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Freestyle Whistler set for big year

Local club marking 30 years



Freestyle skiing might seem to some like a phenomenon emerging in this millennium or even at the end of the last one, but local club Freestyle Whistler is marking its 30th anniversary this season.

The club is still finalizing how it plans to officially mark that milestone, but on snow, it is looking to make the sport accessible to more athletes than ever before.

In a visit to Pique's office, Freestyle Whistler president Jenn Raffler said while many of its athletes train and compete at a high level, there are also many opportunities for those who want to get involved in a more casual way.

"We've done the competitive programming really well. We've got such strong coaches," Raffler said. "I just think that we're maybe a little bit unknown in terms of how comprehensive our recreational programming is, right from kids who are 11 years old, boys and girls. You don't have to be training so hard, there's no pressure that you have to be going to all these competitions and get to the next level.

"Come on in, and your child can ski in an environment with these fun-loving coaches. They can just ski and get to know the mountain and start flipping and get on those rails."

Freestyle Whistler executive director Chris Muir explained there will be programming directed at getting more girls involved in the sport, with a "female-specific coach" being offered to allow them to feel a little more comfortable in the club.

Muir also hopes to team up with the Vancouver Freestyle Ski Club's girls programs in order to provide more opportunities for both, including airbag work.

"The airbag is going to allow athletes that are a little unsure and need to spend a little bit more time feeling things out, as an amazing, progressive training tool, wanting to learn that backflip," Muir said. "The fact that you're landing on something soft and not hard allows you a little bit more time to progress."

Using funds from last year's Ullr Gala and its friends and family campaign, Freestyle Whistler purchased its airbag earlier this year, renting it out to Momentum Ski Camps for its summer camps.

As for its permanent home, the airbag was initially supposed to be installed on Catskinner, but with Whistler Blackcomb's construction in the area, Raffler said the site is subject to change.

"They're determining, with the lift lines going in, where the best location for it is," Raffler said, "but there's definitely a commitment from Whistler Blackcomb to have it on the mountain."

Though the airbag will officially be part of the in-progress National Training Centre facility, Raffler explained that Freestyle Whistler would see benefits beyond more than just regular access to it.

"Freestyle Whistler will operate it, so that's great news for our own athletes. The really great part is that clubs from around B.C.—provincial teams, community teams and internationally, too—we anticipate this as being something that the club can draw funds from and then also just expand our base as well," she said.

Muir added that Freestyle Whistler is offering expanded high-level programming for athletes who could crack the provincial team, but prefer to primarily train here in Whistler. Former Yukon territorial coach Graham Pollock will head up The A Team program.

"We're going to offer them a program that's really catered to what they would like," Muir said. "They're targeting the national team and they're excited about this program. We can ask them what they need to succeed and I don't think that question has been asked before."

The National Training Centre will bring "a full-time, year-round operational moguls course" to Whistler, he said.

"It's the best mountain in North America, yet the facilities for freestyle skiing are sort of lacking," said Raffler. "Right now, Apex is really one of the prime spots for moguls training in the early season. Even our athletes and the provincial athletes are all going there in early December for training.

"The idea of being able to host events like Canadian Open Championships or B.C. Provincial Championships here at home is certainly fitting for the philosophy I would think that the mountain should be heading towards."

The one roadblock to this point has been landing a corporate sponsor to purchase the naming rights. The Whistler Blackcomb Foundation has pledged a matching $300,000 grant, so fundraising will continue until that equivalent is raised. Those funds will be used to build the moguls course, judges' facility and other needed assets.

"(It) is still a little bit uncertain as to when (it will be built)," said Raffler, who later said the hope is for excavation to begin next year.

This year's Ullr Gala is slated for Dec. 1 and will once again be held at the Audain Art Museum. Raffler said last year's attendees will note a couple of changes to this year's event as Bearfoot Bistro is set to cater this time around and, fitting with the Viking theme, Forged Axe Throwing will be onsite giving patrons a chance to huck some hatchets.

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