The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association named 10 athletes for its first freeskiing slopestyle national team Friday morning. The biggest surprise, however, was who will coach. USSA officials lured freeskiing pioneer Evan Raps out of medical school to lead the Americans at the 2014 Sochi Games.
If all athletes accept their nominations, Bobby Brown, Sammy Carlson, Gus Kenworthy, Alex Schlopy and Tom Wallisch will make up what might be considered the most talented men's team in the world. On the women's side, Grete Eliassen, Keri Herman, Devin Logan, Ashley Battersby and Meg Olenick were selected.
"To be nominated and to be considered one of the world's best enough to make the U.S. team is just a huge honor," Wallisch told ESPN. "These are exciting times for us."
"This is pretty much the biggest honor you can have," added Herman, who has worked out periodically with her teammates this past summer. "I am very patriotic; I love representing America. And this is going to make such a big difference. [USSA] cares so much about their athletes, they just want everyone to do as well as they can do."
The athletes have been keeping their nominations a secret, and Raps said his position was finalized only shortly before the announcement. Jeremy Forster and Mike Jankowski of USSA phoned Raps about three weeks ago to see if he'd be interested in a coaching position. Raps, a former World Cup mogul skier and multidiscipline Winter X competitor with two Big Air medal, had just finished midterm exams after his first semester of medical school at the University of Nevada.
"The timing was right," said Raps, who had been judging X Games and Dew Tour events for the AFP since he finished competing, while earning his undergraduate degree on the side. "I'd been in school for five years, and I just needed to take a break. And with slope and pipe being added to the Olympics, it just seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. School will always be there. I discussed it with the school and they were really psyched for me. They had no problem with it."
Forster and Jankowski offered Raps a choice of either coaching pipe or slope for the U.S. "I chose slope," Raps said. "But we're all going to be working together." Raps said his contract will run through the Sochi Olympics.
Jankowski, who has coached the U.S. halfpipe snowboarding team the past six years, will continue to coach the U.S. pipe skiers on an interim basis, Raps said. "We do want to hire a pipe coach for skiing, but we're not going to rush it. Basically, the athletes have to give the thumbs up for the right person," he said. Carlson, the reigning X Games slopestyle champion, hailed Raps' hiring as an excellent move by USSA. "It's exciting to have someone like Evan leading the team, because he really understands all aspects of the sport," he said. However, Carlson still wasn't sure he was going to accept his nomination to the team. "I'm still trying to decide," he said, estimating he'll make up his mind in the next week. "I'm pretty sure I'll accept it, but I just want to make sure it lets me keep exploring other areas of skiing that I'm interested in, not just limit my skiing to competitions."
Raps addressed another hot topic in the sport as it enters an uncharted path. "The Olympics are important, but progression is also important. My main goal is not to let happen to freeskiing what happened to freestyle [moguls] skiing," he said, referring to the controversy over the limitations on tricks the International Ski Federation imposed on the discipline decades ago.
As for what comes with being named to the slopestyle team, Schlopy said: "They're talking about getting a house at every event where we can all just go and relax. And they'll have physios at every event as well as techs and coaches. Basically anything you'd ever need."
Raps said he plans to "gradually roll out the program, not shock them with it." "This is new for everyone," Raps said. "I'm not here to tell them how to do everything. I'm here to assist them. These guys are the best in the world, and they got there without me."