By: Larry Nunez
Photos: Zach Hooper
Cheryl Maas and Aimee Fuller are sitting on a large cheese wedge they've built off the side of the road near Silverton, Colorado. It's just days after competing in the Burton US Open, the final contest of the season, and about a month after they rode in the inaugural slopestyle event at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. A long way from bibs, podiums and television cameras, the San Juan Mountains are the only audience around. The girls spent the entire day prior working on the jump in a mix of sun, wind, snow and are now ready to get down to business. It's one of the few times that either has been outside of a snowboard park all season long.
With their contest obligations complete, these two Olympians are no longer chasing podiums but looking to take their riding to a more personal place. Making it to the Olympics after all, means committing to an exhausting qualification and competition schedule. And after Cheryl suffered a devastating knee injury at the start of the 2012 season, the struggle to fully recover and still make it to Sochi was even harder.
"I did pretty well coming back from my injury," explains Cheryl, "but then I figured out that my knee was still swelling up a lot and I had to follow the rest of the FIS (International Ski Federation) contests… I couldn't say it was really fun, you know, it really felt like a job that I needed to get done."
In hindsight Cheryl, who also competed in halfpipe at the 2006 Torino Games, now questions whether it was really worth it. Perhaps with a medal hanging around her neck, she might feel differently. But for a professional rider of her stature to sacrifice an entire season just to get there and then walk away empty handed, the process can be a bit frustrating.
"I felt kind of like I threw my whole season away just for that one contest," she says. I'm never going to say no to the X Games again just because I have to ride the Olympics. You're stuck with the federation and contracts and they won't let you do what you really want to do, which is just snowboard. But I'm definitely stoked I have a couple more months left to go into the powder and really enjoy myself. It's just a totally different feeling now that the Olympics are all done."
For young Aimee Fuller, it was a different experience entirely. An up-and-comer out of England, she is relatively new to the contest circuit but has quickly made an impact with her sociable character and trademark double backflips. Although she has yet to stand atop many podiums, her inclusion on the inaugural Great Britain Snowboard team as already made her a star in her home country.
"There was just four of us, two girls and two guys," says Aimee, "and we left Russia feeling fairly satisfied that everyone in the UK now loves snowboarding, so that in itself was pretty cool. I went home to a snow dome and I've never seen anything like it in my life, it was absolutely packed—there were kids, adults, everyone absolutely frothing like, 'Ah we watched the Olympics, we love snowboarding!' I've been getting messages from people who have never been snowboarding before and they're going to do it, or they haven't been in like seven years and they're at their local dry slope, so that was really cool to see."
Anecdotally this validates the argument that the Olympics is good for snowboarding, at least when increased participation is concerned. And the notoriety that Aimee has received, especially after a controversial television commentary during the finals when teammate Jenny Jones ended up with the bronze medal, can only bolster her career. But all the attention hasn't gone to her head, and she knows there's still much more to learn.
"It was cool being a part of it all and representing your country, you know wearing your flag. That was a really unique experience. But the contest itself felt like any other normal competition. I'm kind of relieved and I'm stoked that it's done, and at the same time I'm looking forward to what else is in the pipeline—there's so much more to snowboarding than just the Olympics," she acknowledges.
Looking down the in-run of this powder jump is a perfect example of the polar opposite of competition riding and hitting this kicker is a season highlight for both the women. For Cheryl, filming in the backcountry and streets is something she did many times before for her Open Airs web series in 2011, and now picks up again for her new series, Through My Eyes. She's no stranger to the time and energy it takes to film a solid backcountry video part, but it's something Aimee is just beginning to understand. A few hits later, and a couple mean falls, and the girls are already calling it quits.
"I've done the odd trek here or there but last year was properly where I went into the backcountry and we did it off our own backs," says Aimee. "There's such a rewarding feeling going out there and building a kicker and just seeing different lines rather than just having it right there. You've got to go out and get it. Once you get it or land that trick in the powder it's really rewarding."
For the veteran Cheryl it's good to have a new partner to ride with, and rolling with a solid team is one of the most important aspects of backcountry riding. A good crew can sometimes make or break a session, and these two seem to have hit it off.
"Yeah this is my first time with Aimee on a proper trip together, especially in the backcounty," says Cheryl. "She's quite a bit younger and super motivated so that's really cool to see, you know she's always ready to do something. And you need someone to motivate you to go into the backcountry because you get nothing for free. It's so much hard work and its good to see when people realize that. Aimee's been doing really good on the first jumps, she really impressed me stomping everything."
And for Aimee this is just a taste of what riders like Cheryl, Hana Beaman, and Leanne Pelosi have been doing for years, delving deep in the backcountry with a film crew. No more than a few hundred yards from the road, this is clearly backcountry basics. No sleds, minimal hiking and no risk of complete isolation in case of an injury—but it's a start, and the beginning of a lifelong journey that this type of snowboarding can be. If there is one thing that backcountry riding and filming requires, it's patience, something that can only come with time and experience.
"I went to Revelstoke like three years ago, I was a complete rookie with Torah Bright and Kjersti Buaas, that was kind of funny," says Aimee. "We built a kicker, we did a bit of cat boarding, but it was so hard to land stuff, like I didn't realize how much effort goes into this, it's a whole different ball game. There's no firm landings, and if you don't land you get bucked, and you tomahawk and land in all sorts of strange positions. I was stoked the other day, we went up and I landed my first three tricks and I was kinda shocked. I was like, 'Whoa, check out the powder legs I didn't know they existed.'”