“Being a professional skier is both as good as it sounds and way worse than it sounds.” That is what Kyle Smaine—2015 Halfpipe World Champion skier—has to say about his chosen profession.

To many people, getting paid to travel and ski all over the world —as one of the very best skiers— is a dream lifestyle. But Smaine is quick to point out that it is not always glamorous.

 

“Even after winning the 2015 World Championship, finishing the season in the top 10 in the world and making the final of every single competition, all my sponsors combined I made less than $5,000.  

 

“That doesn’t even pay for you to go to all the contests. So you’re top ten in the world at something —in a super-hard and demanding sport— and you’re not even getting enough support from your sponsors to make it to all the events, so that’s tough.”

Kyle Smaine Celebrating his 2015 World Title in Austria

To many people, getting paid to travel and ski all over the world —as one of the very best skiers— is a dream lifestyle. But Smaine is quick to point out that it is not always glamorous.

 

“Even after winning the 2015 World Championship, finishing the season in the top 10 in the world and making the final of every single competition, all my sponsors combined I made less than $5,000.  

 

“That doesn’t even pay for you to go to all the contests. So you’re top ten in the world at something —in a super-hard and demanding sport— and you’re not even getting enough support from your sponsors to make it to all the events, so that’s tough.”

 

The 26-year-old Californian works “two or three”jobs in the summer (anything from bike-mechanic to boat captain as well as doing part time film and video production) so that he can take the winters off and go skiing.

 

But the hard work in the summer has certainly paid off, not many people can say they have been world champion at anything. Describing this massive achievement—in a way that only a Californian can—Kyle simply says it was “pretty rad”.

 

Mr. and Mrs. Smaine both taught skiing and snowboarding so it was never going to be long before a young Kyle was on the pistes at his home mountain of Heavenly in California. The future-world champion cannot actually recall a time when he could not ski.

 

“They got me on skis super-early, I learnt how to ski at two-years-old and my younger-brother, Justin, was skiing at 18 months. I always laugh when people ask: ‘how old were you when you learnt to ski?’ and I don’t really remember learning how to ski, I just have always known how to ski! By the time I was remembering stuff at five or six years old and I just skied.

 

“Once I was five-years-old I was able to join the Alpine Race Team at Heavenly, I think the age cut-off was seven but I was good enough that they let me be on the team, that was cool. I also learnt to snowboard when I was five, my mum wouldn’t let us to snowboard until we were five, so I was a good skier but I was a sh*tty snowboarder. All of my friends were skiers and all I want to do was to be on the race team and go fast.”

 

After his initial love of speed it quickly became clear that Smaine’s skiing future would be in the air, rather than on the snow.

 

“I always liked catching air when I was a kid, our race team was pretty cool, they wanted everyone to be good all round skiers and to develop all their skills. So we went into the terrain park all the time. There were a bunch of older kids that I looked up to

 

“I don’t remember how old I was 10 or 11, maybe I was 12 —who knows—when I did my first backflip. I was with those older kids and we built this little jump on the side the hill.”

 

He began competing in freestyle events at the age of 12. But what made a racer pick such a specialist event asHalfpipe?

 

“People ask me that all the time, I don’t think that I “picked” halfpipe. I think it’s the most intimidating and the most technical of all the freestyle disciplines. 

 

 

 

 

 

“So it wasn’t so much that I chose halfpipe, I was doing all the events and I would just place better in halfpipe events. When you get invited to all the events, if you’re better at halfpipe you get invited to bigger and bigger events. Then you spend the whole season competing at pro-level events in halfpipe and amateur-level in slopestyle. Eventually I was just like: ‘this is working out and the other’s not’ so I just decided to focus on halfpipe.”

 

From being on top of the world in 2015, Smaine was unlucky not to be on the plane to Pyeonchang for the Winter Olympics in January 2018. 

 

Beating eventual Olympic gold and silver-medallists —David Wise and Alex Ferreira— in the final selection for the U.S. Freeski Halfpipe Olympic team, at Mammoth, California. You might think Smaine would have been a shoo-in to make the team. But like so many amateur skiers, knee problems held him back.

 

 He had struggled to recover from tearing both the cruciate ligament and medial meniscus in his left knee while training in January 2017. Having missed the start of Olympic qualifying, the 26-year-old did not have enough podium finishes to make the American team.

 

“The injury kept me out of one of five Olympic qualifying events and made me choose to use one of the remaining four as a training event.  I can’t tell you what would have happened if I was fully healthy for both of those events.”

 

But he is diplomatic when discussing how the injury affected his qualification for Pyeonchang. 

“Certainly my chances would have been better and I would have earned more points. But I can’t say I for sure would have landed another podium result that would have made me a clear candidate for the Olympic team.”

 

If you have ever watched halfpipe skiing, you might think that the competitor’s knees are at risk every time they launch far above the6-and-a-half metre highwalls of —as the name suggests— a 180m long and 20 metre wide half of a pipe. Think of the gutter on your roof.

 

But in freestyle skiing the athletes must keep developing their repertoire of tricks to stay on top.  This constant progression has its own risks as Smaine found out one day in January 2017.

 

 

“I was learning a new trick, a down-the-pipe-double-flatspin 9, that’s the first double-flip I do in my run” In laymen terms: two —very close to but not completely inverted—vertical flips with two-and-a-half horizontal rotations. (I did tell you that halfpipe is very technical!)

 

“I’d been wanting to do it for a while, we had a week until Xgames. I learnt it, did one and it was good. When I did the second one, I was in the air and thought: ‘This is perfect’ I had my grab, the rotation was good and I landed high on the wall. But my knee hurt when I landed, so I knew something was —kinda—wrong. 

 

“I popped out on the other side of the halfpipe and I couldn’t straighten my leg so I knew it was meniscus because I have done my meniscus in the past. I didn’t think it was ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) because it didn’t really swell up very much and didn’t hurt that bad.”

 

A study by the University of Vermont School of Medicine in 2016 said that 17,500 American skiers rupture their ACL each year and —despite his initial optimism— Kyle was one of them.

 

“I had to have surgery a week later. I had a patella tendon-graft, reconstruction on my ACL and they stitched up my meniscus. I was on crutches for seven weeks afterwards. 

 

“ACL’s a long process, it kind of depends on who you are and what your sport is to when you can get back. It was ten-and-a-half months before I went skiing again.”

 

Smaine is a very self-assured young-man and his day-job shows that he is not afraid of taking considered risks. This certainly helped in his recovery.

 

“I think most people limp because they’re scared. But I was pretty confident so as soon as I was off the crutches I thought: ‘I’m either going to be strong enough to walk normal or I’m not going to walk and just get stronger.’ It didn’t take me very  long to walk normally.”

His rebuilt left knee is not the first time that injury has been a major setback in his quest for Olympic qualification. 

 

A broken collarbone —in the third qualifier for Sochi 2014—meant he could not place at three of five events and missed out on competing at the first ever Olympic games where skiing halfpipe was an event. 

 

 

After two injury-ridden attempts at qualifying for the Winter Olympics, maybe he should throw the towel in on his Olympic dream.  However, surely after beating the 2018 gold medalist a few weeks before Pyeonchang, Beijing 2020 must be a goal?

 

“People asked that after Sochi and I didn’t think that I’d still be skiing halfpipe now. It’s hard to know what I’ll be doing in four years like “yeah that’s what I’m doing!” so I’m just taking it year-by-year. I had fun this year so I’ll probably ski halfpipe next year. Whether or not I’ll be there in four years going for Beijing, I honestly don’t know.”

 

Whether he gets the chance to be an Olympian or not, very few people ever become world champion in anything. 

 

 Throughout our conversation one thing is clear —unlike many professional athletes these days—money is definitely not particularly high on his list of priorities.

 

“I always had this dream –as a kid- to be a professional skier. That’s what I always wanted to be, as long as I can remember.”

 

So he is out there living his childhood dream and his enthusiasm for skiing is infectious but sometimes it is tricky to keep making sacrifices to keep living that dream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being a pro-skier doesn’t sound too bad after all.

“I was doing everything, when I was younger—I was competing in slopestyle, big air, I always liked big air most, even more than racing. I would say that halfpipe was probably my least favourite discipline, but there’s so few people that are good at it. Having my background in Ski-racing and being a good technical-skier, I think really worked to my advantage. 

“I could be doing a lot of other things, but it is tough to work super-hard all summer and missing out on opportunities, skipping doing fun stuff with your friends.”

 

 I have been chatting to Smaine over Skype, as he packs and plans for a trip he took to Europe in March. He did have a few commitments with his sponsors but he ends our conversation by telling me what the best thing about being a professional skier is:

 

“You just end up having excuses to do really cool things. I don’t really need to go to France but I’m like: ‘there’s this contest there and a freeski get-together. How about I go ten days early and ski in Chamonix with my friends and just do après and eat fondue?”