Why you should care
Because age is only one factor.
The snowstorm that blew across Colorado in early December turned Breckenridge Ski Resort into a winter wonderland. It was the weekend of Dew Tour 2016, one of the domestic ski season’s biggest competitions, and the fast-accumulating snow might have intimidated most riders. Not Kelly Sildaru, who was unfazed by the fat flakes coating the mountain. She executed her switch 900, two-and-a-half rotations going off the jump backward, in the slope portion of the competition and, despite a hint of trouble on the rails, completed a solid enough run to capture first place.
Sildaru might be the world’s next great freestyle skier, but if you ask her, she’s simply been extremely lucky. The 14-year-old Estonian phenom is now the two-time defending Dew Tour women’s slopestyle champion; she won the competition in her debut last season as well. This month, she’s hoping to hold that record at the X Games. But there’s more to her consistent record than talent or fortune — bad weather. Last year in Aspen, she recounts, the snow kept her from gaining enough speed for her final jump; when the snow fell again the night before the competition, she and other skiers had trouble gathering enough speed. “I didn’t think I’d podium,” she said. But, of course, she did.
Soon, Sildaru will have to compete in the opposite conditions, as next year’s Winter Olympics are sure to suffer from a lack of natural snow. But growing up in Estonia, where the highest point above sea level is a mere 1,043 feet, Sildaru has become a freeskiing prodigy. By perfecting her discipline in a place not naturally compatible with skiing, she has proven that she doesn’t need ideal conditions to excel. Sildaru started skiing at 2 and began freestyling — the fancy stuff involving moguls, jumps and gymnastic-level aerial flips — at 5. her dad, a skier himself, saw his daughter’s potential and took her out to watch the freestylers. She gobbled up the scene and a year later was at the game too.
Last year, one of Sildaru’s first runs ended in a hard crash, one that haunts her on the slopes today. She’s not perfect: She’s tiny — 5′3″ and 93 pounds — and will likely face issues with gaining the desired speed for the most complex jumps until she matures a little more. But when she comes of age, she has a shot at becoming one of the world’s best female skiers. It’s a crucial point for women’s skiing and snowboarding, which have fallen behind their male counterparts since progression in the sports became so rapid in 2011. In 2015, at an international event in Austria, the X Games included Women’s Snowboard Big Air, the event most important to the progression of tricks in skiing and snowboarding, for the first time since 2002. The new energy is fueled, in part, by a surfeit of talent. Spencer O’Brien landed the first 900 by a female snowboarder two years ago in the 2015 X Games slopestyle final. Jamie Anderson, one of the most progressive female winter athletes over the past decade, has long ruled that discipline across all events. Halfpipe snowboarder Chloe Kim landed the first back-to-back 1080s earlier this year at a U.S. Grand Prix stop. Halfpipe freeskier Maddie Bowman is in the midst of a dynasty; since 2012, she’s won four straight X Games gold medals and an Olympic gold. No one person has had a stranglehold on women’s slopestyle skiing, perhaps until now. The women’s ranks are filling with riders who have the skill and imagination to change the face of the sport, and Sildaru is one of the biggest names to keep note of for the future.
Dew Tour commentator Luke Van Valin, who called both of Sildaru’s events during the competition, thinks the 14-year-old will lead the charge of this new wave of female board and ski talent. She “completely blew my mind this weekend with her performance,” he says, adding: “She’s going to be the catalyst to the huge change coming to women’s freeskiing.”
That’s a lot of pressure to put on a 14-year-old girl who does her best to spend time with her friends, whether at home or on the pro circuit, as a normal teenager. She is in eighth grade, and her favorite subjects are math and Estonian, and she loves playing golf with her family. Kim, now 16, was in a similar position when she burst onto the scene as a 13-year-old, winning silver at the 2013 X Games. She’s gone on to dominate the halfpipe, thriving under the same pressures and walking the same tightrope as Sildaru. Kim says she’s held it together against the pressure by, well, doing her “own thing” and maintaining a life outside the sport.
Sildaru, for her part, has some time. She’s not eligible to compete for the World Cup points needed to qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics until August. But she’s waiting, not anxiously but with confidence, for that chance to represent her country in Pyeongchang.