Bellingham's VanLaanen seemed destined for greatness early on

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 15, 2014 

RICK BOWMER — Associated Press

The sport of women's freeskiing halfpipe wasn't even an Olympic event when Angeli VanLaanen lived in Bellingham, but those who knew her at a young age aren't surprised to see her competing on the world's grandest stage.

Proud, absolutely - but not surprised.

From the beginning, the Bellingham-born skier showed signs that she could accomplish just about anything she set her mind to.

"She was always very determined," said mother Allain VanLaanen, who still lives in Bellingham. "There was a ton of spirit and spunk with her - lots of singing and movement."

That movement included taking to the slopes at Mt. Baker Ski Area when Angeli was 7.

Needless to say, that's where she found her passion - a passion she has followed for most of the past 21 years and one that will land her atop the halfpipe drop in ramp at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park about an hour away from Sochi, Russia, on Thursday, Feb. 20, to compete in the Winter Olympics' debut of women's freeskiing halfpipe.

"She was so fearless," Allain said in a phone interview in November. "Nothing was going to keep her from doing what she wanted."

But as determined as Angeli was, and still is, she doesn't suffer from a case of tunnel vision.

In fact, she's been known to enjoy every minute of life to the fullest, no matter what she's doing, and that leaves an impact on those who know her.

"What especially stands out for me was her sparkling smile and twinkling eyes," said Dennis Scott, who taught Angeli's class for four years at the Whatcom Hills Waldorf School. "She was always kind of upbeat. You could tell she enjoyed life and was happy about doing whatever she was doing. I remember she was a hard worker, but I had no idea she would funnel all that hard work and joy for life into this physical sport. In my eyes, she could have done anything - she was open to life."

And, as it turned out, a few light-hearted tricks here and there, said Scott, who now teaches at the Waldorf School in North Vancouver, B.C.

"At Waldorf, I sometimes had a class for eight years, so you get to know them very well, and the students get to know you really well," Scott said in a phone interview. "They knew about my dislike for pickles. In seventh grade, I'm not sure who spear headed it, but I could guess it was Angeli and a few others, at recess they snuck in and hung pickles everywhere. I mean they even traced them on the blackboard. I thought it was just loving and gentle and a fun prank to do. In a way, they were honoring my personality."

When she wasn't skipping recess to pull an indoor prank, Scott said, he also saw early on that Angeli, who also attended Parkview Elementary, was a natural athlete. Though he didn't get to witness her fearlessness and grace on the slopes, Scott said he knew skiing was important to her at a young age.

Dean Collins, meanwhile, got to witness the beginning of her greatness on the slopes.

Collins, along with former Canadian Olympic moguls skier Lane Barrett, started what was then known as the Mount Baker Air Bears Freestyle Club in 1984, teaching young skiers the basics of freestyle skiing and the safety required to ski in the backcountry.

"My brother joined the Air Bears with some friends, so of course I wanted to, as well," Angeli said in a phone interview last month. "It was a freestyle club that met once a week. They taught us a lot about form and technique. We learned in all sorts of terrain. As we got more advanced, we'd start learning to jump off cliffs as we got older. But they also taught us the basics about how to be safe - you know, if you ski across this, it's likely to break and the basic awareness of avalanches.

"It was an amazing experience to be a part of that club. I remember being motivated by the other athletes and coaches in the club. We used to build our own jumps and jump into powder. It's where I really got my freestyle foundation."

Not surprisingly, Angeli left just as big an imprint on Collins.

"She is still one of my favorite students," Collins said. "I remember she was tough as ... nails, but she was also always such a very nice girl. She was an amazing, amazing kid who had her head on right, and obviously, a tremendous athlete. ... Ang wanted to do everything. She was phenomenal to watch. She was fearless and very strong."

Obviously, she turned out to be pretty talented, too.

When Scott and the other instructors would take groups of students to compete in competitions in Canada, Angeli, of course, would tag along.

"She wanted to everything that we did," Scott said. "I can remember one big air contest, where they were going off this big jump, flying over a table and seeing what they could do. She was probably the only girl competing, and she ended up beating most of the boys. She was just an amazing, amazing athlete. She was a ton of fun to watch and ton of fun to be around."

Angeli wasn't just a one-sport athlete, either.

While attending Bellingham High School, she competed for the Red Raiders' swim and dive team, and she also was part of the dance team.

Not surprisingly, she made an impact there, as well.

"When I think back to my time coaching Angeli, and the type of person she was, it does not surprise me to see her accomplish so many great things in her life," Bellingham dance coach Ronni Weston wrote in a letter of encouragement to Angeli. "Angeli was a dedicated member of the dance team and a strong team leader. Though her passion was definitely for skiing, she also had a love for dance. I believe Angeli was able to use her knowledge and skill in dance to better her skiing as well. She was a graceful and physically strong dancer, and you can see these strengths come through in her skiing.

"Not only was she a skilled athlete, but Angeli was a supportive teammate - one with a great ability to push people to new limits, even when they were not sure they were capable."

After graduating from Bellingham High in 2004, Angeli moved to Colorado and later Utah to pursue her dream of skiing professionally.

But she's never lost touch with those who helped her here in Bellingham.

Even as she was preparing to head to Sochi, Angeli took a moment to reflect on where she got her start.

"I'm so proud to be from Bellingham," she said. "I'm just honored to represent our town."

Those who know her are humbled and just as honored to have Angeli represent them.

Through their continuing friendship with her mother, Collins and Scott each said they have followed Angeli's successes on the freeskiing circuit and her struggles with Lyme disease, which kept her from the sport for three years while she received treatment.

"It's been amazing to watch her grow up," Collins said. "Every time I see her mom, she always tells me all about what Ang is doing. I haven't probably seen her in 31/2 or four years, but the last time I did, she just had this giant smile, and she ran up and gave me a great big hug. She just has this personality you enjoy being around."

And one that will make it extremely easy to pull for on Thursday.

VanLaanen actually will be the third member of the Air Bears to compete in the Winter Olympics, Collins said. In addition to Barrett, who competed in the 1992 in France, Bronwen Thomas was a Canadian freestyle skier in 1992 and at the 1994 Games in Norway who also was part of the club.

"Ang, for me, is not just a student," Collins said. "She is one of my many friends. I had the privilege to work with her during my many, many years here. I'm super, super proud of her. In my eyes, this couldn't be happening to a better person. I just hope she goes over there and has the time of her life and maybe even wins gold.

"She has a passion for this sport, and to see her carry it on to the ultimate challenge - I just couldn't be prouder for her."

Scott echoed those thoughts as he prepared to watch not one, but two former students compete.

Scott said he got to teach Canada's Georgia Simmerling for one year while she was in high school at the North Vancouver Waldorf School before she went on to compete in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics in alpine skiing. Simmerling made the switch to ski cross for this year's Olympics.

"It's probably, for a teacher, one of the peak experiences you'll ever have," Scott said. "To see one of your former students go on to accomplish such great things, it underlines my work as a teacher, in a way. I don't know how else to put it. I feel proud. I may not have had a hand in her great sport prowess, but do feel a sense of satisfaction of helping her grow and mature, and I'm excited to watch Angeli compete on the highest level."

In fact, both Scott and Collins said all of Whatcom County should take pride in helping produce a community that can help foster and nurture Angeli's Olympic dreams.

"I think it's fantastic," Collins said. "I think it shows anybody from anywhere in this nation can strive, work their (butts) off and make it. That's the greatest thing about America and living here in Bellingham. It makes the Olympics a whole lot more special to see someone like Ang competing and representing our country and our community."

WOMEN'S FREESKIING HALFPIPE

Qualifying: 6:30 a.m. (PST) Thursday, Feb. 20

Final: 9:30 a.m. (PST) Thursday, Feb. 20

Site: Rosa Khutor Extreme Park

Scheduled TV: Noon-1 p.m., Channel 27 (CBUT); 8-11:30 p.m., Channel 5 (NBC Primetime)

Live streaming: nbcolympics.com/live-extra.

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

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