But the five young men and two young women on the rookie squad each face big hurdles on the road to Beijing: U.S. Freeski is allotted just four spots each for the men’s and women’s halfpipe fields at the Olympics.
The rookie team men — Lakewood brothers Dylan and Connor Ladd, Winter Park’s Hunter Carey, Steamboat’s Sammy Schuiling and Aspen’s Tristan Feinberg — will have to get through nine pro team skiers to make the cut, including Pyeongchang 2018 gold medalist David Wise and silver medalist Alex Ferreira. The two women on the team — Winter Park’s Svea Irving and Oak Creek’s Riley Jacobs — are up against six pro team skiers, including Pyeongchang 2018 bronze medalist Brita Sigourney.
“This is the development team,” explains rookie team head coach Ryan Carey. “You’re good, you show a lot of promise, but you’re not quite up to the pro level yet, and you have some fine-tuning you need — that’s the rookie team. But the rookies we have right now are lightning in a bottle: If they’re on, they can be up there with the best, and they each have a real chance to make it to the Olympics. They’re a little wild still, a little loose, but they’re all great skiers.”
The Olympic qualification process began in March at the International Ski Federation’s FIS World Cup event in Aspen and continues in Colorado in December with back-to-back events in the 22-foot halfpipe at Copper Mountain: U.S. Grand Prix December 8-11, and the Dew Tour December 16-19. The halfpipe competitors will then head to Calgary for two World Cup events just after Christmas. The final Team USA Olympic team announcement will be made at Mammoth Mountain in California, after the U.S. Grand Prix event January 6-8.
“It’s fun leading a team in an individual sport,” Carey says, musing about the cast of characters for which he’s responsible. “One of the best things about all these individuals is that even though they are fierce competitors, they don’t want to win because somebody else falls. They want to win because everybody skied their best and they skied better than everybody, so they’re always pulling for everybody else to land their best tricks. They’re a great group of young adults. and I’m thrilled to be working with them.”
Sibling duo Dylan Ladd, twenty, and Connor Ladd, eighteen, grew up in Lakewood; they’re the only skiers from the Front Range currently on the team. The self-proclaimed weekend warriors made the trek up to Winter Park every chance they got as kids, chasing after their older brother, Noah, and their ski bum parents, Mike and Patty, who met while skiing at Winter Park.
After mastering the rest of the mountain as a family, the boys’ focus quickly shifted to the massive halfpipe and slopestyle jumps in the terrain park, where the young athletes soon caught the attention of coaches with the Winter Park Freeski Park and Pipe team.
“I started with the team at Winter Park when I was ten,” recalls Dylan, who graduated from Lakewood High School in 2019 and is now a sophomore at the University of Colorado Boulder, studying business. “At first it was Saturdays and Sundays, then it turned into three days a week, four days a week, five days a week. It got to where I’d go to school in Lakewood for the fall semester, and then we’d move up to the mountains for the winter, doing online school for the spring semester, skiing every day we could.”
Jeremie Livingston, the coach the Ladds trained with at Winter Park, is now the head halfpipe coach for the U.S. Freeski pro team.
“Dylan and Connor started out with our little competition here in Winter Park, King of the Grommets, a fun little contest with a couple small rails and jumps designed to spark interest in joining the team program,” Livingston says. “For kids like Dylan and Connor, who take to the competition side of things, we introduce them to the USASA Rocky Mountain Series, then they can qualify into the NorAm Rev Tour, that next level of amateur competition, then on to FIS World Cup events. Being able to watch them and bring them up from young kids to the adults they are right now has been an exciting path. Keep an eye out for the Ladd boys: They’re right there charging, pushing each other.”
The sibling rivalry is real, from attitude to amplitude.
“Not to be mean, but I would say I’m better than Connor by a little bit,” Dylan boasts. “I kind of have to say that because I’m the older brother, but he’s stepped up his amplitude a lot. He’s got double cork 1260s in both directions, and he’s got a switch double, which is one of the things I don’t have yet, so he’s definitely beating me in that category. Sometimes there’s a bit of arguing between us, but usually it’s not too volatile. Mostly it’s good to know I always have someone there with me through this whole great adventure.”
Connor is a senior at Lakewood High School and set to graduate early, in December, so he can prioritize skiing in 2022. He played running back and wide receiver for the Lakewood Tigers varsity football team, but says that beating his brother in the halfpipe has always been his true calling. He had his day at the 2019 FIS Junior World Ski Championships in Switzerland, finishing first overall, with Dylan way down in twelfth place.
“That one was a big win for me, because it was my first big contest overseas and because it was the first major competition I ever beat Dylan in,” Connor says. “That was a big moral victory for me as a little brother.”
Though they’re obviously aiming for Beijing, both Ladd brothers say they’re keeping expectations in check.
“I’ve got a left double cork 1440 and a right double cork 1260 in my run, but I think it might take 1620s and at least one switch double cork to make that top-four cut this year,” Dylan says, noting that New Zealand’s Nico Porteous took gold in the X Games in Aspen in January as the first skier with back-to-back double cork 1620s in his run. “Everyone else who saw that set out to learn 1620s, ASAP. Meanwhile, I tore my LCL and PCL in my right knee in February and missed out on an entire spring season and summer of training, so now I’ll have about a week to learn dub 16s and switch dubs between the time Copper Mountain gets its pipe open and the first contest.”
Connor, the youngest member of the men’s team, says he isn’t putting that kind of pressure on himself.
“For me, it’s just about skiing the best I can,” he explains. “I’d love to make the finals in some events, and I’d love to do a run with four doubles this season; I have the left double cork 1260, right double cork 1260, switch double cork 1080, and double cork 900. I’m building toward bumping up to the pro team, and I think the 2026 Olympics is probably a more realistic goal. This season, I’ll be happy just to stay ahead of Dylan. He learns one new trick, and then I’ve got to go learn it. I learn another trick, and then he’s got to go do it. I figure if we keep at it like that, eventually nobody will be able to catch us.”
With the U.S. Grand Prix event in Aspen last March already on the books for Olympic qualification, the two women on the rookie team are currently in a better position to make the team for Beijing than any of the male rookies.
Nineteen-year-old Svea Irving is now ranked fifth among American women — behind pro team skiers Brita Sigourney, Devin Logan, Abigale Hansen and Basalt’s Hanna Faulhaber — and is headed to Copper Mountain next month, looking to bump into a top-four ranking. Her rookie teammate, Riley Jacobs, eighteen, is currently ranked seventh.
Svea believes she was born for this path.
“I grew up in Winter Park — we live like three minutes from the ski area — and I was raised as a skier from before I can even remember,” Svea says. “My mom has been an alpine skier her whole life, and my dad has managed Ski Patrol in Winter Park since I was born. My brother, Birk, is a member of the U.S. Freeski pro team. We just kind of fell in love with the sport we grew up on, and here we are.”
Birk Irving, 22, earned his first X Games medal, bronze, in Aspen in 2021. He won two World Cup events in 2019 — first at the U.S. Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain in California, and then at Cardrona in New Zealand. Birk’s success helped Jeremie Livingston make the leap from the coaching gig at Winter Park to his new perch as head halfpipe coach for the U.S. Freeski pro team; he admits he’s a little biased, but says Birk is likely a lock for Beijing.
Svea says Birk is her biggest motivator.
“I was the only girl on the team when I first joined the Park and Pipe team at Winter Park, and I’m grateful that my brother and his friends pushed me a lot,” Svea says. “I think being around so many guys made me a better skier and helped me progress to where I am now. I’m glad there are more girls getting into it, but I wouldn’t trade my experience trying to catch up with Birk for anything.”
Svea has competed in ten World Cup tier events to date, making the finals at several of them and finishing as high as sixth place, but she recently missed an entire year of contests and training to recover from an ACL injury.
“I grew up in Winter Park — we live like three minutes from the ski area — and I was raised as a skier from before I can even remember.”
The FIS World Championships in Aspen in March marked her first competition back after the 2020 injury; she finished eleventh. The event represented the end of the 2020-2021 season, for official FIS ranking purposes.
Two weeks later, the U.S. Grand Prix Aspen event officially kicked off the 2021-2022 contest season and the qualification process for the Olympics. Svea finished eleventh again, landing her in the fifth-place spot, just outside the top-four bubble as qualification events fire up in December — so close she can taste it.
“I’m really excited for this year, because I’ve spent a lot of time training and putting in the work, and hopefully it will pay off,” she says. “I feel the most prepared I’ve ever been. I was just out in Switzerland for three and a half weeks at a training camp at Saas-Fee. I put a lot of work there into my left 900s, switch 720s, right 720s, and another trick I’m really working on, my right 900, so I can have 900s both ways in my run.”
Now a sophomore at CU Boulder as a strategic communications major, she’s striving to balance her studies with the other strategic moves she’s making.
“I’m just going to give it my best and see where I end up, but the Olympics is definitely the dream,” she says. “That’s the entire talk of this year: Everybody’s talking about the Olympics. My email is filled with things about the Olympics; it’s pretty much always on my mind. After being out with an injury for so long and finally having all this training and feeling ready, I would say I’m stressed but excited.”
In the 2020-2021 season, Svea watched as her friend Eileen Gu, eighteen, emerged as a dominant force, winning two gold and one bronze as a rookie at the X Games, a triple threat in halfpipe, slopestyle and big air. Eileen grew up in San Francisco but will be representing China in Beijing.
“I grew up skiing in amateur contests with Eileen, and she’s the fastest-progressing athlete I’ve ever seen,” Svea says. “Even though she’ll be skiing for China and isn’t someone I have to worry about beating to make the U.S. team, what she’s doing makes everything more competitive. She gets out there and gets it done, and it’s insane. And it pushes us to do the same.”
When she was six, Riley started skiing on the moguls team with the historic Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club — founded in 1914 — and began competing in halfpipe and slopestyle events when she was eight. She eventually outgrew the team’s offerings — SSWSC boasts nearly 100 Olympians in its history but isn’t known for its halfpipe program — and as a young teen joined the Ski and Snowboard Club Vail team.
“I’m trying to have a logical outlook for this season with the Olympics on the line, because I know it’s a tough cut and there are quite a few people who could take those spots,” Riley says. “If I pulled everything together amazingly, that could happen, but I also know that might not be realistic. So my goal this year is to work as hard as I possibly can, and if I can make it to Beijing, I would be super-pumped. But I also know that the next Olympics is in Italy, and I think that might be cooler than China, anyway.”
Riley doesn’t need to be humble about it: She spins right cork 900 tail grabs, is known for her switch 720s, and sends her 540s traveling down the pipe, all of which impress judges. She’s now aiming to become the first woman to land a double cork spin in the women’s ski halfpipe competition.
“Riley is all about enthusiasm and passion,” says rookie team head coach Carey. “She loves skiing. She loves the halfpipe, jumps, rails, loves being in the air, trampolines, training, all of it. She loves trying new stuff and is willing to go for it. She’s a sender. She’s a strong athlete and gutsy. She’s super- courageous, and it could be the thing that pushes her into that top-four group.”
The double cork 1080 Riley’s been working on will be the biggest spin in women’s competition if she can put it into her contest runs. Doubles have become a staple of women’s ski slopestyle competition but have yet to make it into women’s halfpipe runs.
“I went to Mammoth Mountain and Mount Hood for post-season training camps in the spring, and then went to Saas-Fee, Switzerland, for a month of pre-season camps in October, and I’m really excited to be working on new tricks, especially doubles,” Riley says. “In Saas-Fee, I was working on my dub 10 and unfortunately crashed and separated my AC shoulder joint in the first week, so I had to take it pretty easy for the rest of the camp. I can’t wait to get back at it, because I’m really excited about putting it all together to show everybody.”
Nineteen-year-old Hunter Carey was in school with Svea and Birk Irving from elementary school through high school, and graduated from Middle Park High School in Granby with Svea in 2020. Like the Irving siblings, he was born to ski: Hunter says his dad coached Nordic ski jumping at Winter Park when he was a kid and put him into ski lessons as soon as he could walk.
“I think his dream was for me to follow him as a Nordic ski jumper, but I was always more interested in trying to do 360s and stuff,” Hunter recalls. “I moved into the Park and Pipe program when I was nine. I knew Svea and Birk from school and from town before that, but that’s when I first started skiing with them a bunch. Birk was my first real inspiration in the halfpipe. And then Connor and Dylan Ladd would come up from the Front Range to ski with us, and we started to become a really solid crew. It feels really special that we’ve all made it this far together, and it feels like this is just the beginning of our story.”
Hunter says he’s most drawn to halfpipe competition because the pipe itself is a blank slate.
“On a slopestyle course, you’re kind of forced to go as big as the jump, because the landing is fixed — you need to make it to the landing without overshooting or undershooting it — but the halfpipe is all up to you and your level of fear: You can go as big as you want or as small as you want,” he says. “I really like going as big as I can.”
Amplitude — going big — happens to be one of the primary judging criteria in the halfpipe, weighed as heavily in the overall scores as execution, difficulty, variety and progression. In 2019, before bumping up into World Cup-level competition, Hunter hucked his way onto the podium in second place at the FIS Junior World Ski Championships in Switzerland, one of the only juniors with double cork spins in his run. A year later he traveled to the same venue for the Youth Olympic Games and finished second again.
“The Youth Olympics in Switzerland was a big deal because it’s not just a skiing event: They had bobsled, ice skating, curling...it’s a whole experience,” Hunter says. “It was cool to meet all these other young winter sports athletes in Team USA uniforms — a lot of them were from Colorado — and to meet teenagers from all over the world who take their sports super seriously. It really cemented my dream of going to the actual Olympics one day.”
He knows this probably isn’t his year: Hunter has yet to make the finals at a World Cup-tier event, and says he isn’t cocky enough to presume he’ll start collecting enough podium finishes in a few weeks to beat out the guys on the men’s pro team.
“I know that’s not what people want to hear, but I’m still very young, and there are plenty of older guys who have a lot more experience, so I don’t have high hopes for it,” he says. “Instead, my hopes are to land the run I want and to at least make some finals so I can be on TV and stuff.”
In the meantime, he’s mostly focused on trying new tricks.
“Skiing is fun and frustrating for the same reason: As soon as I’ve learned a new trick and I’m super happy about it, someone else learns a different trick, and immediately I’m like, ‘Now I have to learn that one,’” he says. “That’s how it goes. But that progression is really cool to see, because none of us wants to plateau. It’s all about seeing what we can do within the canvas of this ice-walled halfpipe, and it’s always more than what we think is possible.”
Sammy Schuiling, 21, was born in Telluride and grew up idolizing Telluride local Gus Kenworthy and his friends, including Denver’s Bobby Brown, a three-time X Games gold medalist. He remembers following the older skiers around the terrain parks, trying to mimic their tricks and cherishing any tidbits of advice they offered.
Skiing is in Sammy’s DNA, too.
“My dad, Dave Schuiling, works for Professional Ski Instructors of America and got a job as director of education at the Rocky Mountain PSIA office in Steamboat Springs when I was ten, so we moved from Telluride, and I spent my middle school years skiing at Steamboat,” Sammy says. “I originally was competing in alpine moguls and park and pipe — a little bit of everything. When I eventually realized I wanted to focus on the pipe, I decided to go to the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy for high school. I lived with a host family there, all four years.”
He now lives in Park City, Utah, where he takes full advantage of one of the biggest perks of being a member of the U.S. Freeski team.
“That’s where the U.S. Ski Team’s Center of Excellence is, and the Utah Olympic Park,” Sammy notes. The former is a massive state-of-the-art training facility opened in 2009, staffed by trainers, nutritionists and sports psychologists, with a gym, indoor ski and snowboarding training ramps, trampolines, the works. The latter includes water ramps — ski training jumps that launch athletes into a swimming pool — that Sammy says are his secret weapon.
“Those facilities are really pivotal to my training,” he says. “I grew up water-amping in Steamboat, so that’s always been a big part of my training, and it’s really nice to have that facility here. Weight training is also really important to me: Being able to be here, have access to trainers, and be in this intense, sports science-driven environment with other athletes is really valuable for me.”
Sammy says he viewed his time in Saas-Fee in October as a chance to systematically plot out the run he’s envisioning for this season’s upcoming contests, including left and right double cork 1260s.
“On the artist and engineer spectrum in skiing, Sammy’s an engineer,” says coach Carey. “He’s dialed. He has a schedule he sticks to, he’s in the gym every day, he watches his video and is thinking about the tiniest details. He’s also very pragmatic: He has a vision of how he wants each trick to be and just ticks away at it until he has it right where he wants it.”
Sammy says his methodical approach comes from his early background as a moguls competitor, before shifting focus fully to the halfpipe.
“I was in the moguls program in Steamboat for a few years and then when I was in high school, coming home from Vail for the summers. There weren’t a whole lot of park and pipe people in freeskiing in Steamboat who wanted to go to the water ramps, wanted to go to the gym, wanted to do that more serious side of training, so I fell in with the moguls team and started tagging along with them,” he recalls. “The moguls team’s approach to learning tricks was very technical, very different from what freeskiing has become, which is sort of this figuring-it-out-as-you-go mentality, chucking yourself and seeing how you end up. I grew up learning very precise takeoff form, edge control, aerial awareness, all those sorts of things, and it’s made me have a much more calculated approach to learning tricks than some of my peers.”
Sammy knows that making the Olympic team is a long shot, but recognizes that if it can be done, it will take the kind of persistence and work ethic that has become his signature.
“I have a run in mind that I think is going to do really well for me this season,” he says. “These first few events will be crucial, and I like that every one of us will have a fair chance. One of the cool things about these qualifiers is that the judges don’t care whether you’re on the pro team, whether you’re on the rookie team, or whether you’re on the U.S. Freeski team at all. Everyone fighting for those spots is on an equal playing field. At the end of the day, it’s really about who works the hardest and skis the best when it matters. There’s not much margin for error in the halfpipe.”
Tristan Feinberg, eighteen, is Sammy Schuiling’s antithesis on the team, bringing chaotic energy, spontaneity and a little bit of recklessness to counterbalance all that cool calculation.
“Tristan’s the firecracker,” says Carey. “Coming up, he’s always been really good, but he never really had any consistency, because he’s not one to do a safety run. He’s either going to land his run and be one of the top guys, or he’s gonna blow up. You don’t try to rein that in. You can’t.”
So far, it’s paying off. Tristan is currently the highest-ranked of the men on the rookie team, seventh among Americans in the 2021-2022 FIS rankings. Pro team skier Aaron Blunck from Crested Butte currently leads the charge after winning the U.S. Grand Prix World Cup event in Aspen in front of family and friends in March.
Tristan grew up in Aspen, just minutes from the famed X Games SuperPipe at Buttermilk, where he watched local heroes Torin Yater-Wallace and Alex Ferreira rise to stardom: They each own two gold, two silver and two bronze medals from the X Games.
“A lot of my motivation came from seeing them take it to the next level, and from Alex being the first to tell me that skiing in the halfpipe is 95 percent mental and maybe 5 percent physical, which is true,” Tristan says. “I credit my career to having the X Games halfpipe practically in my backyard — I can hop on my bike to ride to the halfpipe — and hopefully I can get a spot in that show some day. Maybe this year, because that’s been my dream ever since I could walk. Growing up in Aspen, I wanted to be in the X Games long before I knew about the Olympics.”
In 2019, Tristan won the U.S. National Halfpipe Championships at Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Pennsylvania. But he says that now means nothing.
“For me, the only result that mattered was making it into my first World Cup finals at the U.S. Grand Prix World Cup here in Aspen,” he says of his eleventh-place finish, seventh among American men. “It felt insanely good making the final in front of the home crowd. National Championships is a kiddie contest compared to World Cup events.”
He’s similarly dismissive of the U.S. Freeski rookie team itself.
“Being on the rookie team is an accolade, for sure, and it comes with some tremendous resources, but it’s just a footstep to the bigger picture, and I ain’t resting on it,” Tristan says. “It’s nothing compared to an Olympic medal. I have to take it with a grain of salt, because I’ve seen kids get on the rookie team and plateau, when really it’s not the top of the mountain at all. Rookie team’s cool, but being on the pro team would be cooler, you know?”
Cooler still: making it to Beijing.
“It’s a savage cut to have fourteen of us fighting for four spots,” Tristan says. “Making the U.S. team might be harder than making the final in the Olympics is going to be! There are going to be a lot of people who are upset. This year is going to be insane, because there are going to be back-to-back double cork 1620s, there might even be 1800s, there are going to be people trying triples. I watched five snowboarders trying triples in the pipe in Saas-Fee, and my first thought was, ‘It’s possible. I want to do it.’”
“Being on the rookie team is an accolade, for sure, and it comes with some tremendous resources, but it’s just a footstep to the bigger picture."
New tricks make the game more dangerous, just the way Tristan likes it. With the stepped-up level of trick progression for the Olympic year, he predicts there will be blood.
“Who makes the Olympic team might not necessarily even be about who’s skiing the best. It literally could be who has maneuvered the best around injury over the next two months,” he explains. “The one who has stayed the healthiest might be the one who wins the Olympics, because it’s such a gnarly sport. People get broken off daily. You have to have the guts to suck it up and accept that that’s the sport. You have to go for it.”
Win, lose or broken off, Tristan says that facing his fears in the halfpipe is the biggest adrenaline rush there is.
“There are two kinds of skiers: the skier that skis around fear, and the skier that looks directly at fear and winks at it,” he says. “I know I’m not going to get anywhere if I ski around fear, so I ski straight into it. It sounds twisted and wicked, but that’s the best strategy for the shit that I’m trying to do. When I’m at the top of the halfpipe and I drop in to do exactly the thing I’ve been shitting my pants about doing, that makes me feel alive.”
Whether he makes it to Beijing with his go-big-or-go-home plan of attack is beside the point, Tristan says.
“All that matters now is that it’s showtime, time to climb to the elite level,” he concludes. “My job now is to push myself and every single competitor to ski their best, no matter the result. A lot of my satisfaction comes from lighting the fire.”