Nicholas Ford first put on a pair of skis when he was just 3 years old. So it’s no surprise that, at 14, skiing has become his life’s passion.
But unlike his ski enthusiast parents, Ford’s skis are not always planted firmly in the powder.
For kids these days, the air is where it’s at.
Ford, an eighth-grader at the Tuckahoe School, has established himself as a competitive slopestyle skier, finding success and thrills in a sport that has exploded in popularity since it made its debut at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Before its Olympic moment, slopestyle skiing and snowboarding both were largely niche sports, known only to the X Games crowd.
It’s not hard to see why slopestyle skiing and snowboarding have become the preferred mountain sports of teenagers. In slopestyle, skiers and snowboarders create a set routine for a run over a course that includes jumps—where they showcase flips, twists and turns that vary in difficulty—and rails, on which they grind their skis or board with more creative flips and turns. Their performance is judged on degree of difficulty and execution.
The East End is not exactly a breeding ground for ski and snowboard phenoms, for obvious topographical reasons. Ford’s parents, Jon and Maureen, always made ski trips a regular occurrence and would even travel west to Utah on occasion, but Ford’s foray into slopestyle began five years ago, thanks to a friend, Luke Corrigan, whose family had moved to northern Vermont.
The Fords went to visit them there and fell in love with the area, and with Burke Mountain in particular. The rustic locale and short lift lines were appealing. Before long, Ford was enrolled in a ski school program, and his family began spending their winters at Burke, with Ford using an online home-schooling program from January through March, before returning to classes at Tuckahoe School.
In an interview last week, Ford said he fell in love with slopestyle right away, but added that he didn’t get serious about competition until the last few years. He did his first competition in 2012, and made it on the podium for the first time in 2013. “I was just having fun and learning how to hit the jumps and rails,” he said of the his early days in the sport.
By 2014, Ford was excelling in the Northern Vermont region, having mastered flips, which he said was a big moment, the result of plenty of dry-land practice during summers at camp in Colorado, where skiers and snowboarders work on their routines at indoor facilities on trampolines and other forgiving surfaces. “I was getting inverted, which was a big step for me,” he said.
The hard work has paid off, as Ford finished the most recent season ranked first in the Northern Vermont region in both slopestyle (in the 13-to-15-year-old skier mens division) and rail jam (in the 10-to-13-year-old skier boys division). Rail jam is a variation of slopestyle, where skiers see how many tricks they can land, off rails, in a fixed amount of time. At the United States of America Snowboard Association Nationals at Copper Mountain in Colorado in early April, Ford finished ninth out of 55 competitors in rail jam, and 36th out of 157 in slopestyle.
On the cusp of high school, Ford and his father say that they don’t have a concrete plan yet for next year, in terms of where Ford will go to school and how much time he will spend in Vermont. They both agree that academics are the top priority, especially because Ford maintains an A average and takes advanced classes.
Mr. Ford says balancing skiing and school is a good problem to have, and he and his wife see only benefits from their son’s involvement in the sport.
“I think it’s fantastic, because it teaches him goal-setting,” he said. “And it translates well to school. It’s also a great opportunity to spend family time together, explore a new section of the country and have new experiences.”
Ford’s coach, Jon Unsworth, said his pupil has been a great role model for some of the younger members of the freestyle ski team at Burke, which has grown in size from just three kids when Ford joined to double digits now. “He’s super dedicated to the sport and his studies,” he said. “All the kids look up to him, and he’s even helped coach them.”
Unsworth added that Ford has been a quick study and believes he can keep progressing into the upper echelon of competitors. “Almost each weekend, he learned something new,” the coach said. “The progression is happening so quickly.”
Despite his obvious upside, Ford has a well-balanced approach to the future.
“I just want to have fun with it and progress as much as I can,” he said. “If I can make it to something like the X Games, or go pro for a couple of years, that would be pretty cool. But, overall, I’m just doing this to have fun and get a thrill.”
For video highlights of Nick Ford’s season, go to https://vimeo.com/126735438.