VanLannen's Olympic dream forged on the slopes at Mt. Baker (w/ video)

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 14, 2013 

Angeli VanLaanen may dream of representing the United States in February in Sochi, Russia, at the 2014 Winter Olympics and competing in the freeskiing event of women's halfpipe, but she hasn't forgotten where she got her start when she was just 7.

"Mt. Baker is still my favorite mountain in the world," VanLaanen said in a phone interview.

In fact, despite all her wins and all her podium finishes across North America and throughout the world, VanLaanen, a 2004 graduate of Bellingham High School, said Mt. Baker is the site of her greatest career accomplishment in skiing.

And it wasn't even in a competition.

"I'd always dreamt of doing the Mt. Baker Road Gap," said VanLaanen, 28, who now lives in Salt Lake City so she can be closer to the top training mountains in Utah and Colorado. "It's a place where athletes build a ski jump to jump over the (Mount Baker Highway) and land on the other side. They've been doing it at Mt. Baker for a number of years - it's old-school Mt. Baker, real hard-core skiers."

Though she desperately wanted to make the jump growing up after watching her idols make the daring leap for years, she and her older brother, Cachaulo VanLaanen, never quite had the nerve to try it. Instead, Cachaulo and his friends built a "mini jump" over the road at a different location.

Not to be left out of the opportunity, then 15-year-old Angeli made the "mini jump," and was included in part of the video Cachaulo and his friends made.

"I can remember the day they came home with the video of Angeli jumping the gap," Angeli's mother Allain VanLaanen said in a phone interview. "I didn't know what to think. It was both 'Go buy a helmet,' and 'Don't ever do that again!'"

Years later and into her professional career, Angeli returned to Mt. Baker with a photographer to shoot some catalog material for her sponsors doing some powder and some cliff drops.

"I said, 'Hey, what about trying the Road Gap?'" Angeli said. "So we had some athletes build up the jump and a few men attempted it and came up a little short, and then a friend of mine, Carston Oliver, he was the first to land it. When I saw him clear it pretty big, I thought to myself, 'This is the time.'

"So I started down, and about halfway down, I decided I was going to do a 360 over the Road Gap. They took a photo of me that ended up in Freeskier (Magazine) and Powder Magazine. Doing this jump that all my idols as a kid had done and following in their footsteps and then finding out I was the first female athlete to do a trick over it and to get a photo of it published, that was amazing. That was my No. 1 career highlight to this day."

One she now hopes to surpass in a little less than two months' time.

This weekend in Breckenridge, Colo., Angeli competed in the first of five qualifying events over the next five weeks that will be used to decide the three, possibly four, women's halfpipe skiers the United States will send to Sochi.

On Wednesday, Dec. 11, Angeli was the top women's qualifier for the Dew Tour iON Mountain Championships. On Friday, Dec. 13, she ended up placing second with 89.0 points, finishing behind Maddie Bowman's first-run score 89.60. Angeli also had the second-best first run with her score of 85.60.

The results from Friday's event will be combined with the results from the four-stop U.S. Grand Prix, which begins Thursday, Dec. 19, at Copper Mountain, Colo., and wraps up Jan. 19 at Park City, Utah.

"How do I put into words what it would mean?" Angeli said of making the Olympics. "It would mean having a childhood dream realized. The Olympics would be the highlight of my skiing career and my athletic career. This would be the pinnacle event. To be among the top athletes in the world and get to represent my country, it would be such an honor, and it would fulfill a dream for me."

A dream that started when she was just 7 and her mother, who still lives in Bellingham, started taking Angeli and Cachaulo to Mt. Baker Ski Area just about every weekend it was open and as many as six times per week.

It didn't take Allain long to realize her daughter had something special, both on and off the slopes.

"I remember her determination, even at a young age," Allain said in a phone interview. "She had a lot of spirit and spunk. It started when she was 7. Angeli was fearless. She used to love to explore new snow. ... She had very good form, and she learned so quickly. She was adept, brave and never afraid of the powder. That mountain became her playground."

As Angeli and Cachaulo continued to grow up on the slopes at Mt. Baker, Cachaulo, who was two years older, started to break away to ski with his friends.

Not wanting to be left behind, Angeli would tag along wherever the older kids went.

"We didn't always want to wait up for her - we wanted to get as many runs in as we could and go as fast as we could," said Cachaulo, who is now a mechanical engineer in San Diego. "If she wanted to ski with us, she would have to keep up. She was smaller and younger, but she always kept up. She was fearless, and she kept up and learned a ton of new tricks with us."

When they reached high school age, Cachaulo set his sights on attending a freeskiing camp at Whistler Mountain.

"Of course, I wanted to follow him up there," Angeli said. "He was really inclusive and supportive, and I got to go with his friends. You got to go and learn from some of the best when this sport was just getting started. ... We learned a lot about park skiing - doing table tops and skiing rails and stuff - things they didn't have at Mt. Baker or at least weren't as big as they were at Whistler. It really opened our eyes to the whole scene of people doing tricks and grabbing skis and stuff like that."

It was also up at Whistler that Angeli was introduced to Canadian legend Sarah Burke, a pioneer in women's freeskiing who was instrumental in getting the women's halfpipe and slopestyle events added to this winter's Olympic schedule for the first time before her untimely death nearly two years ago from injuries suffered in a training accident in Utah.

"Coming from a non-park skiing background, coming from big mountain, I was a bit of a fish out of water at Whistler," Angeli said. "I can't say at the beginning I was a natural at rails and halfpipe and jumping. I was determined and had the fire to succeed, though. It took me a while to gain the skills and confidence I needed to be competitive. (Burke) was so patient with me, when maybe some other people weren't. She basically kept me from giving up. She sat me down and reminded me if I wanted to do this, it was completely possible."

There was little doubt that Angeli wanted it.

And as she progressed with the assistance of Burke, there was little doubt that she could make it, either.

"I think when we started going to camp at Whistler is when I realized my little sister is a pretty good skier," Cachaulo said. "We'd watched her progression in this little bubble up at Mt. Baker, and I knew she was an awesome skier. It always surprised me with how quick she used to pick up new techniques. When we started going up to Whistler, and we started to see her against other girls in her sport in her age group that were considered some of the best, that's when you were impressed with how talented she really was."

After graduating from Bellingham High in 2004, Angeli decided she wanted to see how far she could go with it.

In 2005 she moved to Breckenridge, which is a Mecca for freeskiing and was only a couple hours away from Cachaulo, who was attending the University of Colorado, Boulder, at the time. The two would visit and ski together when they had time, and Angeli began establishing herself in the skiing community and trying to make a career of it.

Though she ended up breaking her hand in her first competition, she still managed to finish second in a slopestyle competition.

After healing she again finished second in the slopestyle at the Vermont Open in 2005 and grabbed her first victory in the halfpipe at the same event - a title she would successfully defend in 2006.

"That's were it all kind of kicked off," Angeli said. "I didn't go pro until 2007, but that's when things really started to happen. ... When I really decided I wanted to be a professional skier was after I won in Vermont in 2005. I knew I wanted to put school on hold and focus on this full time."

That included trying to land sponsors so she could do just that.

For a skiing convention in Las Vegas, Angeli said she remembers making a video of her highlights set to an '80s pop song, printing out resumes on hot pink paper and taking business cards. She ended up visiting every booth to introduce herself and drop off a copy of her CD and a resume.

"I remember being in the background and watching her work that convention and introducing herself to all those people," said Cachaulo, who traveled with her to offer support. "I was so nervous for her, because this was her dream, but I was so proud of her, because she showed no fear."

Angeli ended up securing two sponsors, which was enough to start paying her to follow her passion.

On the slopes, she would go on to finish third in the halfpipe at the 2007 U.S. Open and win the event at the 2007 New Zealand Open, where she also placed second in slopestyle. In 2008 she placed second in the halfpipe and fifth in the slopestyle at the North American Open before winning her first World Cup title in superpipe in 2009 at Park City. She also qualified for the X-Games superpipe finals three straight years (2007-09) and the Dew Tour halfpipe finals in 2009.

But in November of 2009, Angeli was diagnosed with Lyme disease, a bacterial infection that is spread by a tick bite she suffered when she was 10 and her family lived in Wisconsin.

Doctors told her she would need to take at least three years off from skiing to properly treat and recover from the disease, and she didn't return to competition until 2012.

"Three years off, and the sport progressed so much while I was gone," Angeli said. "I had a lot of new tricks to catch up on. I was learning them during the contest season. I was literally learning tricks during the week and then utilizing them in competition a day or two later."

Despite those battles, Angeli managed to place ninth overall last year and third among skiers from the United States in the Association of Freestyle Professionals with 3,820.18 points. Bowman finished first with 4,726.63 points.

Angeli also finished second in the halfpipe at the North Face Open competitions in Snowpark, New Zealand, and at Whistler, B.C., and sixth at the FIS World Championships in Oslo, Norway.

Now, with her strong start in the first Olympic qualifier on Friday, Angeli has hopes for even more this year, and a trip to Russia certainly seems to be realistic.

If she is able to reach that dream, it's an opportunity Whatcom County can proudly share with her.

"I think a lot of the media views her as a halfpipe skier," Cachaulo said. "But people in Bellingham who know her and saw her ski know that she's so much more than that. Those who know her just up and down the halfpipe don't know what a wonderfully rounded skier she is. Outside the pipe, she has some beautiful little intricacies. She's really an incredible skier in all senses of the word. People in Bellingham know what a great skier she is."

Beyond that, they know what type of person Angeli is - someone who is truly an Olympian off the pipe as much as she is on it.

"It would just make my heart soar with joy and gratitude if she can make it," Allain said. "I know her grandmothers would be up there dancing and singing her praises. Just to see your child aspire to their dream and achieve something on a world platform is an amazing thing. It has a lot to do with Angeli's skill as a skier, her skill as a business woman and her skills as a person. ... She is just an amazing, beautiful person in position for a lot of great things to come her way."

And if those great things do come her way, and she goes Sochi, Angeli will have plenty of gratitude for a family and a community that supported her skiing aspirations and her Olympic dreams.

"Bellingham was such a great place to grow up, and there was such a terrific skiing community there," Angeli said. "People there really helped me grow up as an individual and a skier, and I know I wouldn't be here without their help. That place has a very special place in my heart. I have so many great memories from there. Mt. Baker will always be my favorite."

2014 WINTER OLYMPICS

Dates: Feb 7-23

Site: Sochi, Russia

ANGELI VANLANNEN BIO

Age: 28

Born: Bellingham

Resides: Salt Lake City

High school: Bellingham, Class of 2004

Sponsors: Atomic, Oakley, LymeLight Foundation

Films: "44 Days" by Kris Ostness (2008); "Uniquely" by Oakley (2008); "LymeLight" by Neu Productions (2013)

Website: angelivanlaanen.com

Twitter: @Angeli_V

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

- Ninth, overall in the World halfpipe AFP points list, 2013

- Sixth, FIS World Championships, Oslo, Norway, 2013

- Second, North Face Open halfpipe, Whistler, B.C., 2013

- Third, North Face Open halfpipe, Copper Mountain, Colo., 2013

- Second, North Face Open halfpipe, Snowpark, New Zealand, 2012

- X-Games Superpipe Finals, Aspen, Colo., 2007, 2008, 2009

- First, World Cup superpipe, Park City, Utah, 2009

- Dew Tour halfpipe Finals, Tahoe, Calif., 2009

- Second, North American Open halfpipe, 2008

- Fifth, North American Open slopestyle, 2008

- First, New Zealand Open halfpipe, 2007

- Second, New Zealand Open slopestyle, 2007

- Third, U.S. Open halfpipe, 2007

- First, Vermont Open halfpipe, 2005, 2006

- Second, Vermont Open slopestyle, 2005

WATCH VANLAANEN'S SECOND-PLACE HALFPIPE RUN FROM BRECKENRIDGE

Reach David Rasbach at david.rasbach@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2271.

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