Steamboat Springs Erik Skinner didn’t come to Steamboat Springs planning or even hoping to be a freestyle ski coach. When he took over as the freestyle director for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club in 2002, however, he did so with an eagerness to turn his wing of the club into the best.
“I wanted it to be the best in the world,” he said Friday. “I wanted it to be the biggest, baddest club in the mountains.”
Skinner, who never left Steamboat after coming to town as a bumps-skiing high school student in 1989, has resigned as the freestyle skiing program director with the club and soon will be moving with his family to South Lake Tahoe, Calif.
He leaves content with what he built in 12 years as the head of the freestyle program and 25 years of living, breathing and preaching the gospel of bumps skiing in Steamboat Springs.
“He’s done a lot for the freestyle program and taken it from a small program with minimal facilities to a great program,” said Sarah Floyd, the Winter Sports Club’s athletic director. “He’s done a top-notch job.”
The path to that job for Skinner started a week into the school year when he was just a junior at a Michigan high school. He got an offer to attend The Lowell Whiteman School in Steamboat and jumped at the chance.
He spent two seasons there, skiing for Park Smalley in Steamboat Springs, then logged another season on the slopes with a post-grad year.
“I was good, not great,” Skinner said about his competitive days. “I was crazy enough to be good.”
A knee injury kept him from ever figuring out how high he could have risen, but it’s not something that lingers with him. He turned to coaching right away, working odd jobs in the offseasons in Steamboat to help pay the bills.
He did climb the ranks of the coaching staff, and after a decade guiding young Steamboat skiers, he took over the freestyle program.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said, considering that knee injury.
The world of freestyle skiing has changed radically, certainly since Skinner first set foot in Steamboat Springs and just as much since he took over as freestyle director.
“It’s changed immensely, from the shape of the skis to the equipment to the caliber of the athletes to how fast the athletes are going to what tricks they’re doing and to how the judges are scoring it,” Skinner said. “It’s not even the same sport any more. It is, but it isn’t.”
He came to freestyle skiing via moguls and served as an on-the-snow coach for Winter Sports Club bumps skiers through this season. Park and pipe programs have been added since his tenure began, however, and they’ve grown a great deal.
The Winter Sports Club’s freestyle skiing program was divided this year almost exactly evenly between moguls skiers and park and pipe skiers. Just five years ago, the ratio was more like 75 percent moguls, 25 percent park and pipe.
“It was difficult not to get left behind,” Skinner said.
How those athletes prepare has changed, as well. There now are three full-time freestyle skiing coaches on staff with the club as skiing has become a year-round pursuit for eager athletes.
Skinner helped supervise the addition of a water ramp at Bald Eagle Lake for up-and-coming skiers and an airbag to help the athletes perfect spinning, flipping tricks that grow more complicated almost by the day.
“I used to jump into hay bales,” Skinner said. “Now we have water ramps, airbags and trampolines.”
Those newer elements of the sport and the expanding bag of tools will define the role for the next freestyle director. Skinner said he’s been actively working with the Winter Sports Club administration to help find his replacement and choose a direction for the program going forward.
“There are obviously some big shoes to fill,” said Floyd, who said finding the right balance between the sport’s disciplines is a delicate affair. “We’re looking at the programming and looking at our numbers. We’re trying to find the right fit.”
Once that process is finished, though, Skinner will be on with life.
It wasn’t a difficult decision, he said. Heather Skinner, his wife, accepted a job as a medical staff coordinator and it was a situation the couple felt they couldn't turn down.
Children Brodie, 9, and Quinn, 6, waver between nervousness of a new place, excitement for a new chapter and sadness at leaving their friends.
The mountains, of course, won’t be far away. Heavenly Resort is within two miles and Skinner said he’d be open to a coaching opportunity there or elsewhere at some point.
First, though, he's hoping to spend more time with his children, and for now he’s happy reflecting on what he helped accomplish in Steamboat Springs.
He coached dozens of athletes who went on to be Olympians and hundreds who didn’t, who became doctors and lawyers, teachers and coaches, mothers and fathers.
He’s attended weddings for athletes he helped teach to ski, and he follows their lives as they spread around the country and the globe.
That wasn’t ever the plan when he came to Steamboat Springs, a excited young skier with a penchant for skiing fast and jumping big, but plans change.
“I think I’m going out on a good note,” he said. “I’ve made, the technical term would be, a butt-load of changes, and I think it’s time for someone else to put some new energy into it.”
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9