The next X

North America's elite freestyle tweeners strut stuff at All-Stars competition

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Larry Pierce/Courtesy

Jesse Wells, 12, of Jay Peak, Vt., tries to keep from biting off his tongue while holding this grab during Friday's superpipe event at the Next Snow Search "All-Stars" event at the Steamboat Ski Area.

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Larry Pierce/Courtesy

Skiers and riders at the slopestyle event were rewarded with a smooth ride down the rainbow rail in the Mavericks Terrain Park after surviving two big kickers and one intimidating step-up jump.

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Larry Pierce/Courtesy

Taylor Owen, No. 35, and No. 22 Madeline Schaffrick compete in Snowboard Cross.

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Larry Pierce/Courtesy

The SI Kids Next Snow Search brought a slew of young international competitors, like Cameron Schuster, 13, from Whistler, British Columbia.

They've got the lingo down. They've got their faux fur-lined, matched-print snowsuits zipped and ready. And they definitely know how to cork out and stomp a big "backside 5" when the cameras are rolling.

Now all they need is a ride to the ski resort.

Skiers and snowboarders born between 1991 and 1998 - the eldest of whom still aren't eligible to drive - got their shot to compete under a national spotlight this weekend at the Steamboat Ski Area during the Sports Illustrated Kids Next Snow Search.

"This is the biggest event in the world for this age group of so-called 'tweeners," event creator and producer Jack Turner said about the season-long national talent search, now in its fourth year. "It's a unique concept for this age - putting together a competition for a network TV show."

The lucky boy and girl winners from six Super Qualifiers, along with the top 25 athletes from the search's finals the previous two years, earned the right to compete at the SI Kids Next Snow Search All-Stars event Friday and Saturday in Steamboat.

The event crowned individual winners in four judged events - slopestyle, superpipe, skier/snowboardcross and a big air finale - as well as an overall winner.

"You can relax because there's not a lot of pressure," said Madeline Schaffrick, a Steamboat local who finished first in the USASA Snowboard Nationals last year. "It's fun because they judge you on attitude and personality."

Turner said overall performance still is the most important judging criteria, but style, attitude and the rider's age also are taken into consideration.

Schaffrick, 12, was one of six locals who competed at the event. She and Grant Murray, 14, earned berths based on their performances at previous Next Snow Search Finals. Turner allowed the home site to invite another two snowboarders, Summer Smalley, 13, and Drew Dummit, 14, as well as two skiers, Chapman Geer, 15, and Adrian Pougiales, 15.

The four snowboarders, all members of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club's freestyle snowboard team, huddled atop the slopestyle course this weekend at the ski area, going over their first of two runs.

"My plan's a backside 5(40) to a switch front 5(40)," said Murray, who took fourth place at the All-Stars slopestyle event last year in Keystone. "Then I'll just air it over the step-up to the down rail and probably do, like, a switch tail to set up (the final rainbow rail)."

Murray's first run didn't quite work as planned. He cited the flat light and the new snow that slowed the riders' jump approaches.

Other competitors took notice, hiking further up the hill to get longer run-ins. Smalley had Collin Jenks give her a slingshot boost out of the inflatable starting gate.

The older competitors found ways to maximize the jumps and throw some of their sports' most progressive tricks.

In his favorite ski event, Geer charged the slopestyle course and lofted a big cork 720 "truck driver" over the second jump, grabbing the tips of both skis through the double rotation.

"That's one of the best competition runs I've ever had," said Geer, who skis with Pougiales on the Winter Sports Club's freeskier team.

"The competition is fierce," Pougiales added. "It's crazy, everyone's going big and throwing down."

Breckenridge's Duncan Adams, 14, upped the ante for his peers with a flawless 900.

For athletes like Adams, who are at the top of their elite age bracket and already have ski, clothing and goggle sponsorships, the Next Snow Search event was simply a fun stop between two premier events against much older and experienced competition - the U.S. Freeskiing Open on Jan. 19 and 20 at Copper Mountain and Aspen/Snowmass Ski and Snowboard Open from Feb. 8 to 11.

For many of the parents, the Next Snow Search has provided the platform to launch their kids from the country's most obscure resorts into the national freestyle scenes. Take Brian Kish, a skier who emerged from the 600 vertical feet of Pennsylvania's Nemacolin Woodlands Resort to compete through the Next Snow Search's qualifiers. Berkley Wilcox had about half that vertical elevation to learn on at Appalachian Ski Mountain near Blowing Rock, N.C.

But even for competitors from much deeper south, like New Zealand's Harry Pettit, the concept is not lost that events like this bring with them the opportunity to become the next Shaun Whites and Tanner Halls of the world.

"I want to try to take it to the next level and bring it back to New Zealand and, naturally, win some other competitions there," said Pettit, 13.

If nothing else, the filmed event can help expose these athletes to potential sponsors.

"I'm for rent," said Pougiales, one of two telemark skiers at the competition. "I'm ready for sponsors, man. Right now, I'm just sponsored by my dad and his back right pocket."

The All-Stars event will be broadcast from 11 a.m. to noon Feb. 25 on NBC Sports.

Visit www.nextsnow.com for full results and information on the Next Snow Search Finals from March 2 to 4 in Killington, Vt.

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