Skiing on a glacier in Austria is considered, by Boxford native Ryan McElmon at least, to be “preseason” training.
For most winter sports enthusiasts, that might end up ticking off a top bucket list item, but there are much bigger fish to fry for McElmon, a slopestyle skier (see info box for a beginners guide to slopestyle).
“My first goal ever in slopestyle was making it to the X Games and the Dew Tour. I am going to the Dew Tour this year – one of the events is an Olympic qualifier,” said McElmon. “I am still working towards the X Games, which is my ultimate goal.”
The Olympic Games, he said, are “a secondary goal” in his career. Despite the Olympics putting unusual TV sports into viewers’ living rooms in primetime, McElmon said he’s really just in this sport for the fun, the smiles and the camaraderie.
“We’re all friends in the sport, and that’s what this sport was based around. It wasn’t competitive to start,” said McElmon. “When it comes down to it, whoever has the most fun and works the hardest will win – typically, whoever has the biggest smile on their face throughout the day of competition will be on top of the podium.”
It’s the lure of this fun sport that drew McElmon to let it completely change his life. Five years ago, the McElmon family made the decision to uproot from Boxford and move to Park City, Utah, so Ryan could dedicate his life to freestyle skiing, attending academies where he would attend classes on either side of hours per day of training.
He is 19 now, and still working year-round to accomplish all of his goals – whether they draw him to the X Games or to Pyongchang, South Korea, site of the 2018 Olympics.
In early September, McElmon received his application to register for the Olympics, but that doesn’t mean he’s definitely Pyongchang-bound.
“There are five qualifiers, and I get to go to all five of the qualifiers,” said McElmon. “It’s a series, and they look at who has done the best overall in the series, and they’ll choose the top three or four [to be on Team USA].”
No snow, no problem for McElmon – freestyle jumping continues year round, thanks to the advent of pool and “airbag” training.
“We do the water ramps, where we jump into the pool. That allows us to try new things in the air and we won’t get hurt on the landing,” said McElmon. “There’s also a new thing at the Olympic park, which is basically a big, 120-foot water balloon. It’s like a giant bounce house. If there’s a jump we need to work on, we can also work on it there.”
The jumps are pretty uniform and success there brings the lion’s share of the points – practicing rails and other terrain is much tougher.
“Rails are hard to practice. With the jumps you have a general idea for the jumps of what you’ll see, but you never know what the rails will be, they’re always so different,” said McElmon. “For rails, it’s really just balance work, quickness and agility. There’s Astroturf and everything to practice on, but at this level, we’re kind of past that. It’s really just agility and quick-thinking work.”
Many skiers at that high of a competition level typically fly to the Southern Hemisphere, such as the Andes Mountains or to Australia to practice on snow, McElmon said. Mount Hood in Oregon is another year-round skiing locale.
McElmon decided to stay in Park City to work on his jumps and make an early November trip to Austria to begin the aforementioned preseason training. After two weeks of “real snow” workouts, he and his prospective Team USA teammates will take part in the Slopestyle World Cup.
The World Cup, while a big event for European athletes to work towards Olympic qualification, is not a part of the Team USA process. By the time he gets back to the United States, the regular season for skiing will have begun in Park City and he’ll be practicing full time on snow for the bigger competition season.
It’s a busy life, but when you love something and if you have the means, it’s generally a good idea to follow your passion.
“We’re here year round. The whole family has moved out here. I come back to Boxford at least once a year to see people,” said McElmon. “It’s been a lot of hard work, sacrificing all my friends to move out across the country. Through all of this, I lost two seasons to injuries, just freak things that happen to everyone, but I would have gotten to this point a lot faster. It all feels like it’s sort of paying off.
“But it never gets easier – when I was out with injuries, everyone else was getting better, so I have to work extra hard,” he added.
Making the Team USA roster in 2018 would certainly be the fulfillment of one of his goals – albeit a secondary one, as aforementioned – but the prospect of going to Pyongchang carries with it a little concern. The U.S. and North Korean governments have been at odds, and with nuclear weapons in the picture, the whole world is watching to see how everything will pan out.
“That’s definitely scary for us, but you can’t think about it,” said McElmon. “They did a mock event, kind of a test Olympics, and all the venues were fine, but you never know. There was a lot that was questionable about Sochi, too. A couple friends went there and the water from their faucets was brown and their ‘beds’ were on milk crates. The Olympics are kind of glorified to make it all look great, but there’s a lot behind the scenes.”
Security was a major concern in Russia, too, McElmon added.
“When my friends went to Sochi, they were not allowed to wear any team apparel until they got to the Olympic village. They had to wear street clothes and just blend into the crowd.”
If Pyongchang isn’t going to happen for McElmon, that’s OK. He’ll give it all he has, but he is actually more focused right now on competing at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2022.
“Between 24 and 27 years old is the prime age in this sport. There are a ton of guys right now in their prime, and they’ll either go to the Olympics, or try, and whether they go or not, they’ll probably retire after the Olympics,” said McElmon. “For me, 2018 is a longshot, so it won’t be a big heartbreak.”