Three Locals Compete on U.S. Ski Teams
By Christina Callicott
Most folks have childhood memories of sleeping in when school was out or snuggling under a blanket on the couch on Saturday morning, watching cartoons. But not these kids: For U.S. Ski Team members Gus Kenworthy, Joe Discoe and Jimmy Discoe, growing up in Telluride meant Saturday mornings in the lift line. And there was no place else they’d rather be.
Telluride’s newest hometown hero, Gus Kenworthy, started skiing before he was even able to walk, strapped to his dad’s chest in an infant carrier. “My parents always had me on the mountain, and I remember that when I would get tired, my mom would sing me to sleep on the chairlift rides and then wake me up again at the top.” By the time he was three, he had his first pair of boards. At 16, he picked up a sponsor and started skiing professionally, appearing in films for Matchstick Productions and competing against some of the industry’s most elite skiers. “Since then, I’ve traveled all over the world, met some amazing people and got to experience things that I never would have dreamed of,” Kenworthy says.
Even if he never dreamed of going to the Olympics, that’s where he’s headed. Gus took the world by storm with his first big win at the 2010 Aspen Open in both the slopestyle and halfpipe events. Throughout that season and the next, he was a regular on the podium. In April 2011, he was crowned the 2010/2011 Overall World Champion by the Association of Freeskiing Professionals, an organization dedicated to the globalization of the so-called “new school” of freestyle skiing: halfpipe, slopestyle, big air and terrain-park events. That June he was named to the brand-new U.S. Freeskiing Team, which will field athletes in Sochi, Russia, as the first-ever halfpipe and slopestyle skiing events debut at the 2014 Olympics. Then, to cap off the 2011 summer season, Gus was in the spotlight again with two more back-to-back wins, this time in the New Zealand Winter Games slopestyle and halfpipe comps; he also won the “One Hit Wonder” event, a high-profile, single-jump contest in Australia with a $10,000 prize.
Gus’s performance Down Under kept him in the forefront of media attention. According to Freeskier magazine, his run “was incredibly technical, with a rodeo six thirty off the cannon box straight into a double cork twelve sixty mute into a switch right ten tailgrab into a switch five forty onto the lily pad and a rodeo five forty out.” The freeskiing lingo is a little over the heads of the uninitiated and so are the competitors—dozens of feet over our heads, upside down and with skis on. It probably makes parents such as Peter Kenworthy (Gus’s dad) more than a little wary. What about the potential for injury, or worse? The park and halfpipe events don’t typically concern him, Kenworthy says; Gus has been training for that stuff since he was teaching his action figures to do double flips off the kitchen table. “The life-threatening stuff is the big-mountain skiing, where they’re flying them into some peak in Alaska, and the skiers are out there one-upping each other for the cameras. That’s when I tell him, ‘Just say “no.”’ It’s not your event, it’s not what you should be doing, and it scares the hell out of me.”
Gus doesn’t seem so worried about it. “I’ve been featured in magazines, filmed video parts, landed never-before-done tricks, stood atop the podium at major events, and I’ve had a truly awesome time every step of the way,” he says with a wide grin. And he’s not planning on slowing down. “I definitely want to compete as much as I can, win an X Games medal and compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics.”
Gus isn’t the only rising star who skirted child-labor laws as a hardworking young athlete in Telluride. “There wasn’t a lot of sleeping in, let’s just say that,” laughs Jimmy Discoe. Between training on the weekdays, competing on the weekends and keeping up with schoolwork at night, by the time Sunday morning rolled around he was physically exhausted. “We were on the road with the ski team every weekend,” he explains, “so instead of doing the usual high-school stuff like football games or school dances or going to the skate park with our buddies, we were traveling all over Colorado and Utah. But it was fun. Every week, you came back to school and there was a whole new story to tell.”
Jimmy caught the attention of coaches when he was just nine years old, taking runs down the moguls on the Lower Plunge course during breaks in his older brothers’ competitions. “I would be doing these zipper lines down the side of the course with everyone watching,” he says. The next season they gave him his own bib and stuck him in the starting gate.
Shortly after joining the U.S. Ski Team in late 2007, Jimmy made a big splash, taking eighth at the 2008 Deer Valley World Cup and winning a number of first- and second-place finishes in North American Cup events. Then, at the NorAm finals that spring, Jimmy won both the qualifier and the finals run in the single moguls event, edging out his closest competitor by a mere hundredth of a point and securing himself the championship title before the last race even began. He then proceeded to win both the duals qualifier and final to take the 2008 NorAm Cup Grand Prix in high style. “It was one of the most amazing performances I’ve ever seen,” says Telluride Ski and Snowboard Coach Harold Ehnbom of the event. “It was just total domination on his part.”
A month later, Jimmy blew out his knee, but it wasn’t “game over” for the young skier—he recovered and was soon back on the race course. However, the injuries kept coming. “I’ve had four knee surgeries in the past four years,” Jimmy says matter-of-factly, “so I’m taking the season off to think about what I want to do—keep competing, move on to coaching or do something else. I’ll at least spend this season healing up so that I can compete better next year.”
There will be no respite for Jimmy’s older brother, Joe Discoe, as he charges ahead into this year’s competition season. Joe is a two-time U.S. Champion—for single moguls in 2010 and duals in 2011—with three top-ten finishes in World Cup competition in 2011. And he’s hungry for more: His new goal is to reach the podium in the World Cup. He’s also skied in the World Championships, but now he wants to win. After that, it’s the Olympics and the gold medal. Joe acknowledged that his ambitions are big and that he’s got his work cut out for him. “Podium in World Cup, Olympic medalist—that would be great. It’s a big order, though.”
The Discoe brothers are no strangers to hard work. Growing up as elite athletes, they missed a lot of school—Mom estimates that Joe missed 40 days his senior year and Jimmy missed 60. But Mom and Dad insisted that the boys keep up their grades, and it paid off: Joe was valedictorian and Jimmy graduated fourth in his class.
The environment in the Discoe home must have been pretty competitive. “We are brothers, after all, so there’s always a little head-butting,” Joe laughs. “But it was good traveling together and having someone you could depend on, someone who would always want to ski with you.” The freestyle community is competitive but also supportive—and even more so among brothers: “It’s pretty cool to have someone rooting for you and pushing you hard to be better than everyone else,” Joe says. “If you were letting off, they would let you know it. It would make you try harder.”
When all is said and done, for Gus Kenworthy and the Discoes, their success comes back to one thing: Telluride.
“Telluride is still my favorite mountain that I have ever skied,” says Joe Discoe. “It’s a mountain that makes you a great skier. You can’t fake anything there. If you try to, you’re going down.”
Gus Kenworthy agrees. Telluride is his favorite, too, despite having skied all over the world now. “Telluride is not so much a hotbed for park or pipe skiing,” he says, “but more so for big open terrain, moguls, trees and amazing hike-to terrain.” Having Telluride’s diversity in his back yard, however, “encouraged me to become a more well-rounded skier than I may have been otherwise. Plus,” he says, “because Telluride is such a tight-knit community, I feel like no matter where I go, I’ll always have a devoted support team standing behind me.”
All three skiers noted that Telluride is more than just a mountain: It’s a community. There is a feeling of camaraderie not just with teammates but also with friends. Skiing is a social activity, with people on Lift 9 hollering and hooting at their friends below who are ripping down Kant Mak-M. “There was no shortage of great skiers on hand to inspire the young boys,” says Peter Kenworthy, “to show them what kind of greatness was possible.” In addition to the average Jane or Joe (because, really, you have to be good to ski Mak-M, right?), there were awe-inspiring coaches—brothers Hugh and Andy Sawyer and Will Wasson—and there were lots of older kids who started the local legacy decades ago. Telluride’s world-class coaching programs produced the likes of Rory Lanning, Jenny Albin, Kristin Taylor, Justine Van Houte, Kate Reed, and Orion Helms, all former competitors on the U.S. Ski Teams. Telluride even produced one of the first pro snowboarders, Rocket Reeves, before that sport ever fielded a national team. There was also Harold Ehnbom, a dual citizen who trained in Telluride and in Switzerland and who skied on the World Cup circuit for the Swiss national team. Ehnbom coaches now with Caleb Martin, another Telluride kid who preceded Gus, Jimmy and Joe on the U.S. Ski Team. Martin skied with Jonny Mosely, whose knees fared a little better than Martin’s, and who went on to put U.S. mogul skiing on the map with a gold medal at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Martin retired after being sidelined by injuries and came home to take the reins from Wasson and the Sawyers and raise a new generation of freestyle champions. Today, he’s still hitting the lift line at a ridiculously early hour on Saturday mornings, hoofing up and down the course on the Lower Plunge, shoveling the bumps out after a big snowfall, and handing down the grace and skill he learned as a young skier in Telluride. Martin is as passionate about coaching as he was about competing. “And I hope I can pass the torch to one of the Discoes,” Martin says, “but not before they’re done competing and are ready to take it.”