Neo Emery set his sights on winning a championship. Would COVID-19 make it impossible?
I am standing with Neo Emery at the start gate on top of a mountain in Switzerland. I’m trying to keep him cool and collected while he visualizes his run. This moment, and everyone leading up to it, is where being a snowboard coach is filled with anxiety. Neo drops in and disappears completely from my sight. I will have to wait for him to radio me from the bottom. His run seems to take an eternity and every possible outcome races through my mind. The run we planned together consists of four cliffs in extremely steep avalanche terrain, including a high-consequence double cliff drop. If he lands that, it will set Neo apart from the rest of the field. Did he stomp it? Did he crash?
Neo and I first sat down as athlete and coach to talk about his snowboarding goals in the fall of 2018. Neo was a high school sophomore at the time. He had big dreams and described to me a long-term goal of winning the Freeride Junior World Championships (FWJC). He wanted to be one of the best young big-mountain riders in the world.
It took Neo three years and a tremendous amount of hard work and dedication in order to qualify. He had to have more foresight and planning skills than most 15-year-olds possess. Getting to the World Championships is a two-step process. First, you have to finish the season among the top five American snowboarders on the International Freeskiers and Snowboarders Association (IFSA) competition circuit. Accomplishing that means you get to ride in the following year’s World Championships, usually held in February in Europe. While he did forget his gloves on the way to Freeride Team practice a time or two, Neo also forged an impressive resume of contest finishes. In March of 2020, with just a few competitions to go, he was in the top spot and on the road to qualification.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck and the world as we knew it shut down. All remaining competitions were canceled and the results were finalized for the season. There would be no World Championships in 2020. Neo’s ranking rolled over into the following season, so he automatically qualified for the 2021 World Championships. But with COVID-19 still rampaging throughout the world, nothing was certain. Travel seemed impossible. We worried that the 2021 Championships would be canceled just like they were in 2020. And at 18, this was Neo’s last shot.
“He wanted to be one of the best big-mountain riders in the world.”
As a coach, you have to believe in the big picture. I could see Neo’s accomplishments, success, and progress. But Neo couldn’t see those things as clearly. He felt that if he missed his chance to compete for a World Championship he would be coming up short on his goals. It was a textbook coachable moment. Neo and I talked about channeling our focus only on things we could control. We sought to rise above and make moves where we could.
The Swiss ski mountain of Verbier notified qualifying athletes in March 2021 of their decision to host the Freeworld Junior World Championships in April. Switzerland had the only spinning lifts in Europe. We got the email one month before the competition was set to take place. Neo was beyond excited, but we were also instantly tasked with a long list of planning and logistics that needed immediate attention. We had to figure out how to get there while navigating restrictions and travel bans. We also needed vaccinations, time away from school, and to shift Neo’s snowboard training into overdrive. All within three weeks of the competition.
Neo had cultivated technical skills on his snowboard that would allow him to ride at the highest level. He could also use his mind to master his body and the terrain. The glaring difference between competing in big mountain freeride events in North America and competing in Europe is the ability to do an on-hill inspection. In North America, it is mandatory that all competitors get to ride through the venue once before they compete. This allows athletes to feel the snow quality, scope potential take-offs, and landings, and make a plan for their run. Inspection is centered around establishing point-of-view landmarks to guide riders on their way down. In Europe, however, riders are only allowed to plan and prepare with a visual course inspection. They must map out their entire line in their minds and visualize what it will look like from above.
Neo and I knew we had to focus our last-minute training around his visual inspection skills. He needed to be able to use landmarks he’d identified from a distance and know where he was going while riding in the competition. We did dozens of mock competition runs by picking a zone at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, doing a visual inspection, choosing a line, and then riding the line as if we were competing.
I felt that mastering this skill would set him far apart from the rest of the field. It was also one he could tap back into for the rest of his life. It was reminiscent of the skill he used in setting the goals that brought him to that point–a Neo Emery special.
Half The Battle
Traveling during a global pandemic was difficult and stressful. The European Union had banned Americans from entering so we had to get government-level permission from the Freeride World Tour for one rider and one guardian in order to enter Europe. We tested negative for COVID-19 three times before traveling. I received my second dose of the vaccine the same morning that we took off for Switzerland. I then had to convince a skeptical customs agent in Germany that this lanky teenager with a snowboard bag was attending an international ‘board’ meeting in Switzerland for a business trip.
All in all, it took three planes, two trains, a bus through three countries, and a little help from Google Translate to get to Verbier, Switzerland.
We arrived several days early, which granted us time to adjust and acclimate to life in Verbier. We capitalized on our early arrival with the chance to practice visual inspections in this new setting. Three possible competition venues were shared with us during our riders’ and coaches’ meetings. Once the official venue was announced we spent hours looking at the zone, taking reference pictures, and memorizing landmarks. Just like we’d practiced.
Scoping lines for competitions is one of the most difficult parts of being a big mountain snowboard coach. You absolutely need to help pick something that is within your rider’s ability. You can’t let the competition cloud your judgment and end up steering your athlete towards a run that will put them above their ability level and jeopardize their safety. Because of Neo’s high level of riding we were able to choose a line that we thought would be a winning run if properly executed.
Back at the start gate, I stared down the hill, seconds ticking by, waiting to hear from Neo. Finally, my radio crackled to life. “I stomped it, dude! I friggin’ stomped it!” he yelled through his laughter. I was incredibly stoked and so proud of Neo. I watched all the other athletes drop in for their runs, and then I snowboarded down and tackled Neo at the bottom of the course. Incomprehensible cheering and laughter ensued. Neo was announced Freeride Junior World Champion. Watching him spray champagne from the top of the podium and jump around with the other athletes was the highlight of my life.
Neo Emery comes from an amazing family and gets an incredible amount of support from his parents Robert and Jocelyn, and his biggest fan/little brother, Ace. He also wanted me to shout out the Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club Freeride Program and all of his coaches along the way who helped build his snowboarding foundation. If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes an entire valley to raise a World Champion.
Neo, I am so proud of you–and the snowboarder you’ve become. I can’t wait to see the future you shape for yourself. Never stop progressing.
Randy Strand rides a Harley and is a wizard on a snowboard. @randystrand3