Holden Samuels grew up snowboarding the steeps of Big Sky Resort. Now he competes on the world’s stage.
By Julia Barton DIGITAL PRODUCER
PHOTOS BY DOM DAHER AND JEREMY BERNARD COURTESY OF THE FREERIDE WORLD TOUR
In 2022, snowboarder Holden Samuels notched a pair of first-place finishes on the Freeride World Tour Qualifier circuit landing him a spot on the 2023 Freeride World Tour.
At the tour’s first stop this year, Samuels, 23, put down an impressive run at the Baqueira Beret Ski Resort in Spain. He finished second to Michael Mawn, another young Montana-based boarder. In early February, he bobbled a landing in Ordino Arcalís, Andorra and finished in sixth place. Between the two competitions, he now holds the No. 4 spot among the male snowboarders on the tour, but needs to remain in the top five to make it to the FWT Finals and secure a spot on the 2024 FWT.
Samuels grew up in Big Sky in a family of skiers. He skateboarded and had an interest in surfing, so naturally he wanted to snowboard. Once he convinced his parents to let him ditch the skis, he never looked back.
His first snowboard competitions were in the terrain park, but he soon followed his older brother to the Big Sky Ski Education Foundation’s Freeride Team where he became the team’s first snowboarder.
Freeride competitions provide athletes with a venue packed to the brim with chutes, cliffs and natural obstacles, challenging riders to find a unique and technical way down the slope. Samuels traveled around the region competing with the Big Sky Freeride team, and by the time he was 16, he was winning most of the competitions he entered.
In 2018, he was invited to the Freeride Junior World Championship in Kappl, Austria where he took silver.
“I just started really enjoying the fact that [Freeride competition] allows me to travel, see new places and ski new places,” Samuels told EBS. “And I really liked competing as well.”
Samuels injured his ACL at 17, resulting in surgery, physical therapy and a break from snowboarding. He put in the work to heal and get back to his sport, but injured the same ACL again two years later. By this time he was a student at the University of Colorado in Boulder and was having a rough go balancing school and competing in qualifying competitions for the FWT. The second knee injury took him out for an entire season.
“I had a conversation myself and I was like, ‘alright, well I’ve torn my ACL twice. It’s gonna be a long road to recovery. If I want to do this, I really have to commit to it and go head-on in training to qualify,’” Samuels said. “[In 2020 and 2021] I took the winter off of school and did a lot of training in the offseason to try to get strong enough for winter … so after coming back from my second ACL injury is really when I got serious about it.”
With a recovered knee, Samuels entered the qualifying pool in 2022 and made it to the FWQ finals (now called the Freeride World Tour Challenger) which included a stop at Big Sky Resort. He won the competition on his home turf, effectively securing his spot on the 2023 FWT.
Samuels explained that the terrain at Big Sky Resort—particularly the Headwaters—made him comfortable on steep, technical, rocky slopes, a benefit for competing. The conditions at Baqueira Beret reminded him of Big Sky, and in talking about it with other athletes on the FWT, Samuels realized that many riders aren’t used to those conditions.
“I kind of got the sense that, for a lot of people, Big Sky is a terrifying place to ski,” Samuels explained. “There’s rocks everywhere and a lot of the cliffs you’re hitting are over exposure. So growing up in Big Sky and having to deal with riding over exposure and getting close to exposure, you really get comfortable in some pretty gnarly and intense terrain.”
Looking back at his first FWT competition in Spain, he said it felt “surreal.” Many of the athletes have spent at least a season on the tour already, so Samuels hung with the other rookies while they learned the program together. The biggest shock: media coverage. According to Samuels, there’s cameras and reporters around all the time, something atypical of junior competitions and the qualifier circuit.
Beyond the extra media attention, there are a few key differences between the pro competition and the competitions Samuels has competed in in the past. Perhaps the biggest barrier is inspection rules. In junior and qualifying competitions in the U.S., riders get to ski the venue prior to the competition to check out features and plan their line. On the FWT, athletes don’t even get to touch the snow prior to competition. Samuels said it’s been a hard transition, but he believes it is an acquired skill and ultimately benefits all competitors by keeping the snow pristine.
“One of my personal goals is definitely to take everything in and appreciate what I am getting to do,” Samuels said, acknowledging his gratitude toward realizing a dream he’s had since he was 16. “It’s a really special way to experience different locations and cultures. I also get to meet a lot of people from different backgrounds that I never would’ve met if not for this opportunity.”
When he spoke with EBS, Samuels was back on North American soil on his way to Kicking Horse, BC, for the next FWT competition that’s been confirmed for Friday, Feb. 17.
“My objective is to win the tour,” he said. “A big part of my ultimate goal is also to push the level of the sport forward. The skiing category is definitely more competitive and more entertaining than snowboarding, and I want to draw more attention to the snowboard side of the sport and increase the level [of] riding.”
Samuels needs to uphold a top-five ranking after Kicking Horse to qualify for the FWT finals. If he qualifies for finals, he will also be automatically invited back to the tour for the 2024 season. He feels confident that if he places in the top four in Canada, he’ll make it to the finals. Athletes cut after the first three events of the tour are invited to the Challenger series, where they will compete against the top athletes from the FWQ circuit for a spot on the 2024 FWT.
“This is the first time in my career that my friends are able to watch me compete,” Samuels said. “Before this, many of my friends didn’t quite understand what I did and had a hard time following. But for the first time, I actually have people who are able to cheer me on from back home, so there is definitely some motivation to put on a show for them.”
For information about the Kicking Horse competitions or to find livestream video coverage, head to freerideworldtour.com. Samuels also shares information about when he is competing and how to watch on his Instagram @_holden_it_together.