"I don’t ski powder much anymore,” John Leonard says with a laugh. “I’m always training.”
If you haven’t heard of John Leonard, don’t worry. The talented 18-year-old athlete hasn’t exploded onto the action sports scene, yet. But with a recent invitation to compete at the Junior World Championships in Valmalenco, Italy, under the watchful eyes of U.S. national team coaches, it probably won’t be long until he’s making headlines and competing in events like the Winter X games and Olympics. Add Leonard’s all-American good looks and humble, self-deprecating manner into the mix and you have the kind of individual sponsors find irresistible. It is this onetwo punch of ability and personality that means that Leonard won’t be flying under the radar for much longer.
Like most kids in Colorado, Leonard started skiing with his family.
“My parents brought us to the mountain and put us in a program,” he says of his early on-snow experiences. A natural athlete (Leonard also runs cross-country for Fairview High School), it didn’t take long for Leonard to master the basics of sliding down snow-covered mountains and start to gravitate toward competition.
“We started driving up to Vail when we were 6 or 7,” Leonard recalls. “And my brother and I decided that we wanted to take our skiing to the next level, so we joined the mogul team, and I did that for a few years.”
While mogul skiing, with its emphasis on quick reactions and technical ability, was enjoyable, Leonard was looking for something else.
“I’d seen freeride skiing on TV with the Winter X games and I wanted to be like those guys. It looked fun and scary,” he says of transitioning into park and pipe skiing.
At 14, Leonard was old enough to join the freeride program at Ski Club Vail, and he made the switch. In retrospect it may just have been the best decision he’s ever made.
Freestyle skiing up-and-comer and Fairview High School student John Leonard | photo by Tom Winter
Freeride skiing, ironically, was born from snowboarding. The development of terrain parks and halfpipes that at first were snowboard-only created new features that were unlike anything seen on the mountain before.
Now, of course, halfpipes are open to everyone, skier or snowboarder, and terrain parks with their man-made jumps, rails, boxes and other features are commonplace at most ski areas across North America. The work that goes into creating these features is substantial. Resorts have to invest in park staff, specialized grooming machines like the “pipe dragon” that cuts a halfpipe to the desired shape, and then there’s the snowmaking costs, as well as the materials and time it takes to build rails or other park features. In fact, it is estimated that for a ski area to have a decent halfpipe, a minimum of $1 million needs to be budgeted into the bottom line for the creation and maintenance of that specific feature for the season.
But Vail has invested in making itself a coveted base for athletes like Leonard. Ski Club Vail’s facilities are located at the bottom of the resort’s Golden Peak sector, a zone that offers training opportunities for all types of athletes, from freeskiers to racers. It’s here that the Burton U.S. Open of Snowboarding chose to relocate after more than 30 years in Vermont. It’s where World Cup ski racers like Lindsey Vonn come to get early season race training in, and it is an ideal venue for young athletes like Leonard to hone their skills.
Vail’s high-speed Golden Peak lift has “the fastest laps anywhere,” says Leonard. “It doesn’t mess with our flow, and with Vail’s quick laps you can get right back into practicing your run or a jump.”
Throw in the coaching available via Ski Club Vail, and you have the ultimate incubator for on-snow talent, regardless of the discipline. Furthermore, says Leonard, the Vail halfpipe is amazing.
Leonard in action | photo courtesy of John Leonard
“This year the pipe is 22 feet high and 600 feet long,” says Leonard. “It’s really nice to have that.”
And Vail isn’t the only game in town. Copper Mountain’s pipe is also excellent, and opens early in the season. And then there’s the Breckenridge and Keystone terrain parks, which are world-class in their own right.
“Keystone is always the first to get their park open,” says Leonard. “It’s really good.”
With these kinds of opportunities within two hours of Boulder, Leonard quickly developed his skills, began competing and started winning.
“I started off winning local United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) events,” says Leonard of a career that includes a top-10 finish this year at the Aspen Open, as well as second-place spots at the Junior Olympics in both slopestyle and halfpipe. Other notable results include taking the top spot in halfpipe at the 2011 USSA Junior National Championships.
It’s these results, along with their consistency, that has punched Leonard’s ticket to the Junior World Championships at Valmalenco March 26-31. It’s part of a hectic end-ofthe-season blitzkrieg for Leonard that sees him competing in Sun Valley in the final stop of the Revolution Tour — a three-stop halfpipe, slopestyle and skiercross competition that acts as a stepping stone to events like the Winter X Games — before heading to Italy and then wrapping things up at Copper Mountain at the national championships April 6-9.
“I don’t really talk about it,” says Leonard of a trip to the Olympics. “I do think about it, but there are some really good people on the U.S. national team right now. It could happen, maybe not for Sochi, though.”
For now, Leonard says he’s just focusing on having a good time.
“It’s so fun, jumping and flipping and spinning,” Leonard says of skiing slopestyle and halfpipe. “And I have some good friends who I ride with, guys like Broby Leeds and Jake Cummings. They push me, and that’s good.”