Growing up in Jackson, WY gave Crystal an opportunity to start skiing steeps and playing in the mountains at an early age. Her parents, both former ski bums who settled in Jackson in the late seventies, helped kick start her competitive skiing career by getting Crystal into ski racing at an early age. Once into her young teen years Crystal was consistently beating the older girls and was addicted to the downhill event. Soon she was a member of the Western Region Elite Ski Team and continued to dominate at most of her events.
These great performances lead to Crystal traveling with the US ski team for two years. During this time Crystal foreran the 2002 Olympic Women’s Downhill. After putting her college on hold she decided to keep skiing but also purse her educational interests in the health field as well. She skied NCAA for Montana State University, and was on the rodeo team while obtaining her B. S. in Health Promotion.
Upon graduation from college, Crystal decided to give the big mountain comp scene a try. After a successful first year on the circuit, she has not looked back and is well on her way to a top finish in this years overall title. When she isn’t skiing, Crystal can be found mountain biking, alpine rock climbing in the Tetons or Wind River mountains, racing her barrel horse in the Jackson rodeo, guiding whitewater on the Snake River, or personal training clients and friends.
As someone who makes a career out of skiing down mountain slopes, you would expect Crystal Wright's career to have its peaks and valleys. Indeed, Wright's season on the pro freeskiing circuit had its share of ups and downs. We caught up with her a couple of weeks after placing second in Snowbird, UT, at the Freeskiing World Championships; final stop on the Subaru Freeskiing World Tour.
Wright, (28) hails from Jackson Hole, an ultra-rabid hotbed of skiing talent. It’s the sort of place where you need to get a cover photo on a national magazine in order to stand out. Crystal is an Arc'teryx sponsored athlete who competes around the world in 'big mountain' competitions. In these events, skiers must balance – literally – risk and safety. Judges are looking for fast skiing, but it must be smooth. Aerial manoeuvres are encouraged – which adds to the risk – but a crash landing will pretty much destroy your chances of winning, even if you skie the rest of the run perfectly.
ARC: Crystal, tell us a bit about big mountain freeskiing and why you got into it in the first place.
CW: Growing up in Jackson I was a very competitive ski racer, but never lost my passion for big mountain skiing like a lot of racers either lose or never have. Jackson made it possible for me to continue my love for the sport of skiing and as soon as I was done with college racing at 25 I decided to try my first Big mountain competition and became hooked.
ARC: What qualities in a ski run are the judges looking for? Since it's a judged event, do the competitors ever feel cheated, that the scoring was off, somehow?
CW: The line score sets the base for the rest of the scoring. The more difficult the line we choose, the higher the potential score. We are then judged on fluidity, how fluid we ski that line, aggressiveness of the line, control of the line and lastly the technique while skiing that line. Being a judged sport it is very difficult at times; at one time or another, a competitor definitely feels cheated. It can be frustrating, but for the most part the judging is pretty fair. This is why there is usually a panel of five judges.
ARC: One thing I’ve noticed at the comps I’ve attended – you guys don’t really get many practice runs. How do you stay sharp and ski the line that you want if you’ve never been down the run before? How much time do you spend examining the course beforehand?
CW: It is a huge mental game and visualization. I look at photos for a couple hours, trying to figure out where I want to ski. I try to pick alternative lines in case the snow changes. Also always try to have landmarks, because the venue looks completely different when you are on top.
ARC: You compete on two different circuits, the Nissan Freeride World Tour and the Subaru Freeskiing Tour. What are the differences between the two circuits?
CW: The main difference is that one is European based and one is U.S. based. The venues on the Freeride World Tour are untouched, which is awesome but also challenging. The money is better for the women on the Freeskiing World Tour and we do not have to travel as much. The media coverage is pretty good for both tours. The Freeride World tour is a more elite group because you have to be invited and it is only 8 women. I feel that the competition on the the Freeskiing Tour is tougher because we have three runs and start out competing against 30 women. On the Freeride Tour we only have one run. It’s kind of an ‘all or nothing’ mentality. The other tour involves more strategy.
ARC: We followed your 2010 winter season through your various Facebook entries and it sounds like it had its ups and downs, but it sounds like it ended up pretty well for you. Take us through your season from the first event (in Revelstoke) to your season-ending championship run at Snowbird. And don’t leave out the crashes!
CW: This season was definitely tough, but also one of the best experiences I have ever had competing. I started out in Revelstoke, which was my first comp on the Freeskiing World Tour I felt a lot of pressure coming in because I was the FWT defending champion and had podiumed in every event the previous year. I was ready to increase my line and picked a pretty sweet line, but off of my first air I came in a little too hot and missed my entrance to my second air and was above a 60 ft cliff and had to hike out of my line for the first time ever.) So, my season started off a little disappointing, but I was excited to go and compete in Chamonix for the first stop on the Freeride World Tour. I picked out a really aesthetic line, but hit some avalanche derby on my first air and crashed. I was really bummed about not doing well in the first stop, but tried to keep my head up for Austria. I thought this time that I had picked another great line - definitely a little harder line than I usually pick and it is always so hard to tell through visual inspection. I came into a clipped out chute and the snow started to waterfall over rocks all around me, it was a ton of sluff and I had to just point it and as I went I hooked a rock on my takeoff just missing the cliff wall on the side. Once again I walked away unharmed, just a little bit of whiplash.
Next stop was Squaw Valley, CA, finally on American soil. Ha! Ha! I felt a lot more confident in my home country. We were supposed to compete on the tram face and we spent 3 days looking at it and then it was the morning of the comp and an avalanche prevented the comp from happening there. We then had a change in venue, which was more of a huck fest not as much big mountain skiing. We got two runs and the first run I thought I had picked out a pretty sweet line and stomped my top air which was about 30 ft and I was psyched, I then had a little too much speed on my bottom and crashed. It was best out of two so I figured I had nothing to lose and decided to keep my top air and had picked out an amazing air at the bottom. This time I landed my top air in one of the boys’ bomb holes and my knees hit my face really hard, knocking my goggles off my helmet. I was not able to complete my run and woke up the next day barely being able to walk and disappointed, because I had crashed in every freeride tour event.
I was excited to go back to the other tour for Kirkwood, CA. I had finished second there the previous season. I skied conservatively and made it into the superfinals in 5th place. Skiing conservative was not fun for me and I had picked out a line that looked awesome but I did not have the confidence to stick with it on the first run. I decided to ski it but as soon as I dropped into the chute my confidence was gone. I needed more speed to hit my air and I did not have it I hit hard on the lava like rock and cartwheeled about 100 feet. I had so much adrenaline, I did not realize that my knees were throbbing until I tried to ski down. I was lucky that I was able to ski down. My right knee swelled up pretty badly. I stayed off my skis for about a week and it started to slowly heal. I really did not want to end my season on this note. I wanted to be able to compete in Snowbird, where I had won last year.
I got a knee brace and decided to go for the Snowbird comp. By this point my confidence was really low and I just needed a good finish to bring it back. The first run I skied mellow and into 8th place, I was not super happy, but all I wanted to do was ski my line on the finals venue. After the first run I moved up to second place and was stoked. I had a lot of points to makeup. In the superfinals run I finally skied like myself and was stoked. I won that run by 2.5 points! It was not enough to win, but I only lost by a point. I was just so excited to be on the podium again.
ARC: Psychologically, how difficult is it to come back from an injury and get right back into the start gate again?
CW: Being injured is really tough, because it makes it hard to ski to your full potential. I have been injured a lot, but I try not to think about it when I am in the start gate and have confidence in myself as a skier.
ARC: As someone who has competed on the intercollegiate rodeo circuit, I’m sure you’re familiar with falling in both sports. Which is worse – getting bucked by a saddle bronc or chewed up in a rock-studded chute?
CW: Ha! Ha! I do not ride broncos, but I rope calves and race a horse around barrels. Rodeo and skiing are very similar because of the competitive feeling I get before I go. Also both sports are an adrenaline rush!! I think I am more nervous to ski a big line than race barrels or rope a calf even though I have fallen doing both. In rodeo I have a relationship with an animal and in skiing it is me and my skis I need to trust both.
ARC: You’re not likely thinking much about the clothes you’re wearing when you’re airing out a big cliff drop, but are there any Arc'teryx pieces that you especially like for big mountain skiing?
CW: I love all my Arcteryx clothing!!! I love my Hercules hoody, because it is a great underlayer that keeps me warm while waiting at the top, I love the fleece lining. I also love the Fission SV, also very warm and waterproof. The Atom hoody is great for spring conditions and I competed in that in two comps. Very light and breathable.
ARC: What’s in store for the off season, and have you set any goals yet for 2011?
CW: I am hopefully doing a trip to Patagonia in the fall to ski some untouched Couloirs. Not quite as much competing, hopefully more trip oriented stuff and possibly some filming. I am still excited to do some competing.
Check out Crystal's blog at crystalbwright.blogspot.com