Snow Sports at Holderness, specifically the Freeski program, continues to evolve. This season there is a very small cadre of big mountain/freeski competitors who are making claims for the future. Just a reminder that big mountain skiing is a sport that takes advantage of challenging snow terrain and mixes in tricks. Some International Freeskiers Association (IFSA) athletes choose to take advantage of steep mountains pushing themselves to new levels. In the case of the Holderness program, that steep mountain is Cannon and the world of big mountain skiing is where lines and control matter maybe more than tricks.
The Holderness freeski program started with snowboarding way back in the 1990s. In those early days, math teacher and coach Jeff Nielson took a small group of kids to Waterville Valley where they had a blast snowboarding. Demand rapidly increased and the program formalized thanks to the vision of then Head of School Pete Woodward who hired Alan Smarse to coach the sport.
15 years later, the sport of freeskiing grew rapidly and the various disciplines also grew and now include big mountain, half-pipe, slopestyle, skier cross, and the like. The Holderness program had a parallel level of growth and change. Those four snowboarders turned into 50. As Director of Snowboard and Freeski Program Alan Smarse will tell you, “At that time, snowboarding was new and the craze around the world was nuts. Kids who were former racers and kids just learning to slide on snow wanted to join the snowboarding ranks.”
Alan has been the director of the program since 1997. The school modeled the snowboard program after the successful Alpine program and than later freeski replicated the snowboard program. Half of the kids were on the school or varsity team and half were Eastern skiers.
As Alan tells the story, “Freestyle skiing evolved from moguls and aerials to more slopestyle, more in the snowboard realm. Again, a small group of kids wanted to start that program. [Former Snowsports Director] Georg Capul really wanted to support these kids but wanted it to be structured like the snowboarders. Georg asked me to take over all of those programs, now called Freeski and modeled after our existing structure (Varsity and Eastern). And just like snowboarding did, freeski also took off and in three or four years, it went from four to 42.”
Even with the school’s enthusiasm to offer these snow sports for the students early on, there was some caution because the sport was so new and deemed rebellious. Alan relates that at first, the teams were not allowed to use Holderness vans. The administration was worried that the image of the school would be impacted. “Pete Woodward felt like he solved the problem of image by declaring ‘no baggy pants’ and hiring a Marine -- me!”
That was long ago and the sport continues to evolve. Alan shares that kids like our program because it provides the ideal balance of academics with the joy of freeskiing. Ever mindful of the nuances in competition and demand, Alan again sees a change coming and he is getting ready for it. As Alan says, “Freeskiing is now cool where snowboarding was ten years ago.” And yet, Alan wants to stay ahead of the demand. He recognizes that kids want to do IFSA and big mountain skiing. He wants to support that interest, and this year, he’s picked a few competitive events and has kids at Loon for half time and Cannon for half time. He’s been pleased that he has a few kids looking at Holderness as their first choice very specifically because of this new focus.
Alan gently admits, Holderness is one of the few prep school expanding training in this way. He believes since neither sport is NCAA, students and families appreciate the academic balance that Holderness offers. “As long as we can support kids athletically, and we do, and offer them a higher level of academics, we can help parents support the passions of their kids. We offer an excellent education AND support a student’s choice of athleticism. We provide that essential balance. Our vision is clear.”
Alan also shares that he feels fortunate with the tenure of his coaching staff. Current Snow Sports Director Ivar Dahl has focused on supporting the coaching staff more and streamlining decision-making. This kind of support allows for a gentle building of the programs. This year, the freeski program has burgeoned to over 45 students. Alan is adamant, “We won’t give up quality for quantity and that’s why our coaching matters.”
Alan also wants what is best for the school. “This is a school where our community matters. We focus on multi-sports and have a job program. Kids have to want to graduate from Holderness and can’t be a one-sport athlete.”
What makes the Holderness athletic program distinctive? Alan easily responds, “The average kid will take life-long skills with them when they graduate. They are healthier people. The lessons learned on the slopes or the athletic fields can’t always be taught in the classroom. Kids learn about commitment, find out what it feels like to work their hardest, experience what it feels like to lose, and how you come back from loss.” Alan shares that the best lessons he learned in life were with sports and the military. “Being a good person is more than being a good student. Our athletic programs teach life and moral lessons. Kids learn about themselves and are more reflective. By the time they get to college, Holderness kids are more mature, more self-reliant, and have a solid picture of the world and themselves.”
Alan chuckles with satisfaction and finishes, “I have a three-year plan and will grow big mountain skiing slowly. All it takes is a little vision and to just do it. We do this for the kids.”