One of the main attractions of snowsports has to be the environment. The joy of getting out onto a mountain, feeling the adrenalin and excitement as you gear up to take a run, the cold air on your face and then… down, feeling the surface change under your feet, picking up speed and conquering the run. You get to the end and feel great, and when you look at where you’ve been, you feel respect and awe for the incredible experience that nature has given you.
Free skiing takes this to whole other level. It’s a relatively new discipline, and featured for the first time at the Winter Olympics in 2014. From the Olympic perspective, the main competitive free skiing disciplines are halfpipe, slopestyle and skicross. It’s distinct from but related to ‘freestyle skiing’, which tends to refer solely to moguls and aerials.
The 'red jackets'
At Hotham, a small but fast-growing organisation is bringing free skiing to a new generation of skiers. Mount Hotham Free Ski was only established in 2013 but has experienced phenomenal growth, with membership expanding 30-40% each year. You have probably seen the ‘red jackets’ around the resort, confidently taking on whatever the mountain can throw at them.
The training provided by Mount Hotham Free Ski (MHFS) takes on elements of freestyle skiing as well as free skiing and spans ‘big mountain’ skiing as well as moguls and park skiing. As if that’s not enough, they also train in GS and fast technical skiing on the groomed runs. It’s truly a ‘free ski’ environment, no gates, and this stimulating combination develops a broad range of skills and the ability to ‘read’ the constantly changing conditions.
The winter programs take the participants through a variety of winter environments; trees, powder, big mountain, bumps, aerials, and terrain parks. In the process, they’re not only learning tactical and technical skills but also working as a team, learning to read their environment, and developing confidence in themselves.
MHFS also provides out-of-season development programs designed to accelerate young skiers’ ability, including trampolining, water jumping, diving, mountain biking camps, and ice-hockey camps. Their affiliation with Aspen Valley Wintersports means they also run Free Ski camps in Aspen over January, where the Australians share their coaches and facilities.
One of their most successful camps was 2018’s March/April camp in Hakuba, Japan, with participants from NSW, Falls Creek, and Buller as well as Hotham.
Future Olympians - or just for fun
The year-round nature of the programs and the elite calibre of training mean there’s the opportunity for participants to pursue an Olympic Free Style dream if that’s what they are keen to pursue. The contacts created by MHFS Director of Programs Martin Rowley through his own highly successful World Cup Freestyle Skiing career provide an invaluable national and international network for MHFS’s development programs.
MHFS is part of a pathway system creating future champions through the Ski & Snowboard Australia (SSA) pathway, and athletes in the SSA pathway currently constitute ten per cent of MHFS member base.
However, the primary goal for MHFS is to cultivate a life-long passion for the sport of skiing. They do this by developing and growing tactical and technical skills as part of a team that works together to achieving the individual skier’s personal goals.
They also emphasise lifestyle skills, aiming to create a confident and focused decision maker who understands the importance of team work and sportsmanship, respects rules and others, and is supported in learning to overcome fear and obstacles that may hinder a learning process.
From a physical perspective, the training works towards excellence in balance, coordination, core strength and physical awareness. But the bottom line is that it has to be fun.
“All the kids are in it for the spirit and the fun, which is the best way to learn,” says Martin. “They gain lifelong friendships and learn about being better people.”
MHFS uses a membership framework based on that used by the Steamboat Wintersports Club, the club that has won the most Winter Olympics medals of any club worldwide. It supports the ethos of community, which is a critical part of what MHFS stands for.
Building a Free Ski community
“It’s an wholistic approach – it’s more than just what is being done on the snow, it’s about having all the kids within a happy, healthy, productive situation. If it doesn’t work, we want to help fix it – what else is going on? The boundaries of our care don’t stop at skills development, we are a family and we look after each other,” Martin emphasises.
Martin is incredibly proud of what they’ve achieved and what they’re bringing to the mountain. Several of the MHFS families have bought houses on the mountain, so MHFS is helping encourage investment. However, what is more important is that they are giving local kids something new and exciting to do.
Martin’s wife Vanessa, MHFS’s Business Manager and the powerhouse behind the scenes who keeps the organisation running, works tirelessly for no payment and Martin himself has passed up opportunities for the higher reward of what they get back from running the program. Martin coaches four to five days per week.
“I was out working on the mogul course a couple of weeks ago, digging, shaping, moving snow, and I looked around and thought ‘I really love my life’,” he says.
“Our kids are so happy, really respectful and they’re learning, and we are creating top skiers. It’s very rewarding. We have amazing coaches, I work with them to train them and build up their skill level. I want to create coaches who can deliver high levels of coaching.”
Martin Rowley and the origins of Free Ski in Australia
Martin Rowley was born and raised in Thredbo Village, where his parents ran a building business and built a lot of the village.
“When I was a kid, not many people spoke English. Thredbo had a lot of German, Austrian and Swiss people from the Snow Mountain Hydro Scheme,” he says. “I knew a lot of the legends behind the Australian resorts: Grimus at Mt Buller, Zirknitzer at Hotham.”
Martin was one of the original kids in the Thredbo Racing Club around 1971/72 and travelled with the club to North America when he was about eleven years old. This was his pathway to racing, and he achieved national levels. When he was about 16 or 17, his rebellious streak led him to leave racing and gravitate towards the new sport of freestyle, which was brought into Australia by Randy Wyman.
“He brought out the top 10-12 world ranked freestyle athletes, sponsored by Peter Stuyvesant. It was a big budget event, cigarette girls, the lot,” he says.
Martin entered the moguls competition, achieved third place against the top international freestyle athletes, and was hooked. He started to train moguls and freestyle. To make the national team, he had to be able to compete in three events – moguls, aerials, and ski ballet (no longer an event). However the Olympics Committee was not prepared to approve freestyle as an Olympic competition.
Martin was not deterred. He already had a good background in gymnastics and trampolining at school, so had a perfect foundation for freestyle events. At this time there were no freestyle training facilities in Australia so he built his own water jump along the Alpine Way and landed his training jumps into a dam.
World Cup competitor for 10 years
Martin successfully entered the World Cup in the 1983/84 season, spent a couple of years skiing all three disciplines then specialised in moguls. He regularly achieved top 10 ranking internationally and represented Australia in the World Cup for nearly 10 years, based in France.
He says he was very fortunate – he worked hard to find good sponsors, and they supported him. Oakley and Quiksilver were very generous, then he picked up 3M and Thai Airways, and secured grants through the NSW government due to his world ranking.
However there was still no official Australian team and no coaches. It was similar to the current situation for Slopestyle, though the difference is that Slopestyle is an Olympic sport. In 1998 moguls and jumps finally became an Olympic sport.
Martin took part in his last World Cup in 1992/93 then retired to start working privately with Australia’s World Cup mogul athletes, taking training camps to North America then bringing his camps to Australia.
At the time Dave Spears was trying to start a moguls program in Australia and asked Martin to come to Hotham. He arrived in 1994 and over the course of three years created a mogul program that ran for many years afterwards. Three of the children who joined the program became Olympic athletes:
- Jane Sexton (Moguls, 2002 Winter Olympic Games, Salt Lake City)
- Michael Robertson (Moguls, 2006 Winter Olympics, Torino)
- Anita Benning (World Champion Free Ride / Big Mountain)
He took a break to work with his father in the building industry on the Mornington Peninsula but continued to visit Hotham, where he met Vanessa, his wife and MHFS partner.
Seven years ago, Martin found he was missing the ‘giving back’ aspect of his coaching, and with Vanessa decided to try starting up the program at Hotham. Around the same time he was invited to sit on the SSA’s National Freestyle Committee. He found that he was welcomed back into the sport, thanks to his history in the sport.
He was grateful to get strong support from the Mount Hotham Skiing Company, who recognised that the sport was becoming popular and helped MHFS secure accommodation on the mountain.
Today's Free Ski stars
Tristan is Martin and Vanessa’s son, and is well and truly on track to becoming one of Australia’s best Free Ski athletes.
Tristan is too young at 13 for the National Championships at the moment, but was recently requested by the National Olympic Team selector to be a forerunner at the National Moguls Championships at Perisher this week. This is a huge honour for Tristan, and means he will perform the track before the start of the event, testing the race systems and giving the judges a change to practice their observations and judging.
The most important qualification for a forerunner is that they must be capable of skiing the course. They set the line and provide information on course conditions to the officials. A lot is riding on the abilities of the forerunners, and it’s a clear sign that Tristan has been earmarked for development.
Tristan started Free Skiing when he was eight years old, switching from race club in a search for more variety and excitement. “We didn’t do anything other than turn, which was great for practicing turns,” he says. But skiing Free Ski he feels like he is in his natural habitat.
“Everything just flows, it feels free,” he says. Tristan is at a level where he’s been asked to train with the national development team, which will involve special work with Australia’s leading coaches. He is keen to pursue Free Skiing with a view to international competition, and he particularly likes moguls. He starred at the recent Victorian Interschools, bringing home first place in both Division 3 Moguls and Division 3 Slopestyle.
Kareema is twelve, and is also a former race club kid. She loves the way Free skiing enables her to have fun around the mountain but her skills mean she has the potential to become one of Australia’s finest Free Skiers. She competes regularly and loves it – “It gets my heart going!”
She describes Free Skiing as enabling her to really integrate with the environment, having the skills to deal with anything the advanced slopes can dish up on a given day, and being able to create fun anywhere. “You make your own course,” offers Marcus, Kareema’s brother.
“It’s really comfortable, everything just flows,” she says. “You make use of natural features and get to explore the mountains.” Kareema recently placed second in Division 4 Moguls and third in Giant Slalom at the Victorian Interschools.
Both kids talk fondly about how MHFS is like a family, and how much fun it is. They agree that the coaches push them to do their best but are not intimidating – in fact, they’re like parents.
“The coaches are great, you can ask anything and they will help with you it,” says Kareema.
Millie is fifteen years old and did her first season about four years ago. She wasn’t really into racing and liked hitting the boxes and skiing the trees. Free Ski turned out to be perfect for her.
“I get to work on my skills all round the mountain in a short amount of time,” she says. Her favourite discipline is Slopestyle, and she competes regularly. “I love that it challenges me, it’s so scary but the feeling afterwards is amazing.”
Millie takes part in all the dry land training programs, such as lake jumping and diving.
“It’s actually really scary; you have to 100% trust the coaches. But I know that Martin and Coen would never tell me to do something that I couldn’t do.”
These programs help Millie to progress, and she’s keen to see how far she can go in the sport.
“I’ve skied in Hakuba and Whistler, and the skills transferred to those terrains really easily. It just flows on, I didn’t need to think about it.”
Millie recently competed in the Victorian Interschools, where she placed second in Division 2 Slopestyle.
She also echoes the appreciation for the supportive and friendly atmosphere in the MHFS family.
“You’ve got people who have been part of it since the start, you have newcomers, everyone mixes together really well. It’s literally a big family, I can talk to anyone, there’s a lot of trust and understanding.”
Mount Hotham Free Ski’s athletes Mille, Kareema, Tristan and Will who attended the Victorian Interschools are all going through now to the National Interschools this week.
In addition, four Mount Hotham Free Ski athletes are qualifying for the Youth section of the FIS Abom competition, a nice nod to their coach Martin, who won the first Abom thirty-one years ago at Mt Buller. We wish them all the very best of luck!
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