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IFSA holds North American Junior Championship at Big Sky Resort

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Athletes with the Big Sky Ski Education Foundation Freeride Team pose with their coaches at the bottom of Six Shooter lift at Big Sky Resort. PHOTO COURTESY OF WALLACE CASPER

Eight Big Sky athletes to compete in prestigious competition 

By Gabrielle Gasser ASSOCIATE EDITOR

BIG SKY – After three years of cancelations due to COVID-19, eight Big Sky athletes will compete this week against the best young skiers and riders the continent has to offer in the International Freeskiers and Snowboarders Association North American Junior Championship. This year, they have the home advantage.

Out of 2,200 IFSA junior athletes in the U.S. and Canada, only 175 will compete in this invite-only event for skiers and riders in the 12-14 and 15-18 age categories. The North American Junior Championship, or NorAms, is being held at Big Sky Resort on April 6-10 with qualifier days on April 7 and 8 and finals scheduled for April 9.

“It’s super competitive to get into and they’re truly only letting in the best of the best,” said Big Sky Ski Education Foundation Freeride Head Coach Wallace Casper. “Most people who are getting in have had multiple podium finishes throughout the year.”

During the season, athletes in both age categories must accumulate points at each competition and earn a high overall ranking in the IFSA Junior Freeride Series to qualify. Athletes who perform well in NorAms may then qualify for the Freeride Junior World Championship held in Europe the following season.

“NorAms is probably the most competitive event in the world because the continent is the most established with freeride,” Casper said. “There’s the most teams, the most kids participating, the most coaches. But the world championship event is the hardest event to get into and the most diverse event in the world.”

According to Casper, 10 athletes from Big Sky qualified for NorAms this year and eight are competing. There were also two athletes who competed in the U12 Championship on April 3-5. All athletes aged 8 and up who have participated in at least one IFSA event in 2022 are invited to register and compete in the less-competitive U-12 Championship.

“It’s a reflection that our team is getting stronger and stronger over the years,” Casper said. “It’s been pretty typical for us to only qualify a few athletes. So the fact that we got 10 in this year is huge for sure. Our team is getting better and better.”

Casper added that the local freeride team has reached a point where athletes are standing on the podium every competition, further testament to the growth and improvement in the program.

To host the NorAms at Big Sky this year is also a rare occurrence, Casper said, noting that IFSA is selective about where the event is hosted. To have this huge competition on your home court as an athlete happens about once every 10 years, Casper said.

The Big Sky athletes will have an advantage since they train at Big Sky and are familiar with all the venues, according to Casper. Tricky spring conditions, however, will warrant extra caution from all competitors, he added.

Two BSSEF athletes, siblings Kennedy and Cameron Cochenour, are competing this year. Cameron, 11, competed in the U-12 championship on April 4 and, according to his mom Mary, “he went bigger than he’s ever gone before.”

“I was going down a chute,” Cameron said. “The run was [Don’t Tell Mama] and there’s a big cliff called Cadillac and I hit it fall line, there was a lip, and I was the only person to hit fall line. I backslapped a lot and fell out and crashed. It’s okay though.” 

Cameron didn’t make the cut for finals on April 5, but he is already looking forward to his third freeride season next year.

Kennedy, 14, will compete in the 12-14 age category in NorAms. Kennedy is currently ranked 18 in the IFSA 12-14 ski female category in the Northern Region with 2,174 points.

“I guess I’m putting my nerves in the back of my head until I actually have to go up there and put a run down,” Kennedy said. “But I guess I’ve been preparing by just skiing around and working on my technique and big airs.”

Mary said she feels like she gets even more nervous than her children ahead of competitions but added that it’s fun to watch them progress as they get comfortable with new venues and tricks.

“Freeride, like any sport, there’s peaks and valleys so you have good days and bad days,” Mary said. “This year, she had a lot of good days and some days where she felt like she could have skied better.”

If Kennedy does well on April 7, she’ll compete again on April 9 in the finals.

Casper offered thanks to the volunteers, parents and the resort for helping to make the event possible, calling it a “huge effort.”

Leading into the competition, Casper said he has been skiing with the athletes and each day focusing on one of the five criteria athletes are judged on: Line Choice, Control, Fluidity, Technique, and Style and Energy. He said that Big Sky is an amazing place to be training for competitions with world-class steeps, terrain parks and moguls. He added that all BSSEF staff is awesome, and they hope to not only make the kids better skiers but also make them better people all around.

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