Friday, March 14, 2014

U.S. Freeskiing coach Ben Verge enjoys the moment

His athletes pile up Olympic medals at Sochi


Ben Verge poses with an Olympic award and his Team USA jacket during Saturday’s party to salute the accomplishments of Verge and his athletes, at Greyhawk. Photo by Willy Cook

     Ben Verge, coach of the U.S. Freeskiing Rookie Halfpipe team and a Sun Valley native, has nothing but good things to say about his recent experience in Sochi, Russia.

     “We thought it was just great,” he said recently on a visit home. “The team had gone to train last year and the conditions were difficult so we weren’t sure what to expect.

     “There was also a lot of negativity about security concerns, accommodations and warm weather. But we were open-minded and really excited to be there and it was a terrific experience.”

     Verge, 32, and the 16 athletes on the U.S. Freeskiing team, eight of whom are his halfpipe competitors, were perhaps even more excited than most to be there.

     That’s because the 2014 Sochi Olympics marked the first games at which both men’s and women’s halfpipe freeskiing were medal events.

     Although tremendously popular in the X-Games, Grand Prix events and other competitions, Sochi was the debut of the high-flying sport beneath the Olympic banner.

     Verge’s Americans dropped into the ditch, ready to win it, and win it they did.

     The inaugural U.S. Freeskiing team captured two gold medals in halfpipe—Maddie Bowman, 20, of South Lake Tahoe, Ca., and David Wise, 23, from Reno, Nev., both reaching the top of the podium, draped in the American flag. And Joss Christensen, 22, of Park City won gold in slopestyle.

     The U.S. Freeskiing team ended up taking half the medals awarded in halfpipe and slopestyle. In other words, six of the 16 American Olympic freeskiers brought home medals. Taking into account all U.S. skiers and snowboarders, there was a record 17 medalists, six of them in freeskiing.

     No wonder they had a great time. Let’s just say they were, well, stoked.

     “Of course, winning two gold medals was incredible,” said Verge, who got plenty of Olympic TV time at the starting line, encouraging his athletes. “Seeing this sport that we’ve all fought so hard to get into the Olympics take its spot on the world stage was something else.

     “It was amazing when all of our girls made the finals. Anna Drew (a 20-year-old from Andover, Mass.) tried as 1260, something no other woman has done. She didn’t make it but I was so proud of her for trying. Brita Sigourney’s run was one to watch way up until the end. It really was all good.”

     Verge admits to briefly being concerned about conditions, though.

     “The pipe was definitely a challenge as conditions dictated that we could only train every other day leading up to the competition,” he said. “They were trying to keep the snow in good shape and the snowboarders got it worse than we did.

     “Even for our men, the weather was a challenge. If it wasn’t the Olympics, I’m not sure they would have thrown the runs they did. They really went for it, but that’s what you do at the Olympics.”

     What else you do at the Olympics is find some time to explore the resort and the town that is your home away from home for a few weeks.

     Away from the halfpipe, Verge did just that, finding ample opportunity to enjoy some freeskiing of his own. Known for his commitment to ski every day he is near a slope, no matter the conditions, season, or jetlag, this comes as no surprise.

     “We were there for nine days before we got into the halfpipe,” he said. “I skied every day. Even when it was wet near the bottom of the mountain, there were 5,000 vertical feet above the halfpipe that were amazing. Sochi is a great resort. I recommend it to everyone.”


Growing up on skis

     Verge’s road to Sochi began on the slopes of Dollar Mountain at approximately the age of 18 months when his parents, Judi and Gus, first put Ben on skis.

     The couple came to Sun Valley on their honeymoon and never left. They may not have looked at that toddler and predicted a distinguished skiing career and success as a coach, but his ski-centric family certainly started him on his way.

     “I definitely remember skiing on a leash on Dollar,” Verge laughed. “And my dad used to ski with me in a baby backpack on Baldy. I don’t think they even allow that anymore!”

     Dad Gus Verge dedicated his career to the ski industry, creating the popular Reflex ski pole line in the early 1980s and serving as the president of Smith Optics for years. Ben lost his father when he was only 19 years old, but said he knows he was with him in Sochi and is watching his career.

     It wasn’t long after the racer-chaser stage that Ben started training with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF), carving turns, working on technique and racing.

     In between running gates, Verge carried on the tradition of Sun Valley’s original “hot dog” freestyle skiers who used Baldy’s varied natural dips and curves to create terrain park-like features, way before they came ready-made. In other words, he hucked himself off a lot of cat tracks. But to him, being a great technical skier was non-negotiable.

     “I ski raced with SVSEF until I was 18 or 19,” recalled Verge, a 1999 graduate of Hailey’s Wood River High School.

     He added, “I think it’s so important to get the basics and fundamentals of good skiing that can translate into moguls, gates and into the halfpipe. SVSEF is a really important thing in this valley. Not only does it make you a better skier or rider, it teaches amazing life lessons.”

     Andy Ware, freestyle/freeski/snowboard program director at SVSEF, said that Verge’s disciplined race training helped him excel in racing, freeskiing and coaching.

     “I tell the freeski kids that if they can learn to make a turn the way Ben does, they will be that much better in the pipe,” Ware said. “It’s so important they learn how to carve their skis, bend them and put pressure on them to get them to rebound. That’s how the really top athletes get all that height.”

     SVSEF coach Pat Savaria, who Verge called one of his most important coaches and mentors, said young Ben was not only a great skier, but a great asset to the program.

     “Even when he was 12, Ben would show up to train and would brighten the room just by being there,” Savaria said. “He wasn’t only very athletic, but he was a great kid—very humble and talented with strong character.”

     It was through the SVSEF that Verge also got his first coaching opportunity, setting him on his current career path.

     He explained, “When I stopped racing, I coached for the alpine team for a few years, before deciding to just ski for myself and working as a carpenter. Andy Ware approached me during that time about coaching, but for me, the timing wasn’t right.”

     Ware really wanted Verge for the job, though, not only because of his excellent skiing skills, but because of his ability to connect with athletes.

     “Having those kids trust you when they are going to drop into that halfpipe is crucial,” Ware said. “The pipe can be a scary place. Getting kids comfortable, motivating them and encouraging them is even more important than being able to demonstrate tricks, although Ben could do that, too And he can do it on skis and a snowboard!”

     When he was laid off from his carpentry job, Verge made a decision that would change his future. He agreed to the SVSEF freeski coaching job at exactly the time the sport was evolving and beginning to take shape in earnest.

     “There was no pipeline to advance in freeskiing when I started, no ‘right’ way to do things,” Verge explained. “The sport was happening all over the country and the world and really took off with the invention of twin tip skis. For me, the possibilities of skiing this way are just so fun. I was always psyched about what could be done. I still am. The freedom to create and define the sport was amazing.”

     The first group of Ben’s recruits to this nascent program included Wing Tai Barrymore and Colter Brehmer.

     Verge coached with SVSEF until 2011. As Brehmer and Barrymore continued to progress and grew out of the program, Verge was allowed to privately coach the up-and-coming athletes as they competed around the country and around the world.

     This journey eventually led him to the Junior World competition in New Zealand. There, Verge met Brita Sigourney of Carmel, Ca., Maddie Bowman and Devin Logan. These athletes joined forces with Brehmer and Barrymore forming an unofficial team.

     By the time freeskiing halfpipe Team USA was formed, Verge had a great relationship with many of the country’s most promising athletes. It was a logical step for him to join the coaching staff of the new national team.

     “I hated to lose him from my club,” Ware said. “But if I had to lose him, I was happy to lose him to the new U.S. Team.”

     Verge embraced his new role, thrilled with the opportunity to continue to work with many of the athletes he had already gotten to know so well.

     “We are definitely like a family,” he said. “I spend upwards of 220 days a year with these kids training and traveling and competing. I am pretty attached to them. I have been coaching some for six or seven years already.”

     His athletes think highly of their coach, too.

     One Olympic tradition holds that medal winners may in turn give a special medal called the Order of Ikkos Award to the person who made a significant impact in their lives and their success.  After she won the gold in Sochi, Bowman presented Verge with this award.

     “She is such a great kid,” Verge said about Bowman, now the first-ever women’s Olympic halfpipe skiing champion. “Very gracious and very humble. It meant a lot to me to have her give me this medal.”

     Even before the Olympics, Verge’s skills were appreciated. Verge was also named “Freeskiing Coach of the Year” by the U.S. Ski and Snowboarding Association (USSA) in 2012.

     As a coach, Verge has a new respect for the men and women who devoted themselves to his training.

     “I have a new understanding of the patience it takes to be a great coach, the persistence,” he laughed. “I now see all my coaches in a totally different light.”

     Though to many fans, the Olympics may seem to be the end of the season for our athletes, the pinnacle of success, for Verge and his skiers the season is far from over.

     After a brief sojourn home, Verge headed back to Europe, to Italy and France with the team.

     But on his two-week visit home late in February and early in March, he was just happy to be here, skiing every day on Baldy’s slopes.

     His favorite run? “Plaza, always,” he laughed.

     When he is back in town, Verge also quietly, and without fanfare, returns to his original team.

     “When he is here, he still comes to work with the kids and help out,” Ware said. “Last weekend, he even gave up fresh powder to announce one of our competitions. I am really grateful for the work he has done.”

     Verge said he always looks forward to coming back to the Wood River Valley. “I just love skiing every day. I love Sun Valley. My little nieces are starting to ski and that’s amazing,” he said. “I love to come hang out with my friends and family. It’s home.”

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