It's a Friday afternoon in Bloomington, Minn., in the parking lot of a tiny ski area called Hyland Hills, essentially a snow-covered terrain park less than 10 miles from the Mall of America. You might expect to find a group of skiers getting ready in the parking lot here, but on this particular day, there's more activity than usual.
A large white van is surrounded by a mob of young skiers. Drivers trying to pass the van honk their horns as a crowd spills into the parking lot. The van belongs to the Inspired Demo Tour, an idea hatched by ski filmmaker Eric Iberg that involves sending professional freeskiers Paul Bergeron, Phil Casabon and Henrik Harlaut to 50 small ski areas around the Midwest, Northeast and Canada in 66 days over the course of this winter. The plan was for the pro skiers to meet and ski with young local skiers, and to help spread their passion for their sport.
It's easy to pick 21-year-old Swedish skier Henrik Harlaut out from the crowd, thanks to his long, white sweatshirt and his signature dreadlocks, sticking out from under a hat. He's friendly, outgoing and seems eternally happy. A young boy around age 8 looks up to Harlaut and says, "You must be good at skiing."
"You must be good, too," Harlaut replies.
The young boy is right: Harlaut is good at skiing. Among the best in the world, in fact. In January, Harlaut earned not one but two medals at X Games Aspen 2013, including a gold in X Games Big Air for a never-been-done-before nose butter triple cork 1620 and a silver the following day in Slopestyle.
While Harlaut's peers were diligently preparing for Aspen by fine-tuning their tricks on snow and on trampolines, Harlaut wasn't training at all. He was driving around Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, New York and elsewhere hanging out with kids. So why exactly is a skier from Sweden spending so much time in the Midwest during the biggest season of his professional career?
"It's awesome to meet 20 to 60 kids every day," Harlaut says. "They want autographs, posters, photos. It's nice to not be in the environment of filming or competing. We have the time. We don't mind if we have to wait 20 minutes to take a run because we are taking photos. We are doing this for the kids and the industry."
Those close to Harlaut say they're not surprised by the path he's chosen.
"Henrik likes to do things his way," says his father and manager, Erik Harlaut. "He often has a plan and sense for what he needs to improve on. He trains for things without looking at what the others are doing, but his structure is clear."
Henrik Harlaut has a lot in common with the young skiers he meets on the road. He comes from a small place in the world, but he has always had big dreams.
Born in Stockholm, Sweden, Harlaut and his family, including older brothers Philip and Oscar, also pro skiers, lived in the city until Henrik was 9 years old. He grew up ski racing, winning races starting at age 10, and he also played hockey.
It wasn't until his family moved to the ski town of Åre, Sweden, that Harlaut got introduced to freeskiing.
"We had one little jump and no rails at the hill in Stockholm. I never got to explore it," he says. "We always tried to find bumps on the hill to hit with my brothers. But when we moved to Åre, we found the terrain park. Living a minute and a half from the ski hill made it really easy."
He and his brothers would build and ride snow-covered rails made of wood in their backyard. In the summer, they'd cover the rails with Astroturf and keep skiing. "I don't need the very best but it opens my eyes when I ride better things," Harlaut says. "It was almost training but really I just liked skiing a lot."
By age 12, he'd landed his first 1260 -- 3½ rotations -- and two years later, he received a coveted invite to compete at the Jon Olsson Invitational contest in Åre, where, at 14, he landed his first 1440, four full rotations. That year, Harlaut quit hockey to focus solely on freeskiing.
"Henrik was always happy and smiling and he'd let his friends win against him in sports just to make them happy," says his dad, Erik. "We never doubted how far he could go in this sport. If you do what you love most, the results come."The results came for Harlaut this season. Although he has had success in freeskiing contests in years past, until this year, he hadn't been on the podium in a major competition in two years. This winter, however, all of that changed: He has been in the top three of every contest he has entered and in January, he earned his first X Games gold medal.
It was during the Big Air jam session at X Games Aspen on a Saturday night in January that skiers threw their first-ever triples during an X Games competition. But not Harlaut. Not right away, anyway. For the majority of the contest, he was landing stylish-looking double flips.
Harlaut had done nose butter doubles before in competition, using that trick to win a few early-season urban big airs and secure a third place at the Dew Tour stop at Breckenridge, Colo., earlier this winter. But he'd never tried the trick with the extra flip in it to make it a triple.
His friend, mentor and freeskiing pioneer Tanner Hall was at the top of the drop-in for the Big Air jump. "You know what you need to do," Hall said to Harlaut. "If you're feeling it, nose butter trip. Let's set you in the history books. You got that."
Harlaut knew it was time to give it a shot.
"I felt that I could do a triple out of it," Harlaut said later. "I was thinking about it for a month. The whole time I was there [in Aspen] I was thinking about it. The triple was in the spin-it-to-win category, but it was more to shock people. No one had done a nose butter double at the time, and I am the only one doing nose butter dubs and triples.
"Tanner told me I should do it, and I got the feeling that someone that is so core to the sport is telling me to do a triple. I am against the whole push to triples since there are so many more doubles that haven't been done. But having Tanner backing me made it the perfect time."
In the end, Harlaut didn't even need to do the triple to win, but he stomped it anyway, earning himself a perfect score and that spot in the history books. After getting the gold medal that Saturday night, instead of going out to celebrate his victory, he went back to the Armada house in Aspen.
"The next day we had Slopestyle practice. I couldn't sleep that night though; I couldn't believe I had won still," Harlaut says. "The next day I was still super stoked and ended up making it into finals for Slope."
Going into Aspen, Harlaut thought he had a chance for a podium in Big Air but was doubtful that he would place in the top three in Slopestyle. "I went to just have fun," he says.
On Sunday afternoon, under clear blue skies in Colorado, he earned a silver medal in Slopestyle. "It was amazing for sure, beyond every expectation to get two medals," he says. "I wasn't expecting anything in Slopestyle; I just wanted to make it to finals. It was a full-on bonus."
Next week, Harlaut will travel to the French Alps to compete in X Games Tignes in Ski Slopestyle (there is no Big Air contest in Tignes). The Inspired Demo Tour wrapped up in late February and he says he's coming into the European contest with little stress.
"I don't feel pressure. I feel the reverse," he says. "I feel so stoked from what I have done this year. People can think what they want to think but I am not going to have more pressure on myself. The reason I haven't really been on the podium in the last two years is that I haven't been stressing about it, I just went out to have fun and try something new. After time, eventually you figure out how to do it."