounds), it paved the way for him to become a professional skier rather than a ball player. Although ironically, he would eventually grow into the 6’1”, 195-pound Olympic athlete he is today.
Wise began participating in halfpipe competitions at the age of 13, winning his first U.S. national title at 15 and then turning professional at 18. He quickly added medals to his already crowded trophy rack, including gold medals from the X Games and the FIS World Championships, and would, of course, go on to win the gold medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
“I think that one of the biggest things that I took away from (those Olympic Games) was just how neat it was to be part of a team that’s way bigger than you, your sponsors, your country or just your sport in your country,” Wise says. “We have been traveling as the U.S. freestyle skiing team for years now, (so) I feel like we have a team dynamic. (But) when we were in Russia, I was able to cheer on Team U.S.A. and cheer for sports I would never even consider participating in—the vibe was that everybody was there to support each other. And that was one of the biggest honors of my life, being part of that team and representing the country that made me who I am. That is what I’m looking forward to (now), going into South Korea, just being a part of that team again.”
For the Reno native who still calls the Biggest Little City his home, a lot of his training has remained the same throughout his career. For example, he has the same trainer he had when he was 13 years old—Max McManus—and he hasn’t moved to Park City, Utah, where the U.S. Ski Team is based, because of his affection for the Reno-Tahoe region.
In fact, Wise, who is now 27, says his professional approach has changed from seeking podiums, success and glory to a more personal level of discovering all he can accomplish on a pair of skis.
“That really took the pressure off of me and enabled me to actually compete better because I was no longer worrying about things that were outside my control,” Wise says. “The reality is I could go to Korea and do the best run I have ever done in my entire life, which would be fulfilling my (own) goals, and still not win. So I would say my goal is to make the team first and foremost. And on top of that, I have a couple of runs with some new tricks that I want to do…something brand new that hasn’t been done. Beyond that, if I win a gold medal and get to be the representative for the sport yet again, I would be amazingly stoked. But that is not my goal. My goal is to go and do this run that I have been planning out basically since the last Olympics.”
His cheering section in South Korea for the 2018 Winter Games will be a pretty big one: His whole family is going this time around, including his wife and two kids, his siblings and his parents.
Skiing professionally is Wise’s main job, and he says to ski at this level takes about 30–40 hours a week of training. Though this rigorous training schedule and his young family take up most of his time, he recently wrote a children’s book. “Very Bear and the Butterfly” is set to be published this month—possibly while he is competing in PyeongChang.
“The story is kind of a metaphor for me and my wife,” Wise says. “I was this professional skier and caught up in what I was doing and didn’t really care about the people around me. I just cared about absolutely being the best skier that I could possibly be. Then my wife came onto the scene and made me realize how much more there is to life than just being a really good skier. It made me realize that I had been focusing on all the wrong things all along. Ironically, it’s when I stopped caring so much about success that I was the most successful because my mentality had changed.”
NATE HOLLAND has long been one of the pioneers of the Snowboard Cross discipline, where six racers compete at once to find the fastest lines down demanding and technical tracks. Holland holds eight X Games gold medals in the event, and has found a spot on the last three Olympic teams—but hopes this might be the year he finally takes the podium. After winning the test event in PyeongChang in 2016, he knows the course and has worked hard on the international circuit for his place on the Olympic team.
“With success from the World Cup over in Korea, I feel confident on that course,” says Holland. “It definitely plays to my skill set and my strengths. The hard part right now is making the team, and if I’m able to do that I’m going to be feeling pretty good over there.”
Born in Sand Point, Idaho, Holland found his first tracks at the age of 8 on Schweitzer Mountain. Always an athlete, he knew he’d found his calling when he won his first competition at the age of 12. Throughout high school, he enjoyed a certain amount of independence pursuing the sport—he borrowed a car for the weekend and traveled to competitions all over the Northwest with like-minded friends.
In 1999, he found his way to the Tahoe area and put down roots in Truckee. With the Olympic heritage of Squaw Valley driving his ambitions for the Games, he jumped at the chance to represent the U.S. at Torino in 2006—three years after Snowboard Cross was added to the event lineup for the first time. And while he remembers being “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” 12 years ago, he still feels the passion watching the torch being lit.
“I wouldn’t say it’s not as exciting, I just know more what to expect when I get there,” Holland says. “I do feel the excitement of the Olympics and representing my country; it holds a very special place in my heart—it’s such an honor.”
At 39, Holland has led an extensive career and prides himself on his all-or-nothing mentality when it comes to racing. even as an Olympic medal has eluded him thus far.
“Every time I’ve wrecked I’ve gone swinging, I guess you could say,” Holland says. “I’ve always been in the mix, and that’s why I can be proud of my Olympic career so far, because at the end of the day I’ve tried my hardest.”
While he has little doubt in his abilities, there’s more to stay home for lately in the form of his wife Christen and their 2-year-old daughter, Lux, who Holland says they introduced to the mountain at 13 months old.
“That is a huge part of my life now—being a dad,” Holland says. “I’m into being outdoors: fly-fishing, mountain biking, dirt biking, snowmobiling; I’ve got a garage full of toys. But hanging out with my daughter trumps all that stuff now.”
When asked if there was the prospect for another Holland on the future Olympic circuit, Nate laughed and says that would be up to her to decide.
While he spoke to his family often when he was away for qualifying events, the prospect of the Games loomed ever large in Holland’s mind for the duration of this season, knowing that—even for a veteran—attaining the world’s biggest stage has to be earned at every race.
“I’ve got three races coming up and I need to get a podium on one of (them), which will also set my mind at ease,” Holland says. “Go out and get a podium…that’s my plan right now and that’s where all my focus is.”
Alpine Ski Racer
AT 25, SQUAW VALLEY LOCAL Bryce Bennett has spent most of his adult life as part of the U.S. Ski Team. As a downhill racer, Bennett found success from a young age with the support of his parents—both of whom have strong ties to the local ski culture—and the world-class mountains of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows in his backyard.
“[My parents] put me on the Squaw Valley Ski Team when I was 4 or 5 years old,” says Bennett. “I started going through that development program, which was for sure the best Mighty Mite program in the country at the time. All my friends were skiers, and my parents skied, and all my parents’ friends skied—it was just kind of inevitable being surrounded in a skiing culture.”
Bennett says he was pushed to excel by Squaw Valley’s culture of excellence and its legacy of turning out champions, as well as the influence of other athletes and his coach, Konrad Rickenbach. After earning his spot on the U.S. team in 2011, he trained hard and won the U.S. Championship downhill title in 2013.
While a spot on the 2014 Sochi team wasn’t in the cards at the time, Bennett wowed onlookers the following season, winning his first World Cup points as his play for the 2018 Olympics began to materialize. His strategy for qualifying remains pragmatic though, preferring to leave the racing to the slopes instead of his thoughts: “Right now in my career, I’m trying to get to a place of confidence and consistency where I can make that decision in my head like, ‘I’m a top 10 guy every single race; I’m a top five guy every single race; I’m going to be on the podium every single weekend.”
Any skier will tell you that keeping your balance is key to winning a race, but Bennett projects that sentiment in his life off the mountain as well. He spent the first two seasons on the team in a small condo in Park City, Utah, where he bunked with several teammates, but soon found himself burned out by the training regimen that differed so much from his self-proclaimed “Tahoe lifestyle.” Now sharing a house with his girlfriend in Truckee, Bennett lives a kind of double-life: training intensely on the hills of Squaw Valley for the shot at PyeongChang, and then returning to his friends, family and favorite pastimes.
“I had to come home,” says Bennett. “It was good for me to find my own program. I work out once or twice a day, and then I fish—a lot. I have my ski racing life and then I come home and I have my normal life…It’s really nice.
The prospect of making the Olympic team remains a source of inspiration to Bennett, but he’s keeping the bigger picture in mind as he competes throughout this season. For a guy raised on some of the best slopes in the world, skiing is a constant and doesn’t start or end with the Games.
“It’s just one day of ski racing, and for all my years in ski racing (I know) you can have a bad day,” Bennett says. “But to go and perform and win a medal, that’d be awesome too. I’m trying to pursue my goals and what I’m trying to accomplish in the sport, but at the end of the day, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll be OK.”
For better or worse, at the end of the season you’ll find Bryce Bennett at home—either on the mountains or the lake.
“I’ll be fishing Tahoe,” he says. “So if anyone has a buoy, just let me know.”