Bellingham skier dedicates Olympic push to friend, mentor

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 14, 2013 

Women's halfpipe skier Angeli VanLaanen said she's had an Olympic dream as long as she can remember - it just may not have been in skiing.

"I dreamt of being an Olympian, but in figure skating," said VanLaanen, a 2004 graduate of Bellingham High School who grew up on the slopes at Mt. Baker Ski Area. "My Olympic dream has been alive longer than I ever knew about halfpipe."

To be honest, the Olympics have yet to see halfpipe skiing. The 2014 Games will be the first time either that event or slopestyle skiing will be included in the Olympics.

Freestyle skiing events, such as moguls, aerials and ballet, began making their way onto the Winter Olympic docket at the 1992 Games, and it wasn't until 1998 that snowboarders began earning medals.

This year, freeskiing will make its debut with the halfpipe skiing and slopestyle skiing.

Halfpipe is much like the snowboarding event Shaun White has dominated, only on skis, while slopestyle includes doing tricks off rails and tabletop jumps.

"With me coming back last year (following a three-year absence for treatment for Lyme disease), I figured it would be best to focus on just one," VanLaanen said. "I figured I'd pick one and make it the best I could. Halfpipe has always been my favorite. I've really excelled in that sport, so I'm focused on making it in one sport."

Besides her mother, who introduced her to skiing at age 7 and repeatedly ferried her up to Mt. Baker Ski Area, the one person VanLaanen can thank the most for the opportunity to try earning a spot on the Olympic team is legendary Canadian freeskier Sarah Burke.

Not only did Burke take a teenaged VanLaanen under her wing, coaching and mentoring the youngster when she arrived at a Whistler ski camp in 2001 with little experience doing the tricks involved in freeskiing, Burke also was a pioneer who was instrumental in getting the International Olympic Committee to add freeskiing for Sochi.

"Sarah was a pioneer for females in our sport," VanLaanen said. "She was around doing big air contests with guys and forging a new industry. She was the driving force behind the inclusion of women in our sport - she competed with guys before there was even a female category. She mentored and coached so many women in this sport, including myself."

Of the handful of skiers VanLaanen is competing with for an Olympic spot, VanLaanen estimated that Burke, a six-time Winter X-Games champion, worked with or coached most of them at some point in their career. The same could be said for other top freeskiers around the world.

"Some of the younger girls may not have gotten a chance to work with Sarah directly, but her influence is all over this sport," VanLaanen said. "We're all doing what we love because of Sarah. She made an enormous impact on this sport and community and set an example of what it's like to be a top athlete while still being a kind, genuine and welcoming person at the same time."

Unfortunately, Burke died at age 29 in January of 2012 from injuries she suffered in a superpipe training run in Utah.

VanLaanen still gets choked up speaking about her friend and mentor and even has "Skiing for Sarah" on the bottom of her skis, which she proudly showed off Friday, Dec. 13, after her second-place run at the Dew Tour iON Mountain Championships in Breckenridge, Colo.

"It's still pretty fresh," VanLaanen said. "Losing her was such a loss for the world, not just the ski industry. I still think of her every day I'm skiing in the halfpipe. Every contest, I have a Sarah moment. I'm so happy I had her in my life."

VanLaanen believes there's no better way to honor her friend than to compete in the Olympics.

VanLaanen certainly got off to a strong start on Friday, placing second in the women's halfpipe with a score of 89.00 points, just 0.6 behind winner Maddie Bowman from South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

That event was the first of five that will be used to determine which athletes the United States will send to Sochi, along with the four events that make up the U.S. Grand Prix.

"It's going to be very competitive," VanLaanen said. "We all want it really bad. This is our dream and what we've worked for. Everyone is skiing their best and pushing each other to be the best they can in these Olympic trial events. The U.S. has the most competitive female halfpipe in the world. Most of the top 15 in the world are from the U.S. That means some athletes ranked super high aren't going to get to go."

But if Friday's results are any indication, VanLaanen certainly has the abilities to claim a spot.

The U.S. is expected to get three spots for the women's halfpipe, though VanLaanen said there is an outside shot that could become four.

"When I'm having fun and focused on my love for skiing, that's when I do my best," VanLaanen said. "All the business and stresses of this Olympic year can get you distracted, so it's really key for me to stay focused and just enjoy being out there."

If she can do that for four more dates over the next five weeks, VanLaanen may just get to honor her friend and hero in the best way possible.

"Any chance to sing Sarah's praise, of course I'm going to take it," VanLaanen said. "She made such an impact on my life. Sarah is such a driving force in this sport. A lot of us think of this as her Olympics. I dedicate my skiing and every run I take toward the Olympics to her."

Reach David Rasbach at david.rasbach@bellinghamherald.com or 360-715-2286.

U.S. OLYMPIC QUALIFYING EVENTS

Dec. 13: iON Mountain Championships, Breckenridge, Colo.

Dec. 19: U.S Grand Prix, Copper Mountain, Colo.

Jan. 10: U.S. Grand Prix, Northstar, Calif.

Jan. 14: U.S. Grand Prix, Park City, Utah

Jan. 18: U.S. Grand Prix, Park City, Utah

NOTE: Schedule subject to change

Reach DAVID RASBACH at david.rasbach@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2271.

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