Snowshoe community forms youth freestyle team

The Forever Wild Freestyle Team includes skiers and snowboarders, ages five to 16. Pictured at Snowshoe Mountain Resort are, front row, from left: Henry Moyer, Payton Moyer, Mia Valach, Zara Fanning and Coach Clay Edwards. Second row, from left: Nolan Ruckle, James Monico, Bridget Moyer, Ahna Valach and Meredith Minter. Back row, from left: Coach Seth Ruckle, Coach Tracey Valach, Edit McMillian and Tristen O’Steen. Not pictured: Ali Gregory, Ayla Fanning, Cuyer Wood and Ascher Smullen. Photo courtesy of Tracey Valach

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

Growing up in and around a world class resort like Snowshoe Mountain naturally leads to an early interest in winter sports – be it skiing or snowboarding. Over the years, teams have been developed for the younger athletes – Linwood Day Care has the Linwood Lizards for children under five and Snowtracks is for those age six and older who enjoy Alpine skiing.

Now, there’s Forever Wild Freestyle Team for youngsters who enjoy competing in events governed by USASA – United States of America Snowboard and Freeski Association.

While the Snowtracks team competes in giant slalom and slope style events, the Forever Wild team has the added bonus of terrain park events for both skiers and snowboarders.

One of the team’s coaches, Tracey Valach, said the freestyle events have more variety for the athletes.

“Both skiers and snowboarders compete in slope style, rail jams, half pipe – those are kind of the three that are in the park, if you will – and then there’s also skier and boarder cross, which is head-to-head competition,” she said. “It’s a super fun event. It’s a series of jumps and rollers and berms. So there are obstacles along the way that the kids have to get over and try to be the first one to the bottom.”

Individual athletes Tristen O’Steen and Mia Valach have both competed in the past in USASA events, but this year, there was so much interest, that Valach said it just seemed right to start a team for all those who wanted to compete.

“My youngest, Mia – who’s eight – said she wanted to try some competitions, and she really fell in love with it,” Valach said. “We really fell in love with it, and then last year we had some friends that are in Snowshoe’s season-long program called Snowtracts that expressed interest in wanting to come to the competitions, as well. Last year, we had five kids, who call Snowshoe home, go to the local events, so we’ve been growing.”

The team has grown to 14 athletes – ages five to 16 – who are coached by Valach, Clay Edwards and Seth Ruckle.

“Two weeks ago, we had twelve kids compete in the boarder and skier cross, and we had a couple more do the slope style the week before that,” Valach said.

Through a little help from sponsors First Tracts Realty owners David Simmons and Pete Monico, Snowshoe Mountain Resort and Rt. 66 Sub Shop, the team has matching jackets and funds for travel to competitions at Massanutten Resort in Virginia.

“It’s just been a really fun, grassroots beginning,” Valach said. “The team is half local kids who live here full-time and half are resort homeowners who are deeply rooted in Pocahontas County. It’s been nice to have local kids, local sponsors and local coaches come together to create something that the kids can belong to. They want to belong to something and want to feel that camaraderie, and the freestyle team has really done that. People are taking notice of the kids on the slope.”

The freestyle events as a whole carry a vibe of friendship and support, Valach said, and she has seen the young athletes flourish during this first season together as a group.

“USASA – from day one – when I met the series directors at the top of the race course, they were playing music, the kids were all bumping around and they say ‘it’s all about high fives and fist bumps,’” she said. “It’s not about all the medals that the kids have won. It’s all about supporting one another.

“I love seeing kids from other mountains giving other kids tips and pointers,” she continued. “It’s just such a neat community of people that supports one another regardless of what mountain they’re from, regardless of what team they’re on. It’s just such a unique sporting event.”

During the season, the athletes pushed themselves to the limit and several ended the season with some great accomplishments.

“Our series held its last event last Saturday at Massanutten,” Valach said. “It was awesome. Tristen [O’ Steen] has been working on a new trick, and he landed an extremely clean five forty off a jump, which is huge – especially considering that he’s only fourteen. It’s really cool to see him have that goal and set his mind to it and do it. He did extremely well. Nolan [Ruckle] had a great weekend. Mia and I actually went to New York, and she competed in a boarder cross up there and she did extremely well up there, as well.”

With the addition of the team at Snowshoe, Valach said there is now something for kids of all ages to participate in depending on their level of skill and interest in competing.

“Now there’s something for everyone,” she said. “The ski team is wonderful. If you want to get into Alpine ski racing and have that kind of experience, it’s fabulous. But, then the snowboarders didn’t really have something and those freestyle ski kids that want to be in the park and do something different, there wasn’t really a home for them. If they want to get into freestyle and snowboard racing, now they can go to Forever Wild. It creates a home for everyone, which is nice.”

The team roster is: Payton Moyer, Ali Gregory, Mia Valach, Ayla Fanning, Zara Fanning, Cuyer Wood, James Monico, Ahna Valach, Merideth Minter, Tristen O’Steen, Nolan Ruckle, Bridget Moyer, Edie McMillion and Ascher Smullen.

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