They came from backwoods jumps of Montana to compete on freestyle skiing's biggest stage.
A MontanaPBS Documentary currently in production.
The roar of passing semi-trucks on Interstate 90 filled the air as 12-year-old Bryon Wilson stood on a snowy hillside above 6,300-foot Homestake Pass near Butte, Montana. His eight-year-old brother, Bradley, watched as Bryon took one big step and went flying on his skis down the hillside past weathered pine trees toward the freeway, hurling himself off a homemade jump. He flipped twice in the air before coming to a crashing stop just before a barbed-wire fence.
“Nice one, Wilson!” exclaimed the boys’ mother, Jeannette, as she watched with her video camera from an idling car. “You OK?”
It’s fitting this scene took place near Butte. Once known as the “richest hill on earth” for its copper mining heritage. Butte, America has been home to independent-minded, tough-as-nails people for over a century including those with a daredevil spirit like famed motorcycle stuntman Evil Knievel.
The Wilsons frequently held evening jumping sessions as it was the most convenient way for them to practice acrobatic maneuvers key to the sport of freestyle skiing. It was hard work, and it took commitment from the whole family, but this is the Montana way.
Two decades prior, Stevensville, Montana resident Eric Bergoust tested himself on similar jumps in the backwoods of Lost Trail ski area near Darby. Bergoust would sneak a shovel under his parka, away from the watchful eyes of the ski patrol, so he could craft homebrew jumps in a meadow accessible only by a steep, narrow tree chute. In the summer months Bergoust would dive off his parents’ two-story chimney onto bed mattresses, which also served as the initiation for his “Stuntman Club,” to which he was the only member. These were moments that defined the trajectory of these and other Montana freestyle skiers’ storied careers as they launched from the backwoods jumps of Montana to build a rich legacy earning their place among the world’s best on freestyle’s biggest stages.
In 1986, Montana skiers gathered at Snowbowl Ski Area near Missoula for an impromptu mogul competition, an event that marked the beginning of a new era of sport in Big Sky country. For the following 30 years, Montanans made an indelible mark on the world of freestyle skiing, a thrilling mix of acrobatic tricks, speed, and jumps. In this sport, an aerialist can make or break their career in less than 3 seconds while flipping higher than 50 feet in the air. A mogul skier must navigate snowy bumps the size of cars while skiing at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour and hit jumps that require precision focus.
Freestyle skiing was popularized by Olympic ski-racing legend Stein Erickson in the 1950s when he executed stylish flips off ski jumps. The sport, known in the 60s and 70s as “Hot-dogging,” has evolved from dangerous stunts performed by inexperienced skiers to highly technical acrobatics and skiing, now contested on the World Cup and at the Winter Olympics and X Games, in the disciplines of moguls, aerials and slopestyle.
Montana freestyle skiers are the mavericks of the sport. By 1986 other areas in the Rockies and New England already had robust competitive freestyle circuits and coaching programs, but Montana freestylers were largely self-taught and achieved success through sheer determination. The skiers, who came from blue-collar backgrounds in industrial and ranching towns like Missoula, Butte and Bozeman, were trying to break into a sport historically dominated by families of means who lived near resort areas. These early freestyle skiers braved repeated serious injury and limited resources to participate in their sport. It was remarkable for those skiers to learn the necessary skiing and acrobatic skills with little or no professional coaching or training. They were carried purely by passion for a relatively unknown sport.
“Montana was grassroots kids. It was kids from families that didn't make a lot of money. In the summer they'd buck bales and their parents ran 300 head of cows and they fed cows in the morning before they went up skiing,“ recalls Andy Hayes, a smokejumper and avid skier who became the architect of Montana’s freestyle success. With decades of effort to nurture the sport and the athletes, Hayes paved the way by officially sanctioning the Northern Division of the United States Ski Association, which provided a path of opportunity for talented skiers like Butte’s Bradley and Bryon Wilson, Bozeman’s Heather McPhie, Missoula’s Darian Stevens and Kalispell’s Maggie Voisin. “All these people from the East Coast and Colorado, they said, ‘Montana? What's in Montana?’ But we showed them what was in Montana, and we had people that did really well at U.S. Championships and qualified for the U.S. team, pretty early in the whole development of freestyle,” Hayes said. Early Missoula freestyle coach and former pro mogul skier Kurt Temple characterized an early competition: “I just remember watching them ski down that course. It was really, really steep. It wasn't particularly long, but super steep and difficult. They were throwing big huge triple jumps, and I said to myself, ‘These kids are as good as anybody in the world. It's happening right here.’”
But passion and raw talent isn’t enough to propel these athletes to a successful career. It takes grit and determination to push a body that has already reached its limits one step further. Serious injuries and harsh conditions influence skiers’ path to become a member of this elite group of individuals. Soaring hopes are often followed by crushing setbacks, and, sometimes, redemption. During the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Missoula’s Eric Bergoust won the Olympic gold medal and set a world record for aerials after injuring his ribs in a crash during a training jump. A dozen years later, Bryon Wilson took home the bronze for his extraordinary mogul performance in Vancouver, Canada, after suffering prior injuries. Nobody minded Wilson breaking a rule that day when he waved a Montana flag alongside the Stars and Stripes, showing a pride for his state shared by all these skiers. Missoula freestyle director and former national champion Donovan Power notes, “When we stepped out there it was just our team, which was Montana, against everybody else.”
A new generation of Montana freestyle skiers are entering the sport and embracing new disciplines pioneered by another Montanan, Kalispell native Tanner Hall. His meteoric rise to fame in the 1990s from a mogul skier to freeskiing pioneer, and his knack for pushing the limits, made freeskiing a household term, and eventually a World Cup, X-Games and Olympic sport. "Newschoolers," or those who specifically ski in this style, perform tricks on a variety of terrain park features including jumps, rails and half-pipes. Montana’s freestyle legacy continues with the recent success of 2018 X-Games champion Maggie Voisin, who suffered a crushing setback after injuring herself in a training run for the 2014 Olympic winter games in Sochi, Russia. Voisin and Darian Stevens both went on to compete in the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Meanwhile back in Montana, those early pioneers from the 1980s continue to train and inspire the next generation of freestyle skiers. Whether it’s practicing acrobatics on a trampoline in Tony Gilpin’s roof gutter business shop or a swimming-pool-sized airbag in the middle of Mike Papke’s cow pasture, these young skiers learn lessons of grit and determination that can only be gained in places like these. Another generation is once again proving themselves to be Mavericks.
Derived from thrilling international competitions, compelling home videos and original cinematography, Mavericks tells the fascinating, timeless story of Montana’s untold freestyle legacy, through the struggles, victories, and journeys of some of the state’s most renowned skiers, as they share a common bond that is the unbreakable Montana spirit.