When Jon O’Brien started the Wasatch Freestyle Foundation 35 years ago, all he wanted was to provide the kids of Park City an opportunity to train for the sport of freestyle skiing. Now, Wasatch Freestyle is the U.S. Ski and Snowboard 2020 freestyle program of the year.
The foundation’s headquarters in 1985 in the basement of O’Brien’s condominium consisted of a desk, some folding chairs and a chaotic scene of ski gear, posters and memorabilia signified how small-time the foundation was, especially when compared to the larger,better-funded programs throughout the country.
Because of that, O’Brien made it the goal of the club to teach the young athletes to become responsible adults rather than gold medals.
“Most of our kids don’t get to the U.S. ski team. … But we’ve put a lot of our kids into medical school, some have started their own businesses and just give back to the community,” O’Brien said. “Our idea is to instill a direction in young athletes that no matter what they’re doing in life, they’re going to do it really well. Our primary focus is to help the education of the athlete and develop them overall as people. … It doesn’t happen overnight or by accident, but it is something that we really foster and emphasize.”
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Ever since those beginning days in that ramshackle of an office, O’Brien and his staff are now getting the recognition they deserve — and it’s coming at the highest level offered in the country.
“Winning the award says that we can consistently offer great programming and a route to the top of the sport for our athletes,” said Bryon Wilson, Wasatch Freestyle coach and a 2010 Olympic bronze medalist. “But not everyone can be the next Olympic gold medalist and that’s totally fine. … We develop athletes to be good people and that’s how we all win in the end. We want the athletes to look at a situation, know how to work through the issues and solve the problem, which makes them better.”
Following the award, Wasatch Freestyle becomes one of five to be named program of the year multiple times since the award started being given out in 1999. According to O’Brien, winning the award back in 2006 was the greatest achievement in the foundation’s history and proved that he and his staff were on the brink of something special.
“I still remember when we won, I couldn’t pick my jaw off the floor because I was so surprised,” O’Brien said. “It was just such a huge honor because we’d only been around for just over 20 years and were going up against some of the biggest and more established programs. But now that we’ve won twice, it just validates us and our nontraditional way of going about things.”
This past season was one of the best in Wasatch Freestyle history; 16 athletes qualified for Junior Nationals and 12 more qualified for the National Championships.
Individually, Dylan Marcellini won dual moguls at the U.S. Selections while sisters Madison and Kasey Hogg took home the top two moguls spots on the NorAm tour before being named to the U.S. national team for the upcoming season.
“I feel like we’ve gotten to this top level just because we have truly have fun skiing, especially doing it together,” Madison said. “A lot of other kids don’t have siblings — we know a couple that do — but it makes it a lot more fun and easier to go compete and travel so much when you have someone with you. We are best friends and do pretty much everything together.”
Nick Page, a member of the U.S. National team, is the embodiment of what it means to come from Wasatch Freestyle. He began his career looking up to brothers Brad and Bryon Wilson and now stands on his own merits, becoming every part of what O’Brien is hoping the kids get out of the foundation.
“All the things they’ve done on snow and outside of it, it’s helped shape my character into the man I want to be,” Page said of the Wilsons. “They’ve taught me how to really work hard and become a professional; put others in front of yourself, by doing that themselves. You can’t just have someone tell you to be those things, you have to be tight and shown them and that’s what they’ve done for me.”
According to O’Brien, one of the main reasons for the success of Wasatch Freestyle is its partnership with Deer Valley.
Deer Valley Resort is home to Champion Run, one of the premier moguls courses in the world and O’Brien’s athletes train on it during the winter.
“What really sets us apart from every other program in the country is our relationship with Deer Valley and their pursuit of excellence, which is contagious and just rubs off on us,” O’Brien said. “We also value our relationship with Snowbird as well. … And between the two of them, our kids get as much training on some of the best courses in the world, and that’s something that can only help.”
O’Brien received a letter on May 14 from Tiger Shaw, President and CEO of U.S. Ski and Snowboard, detailing why Wasatch Freestyle won.
“Wasatch is not only committed to developing strong freestyle skiers, but is committed to developing strong people as well,” Shaw wrote in the letter. “They teach athletes how to manage emotions in high- stress environments and educate them on good strategies for effective training and skill development. They are dedicated to helping athletes keep a good perspective on the balance of sport and life, which in turn contributes to developing a lifelong love for moguls.”
Thirty-five years in the making and this small piece of information throughout the two-page letter means the most to O’Brien and his staff because it validates what they’re trying to achieve. Past the gold medals, the professional status and the podiums, Wasatch Freestyle will always be about the betterment of people.
“There are different podiums in life for everyone,” O’Brien said. “Our athletes take the values and lessons they’ve learned from Wasatch Freestyle and apply that to their careers. … They usually end up being better people for it.”