In alpine racing you’re confined to a set course and judged on a timed basis. In pipe and slopestyle you’re also on a specific course and judged on set types of tricks on a macro scale. But freeskiing stands apart from these disciplines.
Freeskiing (or “extreme skiing”) emerged on the scene in the mid ’80s as a kind of cross between freestyle skiing and alpine racing, and it focused on creativity and style rather than all-out speed and control. Taking advantage of this new up-and-coming sport, Mountain Sports International and The Subaru Freeskiing World Tour emerged in 1997 within the small town of Crested Butte, Colorado. The company’s co-founders, Adam Comey and Dave Swanwick, both have freeskiing backgrounds and have paved the way for the current state of freeskiing.
There are many types of skiers with a wide array of backgrounds: downhill racers, mogul skiers, and pipe and slopestyle athletes. Due to the ever-changing styles of skiing, judging is conducted by four highly qualified individuals and based on five categories: line, air and style, fluidity, control, and technique. (For a more detailed breakdown on the judges’ criteria, click here.) The great thing about this judging format is it allows for all types of skiers to excel. As many past competitors have discovered, these contests can make or break you. These events are where true big-mountain athletes shine. Variable conditions, low light, and wind are just a few factors involved. Mix those with 60-70% slopes and a reckless bunch of adrenaline-fueled skiers, and you get one crazy show.
At the end of the event, three men and three women stand atop the podium. Whether it was blood, sweat, and tears along with relentless training or just a spurt of good luck that placed them there, all six athletes are thrilled to be in this position, and they undoubtedly deserve it. But what about that one crazy guy who sent the 100+ footer, or the guy who straight-lined the venue top to bottom? That’s where the Sickbird Award comes in. The coveted Backcountry.com Sickbird Belt Buckle is awarded based on no numbered score and no judging criteria, but instead on sheer wow factor, something that made the crowd rise to its feet, confidence and consistency throughout the event, or one of many other factors not on the official judging criteria. Each run that stands out as a potential nominee for this award is signified by the famous call of the Sickbird.
Arnie, the Sickbird, clutching The Buckle.
I had a chance to ask John “Dak” Williams, the creator of the Sickbird, a few questions.
I guess it all started when I was skiing in the Kirkwood event in ’98. Paul “Oak” O’Connor and I, along with the band Kung Pao (Frankie Alisuag, Rueben Villaneuva, and Tom Steel) were out to compete and then play the wrap party. After Paul and I finished our Day 1 runs we decided to not only provide the tunes for the event but bust out the mics and begin to announce the start list and what we witnessed. It wasn’t much at that point, just a bunch of people, skiers, and a really good time. We wound up having a really good time announcing and got a lot of compliments. From there we just sort of made it our own. As we got to be good friends with the athletes and learn their signature ski styles, we found ourselves creating a solid dialogue with a story line and it took off.
The Sickbird was hatched in Snowbird in 1999. The original trophy was, as I remember, a lawn ornament or something like that. It was basically a chrome eagle which we tied a rope around to create a necklace. It was certainly in the days of hucking, as speeds were slower and the dynamic skiing of today wasn’t quite there yet. At one point the now buckle was a big weightlifting belt with a forged buckle riveted on the front. The athletes were required to return it, autographed, and it was handed out to an “overall” winner. I decided that they all deserved to have their own, and it became a buckle that I would design with the help of Montana Silversmiths. From then on each winner received their own. One year in Whistler, I remember, we did not receive the big belt back. Oak and I were staying in a condo in Whistler, and in our bedroom was a large poster of Eric Pehota skiing something steep in the area. It was glued onto a piece of plywood and painted over in clear lacquer. . Well, we stole it off the wall, wrote something on it with a Sharpie and used it as the trophy until we could come up with the belt for the winner. That winner was Kaj Zakrisson. I’m not sure if he still has it but to this day it may have more of a story than any of the trophy-type Sickbirds awarded. I remember our boss, Adam Comey, wasn’t that happy with us tearing it off that wall and giving it away, but Sickbirds are resourceful, so we had to make it happen. Because that’s what the winners do.
The term “sickbird” was actually first used by a friend of ours in Crested Butte, to describe something he thought was insane or unbelievably cool. “Dude, that was sickbird.” I guess it stuck. Sean Crossan was the first person we ever heard mention the word.
The Sickbird Award has gone through many changes throughout the years and continues to do so to this day. Early on it was known as sort of hucking trophy, or at least maybe the athletes thought that somewhat. There was a time when we really had to manage it to bring it back to what I think it really represents, which is someone who has the balls to get in the gate and push themselves a fair bit harder than they ever have, but still within their skill set, and then go out and pin it, with speed, technique, and air. Knowing the athletes as well as we did, we really had an idea of what their line choice, style, and speed would be. When we would see them really dig deep and find themselves putting down a run that took them out of their comfort zones and nail it…well, that’s what the trophy is all about. It’s what has pushed the sport to where it is now.
The Sickbird has always been awarded to athletes who we know would represent it while off the hill as well. When I look back at all the athletes who have won the trophy or buckle, it’s amazing to see what they have gone on to accomplish. I hope it helped them in some small way. It was never given away without great deliberation and discussion. We always took giving the honor very seriously. The folks who have a buckle or trophy are special and have proven it on and off the hill. There are stories behind every win and every individual who has won; one thing for sure, they are all badasses!
That came naturally from day one. I’ve lost my voice many times doing it, and there have been events where the skiing was so solid throughout the field that I could hardly keep doing it. I will tell you that I have scared some of the general public at the events when letting one rip!
I can’t say that there’s one, but to name a few over the years: Jared Mazelich in Snowbird, Geoff Small in Kirkwood, Philou Troubaut in Whistler, Rick Greener in Snowbird, Kaj Zackrisson in Whistler, Francine Moreillon in Alaska (1st woman), Kiffor Berg (the only three-time winner), Drew Tabke in Kirkwood, Jackie Paaso in Snowbird, and of course Tobias Botkin Lee in Kirkwood. The buckle is memorialized in his name, and his run that won him the buckle is still as clear to me as if it were yesterday. There are really so many incredible skiers and runs that have locked down the buckle, I could go on and on. I will say, if you ever want to have a great party, than get them all in one room have them talk about their experiences winning it. I’m happy to see that the award has grown and morphed in the same way that today’s freeskiing has. I’m also happy that it’s in good hands with the guys who make the decision these days. It’s a responsibility that shouldn’t be taken lightly. The athletes deserve that.
There’s a lot more that could be said. Handing this thing to athletes for ten years is something very special, and I know what it means to those who have won. It’s always meant the same to me giving it away. Maybe sometime I can come back, sit down, watch some insane skiing, and give the honor [to an athlete] again!
The 2014 tour kicks off this weekend in Crested Butte, Colorado with an incredibly stacked field of athletes. This year brings some change to the dynamic of the event. With this tour now being a qualifier for the Swatch Freeride World Tour, MSI has chosen to combine snowboarding and the junior tour into one big freeride weekend. With this change there will be two Sickbird awards given, one to the ski field and one to the snowboard field. This will be the first opportunity for snowboarders to take home the Sickbird. There are some heavy hitters to look out for in contention of a podium placement or Sickbird nominations: Kyle Taylor, Connery Lundin, Casey Baskins, Matt Evans, and Crested Butte local Tom Runcie. On the ladies’ side we have Kaytlin Hughes, Katrina Devore, Francesca Pavillard-Cain, and Hazel Birnbaum. From the snowboard field keep an eye out for Jonathan Penfield and Adam Devargas and from the women Iris Lazzareschi, Casey Lucas, and Mary Boddington. Just remember: when it comes down to event day, it is truthfully anyone’s time to shine.
Johnny Collinson taking one home for the youngsters.
There have been many recipients of the coveted award, from European tour veterans Julien Lopez, Guerlain Chicherit, and Adrien Coirier to young up-and-comers Conor Pelton and Ian Borgeson. We’re fortunate to have several Backcountry athletes carry the Sickbird title, athletes such as Sam Cohen, Johnny Collinson, and Drew Tabke.
Drew Tabke competing at Kirkwood, CA.
“Though a lot of people will explain the Sickbird as an award for the rowdiest run or most radical maneuver, for me it’s bigger than that. The Sickbird is about not just what a person does in the competition, but about that person’s dedication and passion for the entire lifestyle around freeskiing. When I won at Kirkwood in 2007 it was incredibly meaningful. I was still a new, young rider, and the award represented being accepted and celebrated by a community of people that I very much respected and loved. Furthermore, the winner of the Kirkwood Sickbird the previous year was Tobias Botkin Lee who passed away in a skiing accident that spring. The award now carries his name in memorial. The buckle is a powerful symbol that I cherish greatly.”
“I would say it is most important to me as a connection to the spirit of the sport and the other skiers who have been honored with it, and an occasional reminder that I used to be a bit more badass.”
Crested Butte, CO
Abe Greenspan (snowboard)
George Rodney (ski)
Ivan Malakhov (ski)
Christopher Galvin (snowboard)
Big Sky, MN
Tristan Brown (ski)
Jonathan Penfield (snowboard)
Conor Pelton – Moonlight Basin
Neil Williman – Crested Butte
Ian Borgeson – Snowbird
Jake Sakson – Kirkwood
Randy Evans – Moonlight Basin
Tom Runcie – Snowbird
Oakley White-Allen – Revelstoke
Leo Ahrens – Ski Arpa
Guerlain Chicherit – Las Lenas
Silas Chickering-Ayers – Snowbird
Josh Daiek – Kirkwood
Gabe Robbins – Crested Butte
Jesse Bryan – Jackson Hole
Sam Cohen – Revelstoke
Drew Tabke – Las Lenas
Mathieu Imbert – El Colorado
Nick Greener – Snowbird
Janina Kuzma – Kirkwood
Mark Filippini – Crested Butte
Kent Hyden – Telluride
Arne Backstrom – Revelstoke
Chopo Diaz – La Parva
Dylan Crossman – Alyeska
Julien Lopez – Kirkwood
Dex Mills – Snowbird
Alex Else – Crested Butte
Mark Welgos – Telluride
Kiffor Berg – Alyeska
Jaclyn Paaso – Snowbird
Lars Chickering-Ayers – Jackson Hole
Kiffor Berg – Crested Butte
Griffin Post – Squaw Valley
Elijah Lee – Telluride
Drew Tabke – Kirkwood
Adrien Coirier – Jackson Hole
Josh Diak – Snowbird
Kevin O’Meara – Squaw Valley
Cliff Bennett – Telluride