A statement year for BSSEF
Freeride program shines, Nordic and alpine skiers in the national mix
By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER
The Big Sky Ski Education Foundation is wrapping up its 29th season, the first in which all three main programs—alpine, Nordic and freeride—qualified athletes for national events.
Program Director Jeremy Ueland believes Big Sky is being noticed and recognized for sending more athletes to big events. He told EBS the level of skiing has increased tremendously across the last few seasons, and this was probably one of the most successful years the program has ever had since becoming a nonprofit in 1993. Ueland thanked BSSEF’s coaches, Jessie Lepel for unlocking potential through administrative support, and BSSEF’s board of directors.
Aaron Haffey, alpine junior development coach, told EBS that momentum is siding with the race program.
“We’re making moves in the right direction,” he said. “The last couple of years, Big Sky [has become] a place to produce great skiers. Our cooperation with the resort is key—they give us great training space and access to the resort pre-season… There’s no reason that Big Sky can’t be one of the stronger [race clubs] at least in the Western U.S.”
Haffey believes that if the coaching staff can keep kids psyched about ski racing, the team will be even stronger in a few years.
BSSEF’s Anna Taylor was one of six American girls representing Team USA among 16 countries at the Whistler Cup in British Columbia. Taylor qualified with a strong performance at the Western Regional U14 championships in Jackson Hole, including second place finishes in slalom and GS.
“It’s a huge accomplishment,” said Ueland, who traveled with Taylor to Whistler. “For a lot of the kids, it’s once-in-a-lifetime event to qualify for.”
Only two BSSEF racers have qualified for the Whistler Cup in the past: Andrew Kircher in 2006, and Brooke Brown in 2019.
In her final season with BSSEF, Skylar Manka represented Big Sky at U18 nationals for the first time in recent memory.
Haffey joined Manka at Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire, where her highlight was the 12th place finish on a challenging downhill course.
“[Cannon’s] downhill is very narrow, and the top part is really steep for how narrow it is. It’s a really challenging track with good conditions,” Haffey said. The conditions were not good, some of the roughest Haffey had ever seen.
“That’s the thing I was the most proud about with Skylar, she had to do a training run and two race runs. It was super rough, really icy in spots—it was scary. A lot of girls went into the net that day.”
Manka placed 30th in the Super G. Rugged conditions including high wind, low visibility and 8-10 inches of wet snow made the slalom course “more of an obstacle course than a race course,” Haffey said. She finished 34th in slalom.
Haffey also shined the spotlight on Sophie Davis of Bozeman, who qualified for U16 nationals— only the second BSSEF racer to do so in at least five years.
At the U16 Western Regional event in Sun Valley, Idaho, Davis finished seventh and 11th in the Super G, 10th in giant slalom and sixth in slalom. Her performance qualified her for nationals in Mission Ridge, Wash., where she placed 21st in giant slalom and 10th in slalom.
Haffey also commended U18 skier Drew DiTullio, who bounced back from a January 2022 ACL tear. By late season, she had found her rhythm once again, Haffey said.
DiTullio won the slalom at the U18 Western Regional in Alaska, only placing behind four U21 college racers whose results did not count for U18. Her win came on the second day of slalom, following a disqualification on the first day. Haffey highlighted her mental strength, for recovering from injury and from “heartbreaking” disqualification.
The alpine season’s local wrap-up took place from March 30 to April 2 at Big Sky Resort, as BSSEF hosted a Western Region FIS race. Athletes from Montana State University and Rocky Mountain College helped the race become one of the more competitive in this season’s FIS Elite Series.
“Our races are typically pretty well-attended,” Haffey said. “This one was exceptional, one of the best races we’ve ever held.”
Mittelstaedt skates into top 20 in two Junior National events
Capping another season of unprecedented Nordic participation, Hana Mittelstaedt became the first-ever BSSEF athlete to reach Junior Nationals. She traveled to Fairbanks, Alaska in mid-March with coach Leah Lange, who was also selected to coach the Inter-Mountain Division’s team.
“Alaska was awesome,” Lange summarized in a phone call with EBS.
“Alaska was cold,” she later added. Temperatures hung around minus 20 on most mornings, and many races were postponed until the afternoon. Skiers taped their faces and wore hats.
Lange said the experience was great, as they got to stay with the Inter-Mountain athletes against whom Mittelstaedt competed all season long.
“That’s what brings it above competitive racing and makes it a lifelong sport, which is pretty cool,” Lange said.
On the Nordic track, Lange said Hana seemed happy with her performance.
“I think she was also slightly overwhelmed with how many people there were, how fast everyone is… I think her confidence was a little [low] at the beginning of the week, just by intimidation, but you could watch her grow as the week went on.”
Mittelstaedt finished 11th in the skate sprint race, and 14th in the skate mass-start 5K race. With top-20 finishes in two events, Mittelstaedt qualified for the U16 national camp in July, in Lake Placid, N.Y. Only the 20 best American skiers are invited.
The Inter-Mountain Division finished second place in the Alaska Cup, only 36 points behind New England. With a win, they would’ve become the first team from altitude to win at sea-level. Lange said the Inter-Mountain region has improved vastly in recent years.
She added that there were a surprising number of spectators, including Mittelstaedt’s father who was “the best cheer captain for the entire Inter-Mountain Division.”
During nationals, the entire BSSEF Nordic program wrapped up its season with the Big Sky community at the March 16 Viking Relays.
Singer, Livernois, and freeride team rip hardpack and rep Big Sky
Freeride Director Wallace Casper told EBS that BSSEF’s small-town, 45-athlete program isn’t expected to dominate at the International Free Skiers Association North American Championships. But four out of five BSSEF athletes finished in the continent’s top 10 at the season-ending event from April 5-9 in Kicking Horse, B.C.
Two athletes—snowboarder Elijah Singer and skier Hayes Livernois—qualified for IFSA World Championships in Austria next January.
“With the terrain we have in Big Sky, we’re able to train park, moguls, cliffs, steeps, everything,” Casper said. He gave credit to his coaches, who really stepped up the program over the past six or seven years with the goal of qualifying more athletes for big events.
BSSEF typically qualifies an athlete or two for NorAms, which Casper said is a big win. This season, they brought five despite IFSA debuting a tougher qualification process this year. The level of riding “was off the charts,” Casper said.
Big Sky’s freeride team stacked up against much larger programs from Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, California, Canada and the East Coast—Casper said it’s the best of the best.
Singer topped the podium for 15- to 18-year-old male snowboarders, his first season competing in that division. His qualifying run—the first of two runs, worth half the total score—put him in third place. His finals run vaulted him into first place.
“He did a sick pillow line and straight-lined, again super clean,” Casper said. In addition to NorAms, Singer won multiple regional competitions this season, including Snowbird.
“I spoke with Jeremy Jones after the event. He is very aware of who Elijah is, and complimented his run,” Casper said. Jones’ son, Cass, won the 12-14 snowboard category.
Casper said Livernois’ world-qualifying performance might have been the biggest accomplishment due to the massive pool of competition. Just 15 years old, he bested more than 1,000 North American boys, all fighting for about 5 spots to worlds.
Livernois finished second place, sharing the podium with skiers from Colorado and California. He’s the first BSSEF skier to qualify for worlds in about 10 years.
“Couple huge 3’s, some really big airs—it was flawless,” Casper said.
Hayes’ sister, Kira Livernois, was a strong bet in the 12- to 14-year-old female skier category. Unfortunately, she crashed while attempting a big 360 in the finals. Casper said she put it all on the table and went for it, deserving kudos. She still managed to finish 10th place, and fourth overall throughout the season.
Kennedy Cochenour did win that category. Casper said her qualifying run was flawless—she linked four technical features, with a couple grabs—and all she needed from her finals run was to stay on her feet and ski clean.
“Kendo has been on the team since she was 10,” Casper said. “That’s the absolute youngest we’ve ever let on the freeride team, so she’s always been an outstanding athlete. Lives in Helena, so she only trains on weekends. She maintains a 4.0 GPA, a pretty standout all-around person.”
BSSEF skier Mac Bertelson finished 30th in the 12-14 male ski category.
“We’re all just one team,” Casper said. “All the kids know each other and ski with all the coaches collectively. I definitely think the new coaches we hired this year helped us step it up. Kevin Nichols has a lot of Freeride World Tour experience… Robert Hawthorn, he’s been helping with big picture stuff with the team.”
Casper added that NorAm’s can be a mixed bag for conditions, because it happens so late in the season. Some years, freeze-thaw cycles create inaccurate results throughout a competition day—hard and fast for the morning runs, soft and sticky by afternoon. At Kicking Horse, conditions set up just right for Big Sky freeriders: a “low tide” snow year, combined with a cold spring.
“Our kids definitely do well in rocky hardpack,” Casper said.