today. It’s an eight-year-old boy who’s progressed seamlessly from hitting long boxes to practicing his landing off of the smaller kickers. It’s taken the same amount of time for me to bruise my ass and dislocate my shoulder trying to ride the Dora the Explorer box. It’s a surreal feeling, being envious of an eight-year-old.
Fast forward through three more attempts at the baby box and there I am clutching my shoulder, trying my best not to black out. After the accident, I decide to try my luck at aerials, but I get maybe six inches of air. I’m skiing with fear, and Eric can see it.
“You can’t do this stuff if you’re scared. You tense up and it doesn’t end well,” he says as we make our way back into the lodge. Instead of skiing more, Eric wants me to stick around for Liberty’s freeride team practice.
There’s one skier in particular he wants me to see: a kid who, according to Eric, “skis without fear.”
Tim Steltzer is by far the most advanced on the team. He’s a junior, studying to be an engineer. He’s 20 years old and learned to ski as a kid in his home state of Maine, but never tried any freeride tricks until Liberty built the Snowflex Center.
“We have a trampoline back home and I always loved jumping high and practicing spins,” Tim says. “But I was always too scared to try anything like that on real snow. Learning on real snow is painful.”
Within a week of skiing on Snowflex, Tim had progressed from basic jumping to throwing front flips and Cork 7s. By the end of his first Snowflex season, he was throwing Kangaroo 900s, a double side flip with a 180 that he lands switch. It’s the exact same trick that won the X-Games a couple of years ago.
“I always wanted to try a double side flip because they look awesome,” Tim tells me. “So I tried one and over-rotated. Then I thought, ‘why not keep over rotating?’ Stopping that amount of spin and landing on your skis is difficult, but after a few weeks, I could land it fairly consistently.”
I try to imagine the colossal cojones it takes to A) hit a jump that will send you flying 25 feet through the air…on skis; B) try a double side flip while flying 25 feet through the air; and C) make the decision to try to spin just a little more at the end “because it looks sick.”
I watch Tim throw one massive aerial after the other. He spends almost as much time upside down and in the air than planted firmly on the ground. Tim’s movements in the air are fluid–more like an object that’s been set into motion in the gravity void of deep space than a skier on a fake mountain above Lynchburg, Virginia.
Watching Tim’s acrobatics, it would be easy to think that he simply has no fear, but that would be wrong. Tim gets scared just like the rest of us.
“The first time you try a trick is always scary,” Tim says. “You throw it and you crash. But after that first time, you’ll lose a lot of that fear. After that, it’s a matter of building on that first attempt. You have to progress, going a little bigger each time. Then when you crash hard, you get scared again, and you have to go through the process all over.”
Eric is trying to encourage Tim to pursue freeskiing professionally. If Tim can go from never riding a park to throwing X-Games-worthy tricks within a year, there’s no telling what he could do with the right training.
Regardless of Tim’s obvious talent, making the leap from a standout on Liberty University’s freeride team to professional freeskier is no small feat. Tim knows this better than anyone.
“I’ve got to start hitting bigger jumps. The Snowflex jump is 25 feet. Pros are hitting 50 to 100-foot jumps,” Tim says, adding that he’s timid when it comes to launching those bigger distances. “There’s a 50-footer at my home mountain in Maine that I tried to hit last year. I overshot it. Landed hard. It scared the heck out of me. I’ve got to get over that fear if I’m going to progress.”
It’s comforting to know that even skiers like Tim, who seem superhuman on the slopes, are dealing with the same issues as the rest of us. He has to work up the courage to throw double side flips off of 50-foot jumps in order to go pro, and I have to somehow work up the courage to face the Dora the Explorer box again.
The rest of the team spends time hitting rails under the bright lights that surround the white plastic. The metallic scrape of boards on rails rings through the night