• James O'Leary

Last year on US Military World Tour: 1st Year on Freeride World Qualifying Tour


From Left to Right: View from the top of the Competition face, in line for the start gate, the hike up to the competition face- unserviced by ski lifts



As you may have read in a previous article, I’ve wanted to study in Germany or Switzerland for a long time. And for an even longer time, I’ve loved boardsports. However, my 8th-grade dream of going to college in Germany felt almost as far-fetched as my 5th-grade dream of being a semi-pro surfer in Hawaii (by semi-pro, I mean in addition to having an actual paying, “real” job, unless you’re Kelly Slater or John John Florence, pro-surfing won’t make you much money - and even then I knew that, being that good was out of the question).


In my DoDEA school in Japan, I found out I actually had a lot better chance at going to a German/Swiss Uni than I thought when I actually lived there (better grades when taught in my first language- but also good grades in AP German, and passed a fluency test!). I ended up getting accepted to and am now studying at the University of Zurich- this involved a lot of trouble including my Visa and more, you can read my moving article if you want to know that story. Also, snowboarding in Japan, and now Switzerland, my dream from 5th grade of becoming a semi-pro surfer was resurrected to one of becoming a semi-pro freeride snowboarder.


Unlike me, most snowboarders don’t specialize in freeriding, and if they do, they probably learned to ski first or specialized in a different kind of snowboarding, then switched to freeriding a lot later. Because it isn’t Olympic, there are not nearly as many insanely good riders who have been snowboarding since they’re 3 (so an underdog like me who just learned at 12 and only went with his family 10 days a year or so has a chance). Freeriding also happens to be my favorite style of snowboarding. Even though my skills are limited to jumping smallish cliffs, unreliable 360s and frontflips, and no backflip, watching videos of the Freeride World Qualifying Series, I found most snowboarders (even those on the podium) jumped small cliffs, but didn't even do any tricks off them- it was much more about finding the perfect line, including fun features like cliffs, trees, and rocks. So just study the mountain, pick a creative line, memorize it, don’t fall or mess up your jumps, throw in some stylish grabs and sprays of snow, and you’re good to go- totally doable for me.


Slide from Left to Right: Me as a 10yr old at a kid's surf contest in Hawaii, Me as a 13yr old in Germany my first time truly riding steep off-piste terrain, me in my 1st freeride competition traversing riders left.

In all 3 pictures, I fell right afterward haha :)


Although can I really snowboard competitively while also pursuing a Physics degree at the University of Zurich?


It’s slightly ambitious, but semi-pro freeriding while studying, and later starting a STEM career might actually not be any more unrealistic than the thought a few years ago of me going to a Swiss university- which I currently am, despite it still being a bit unreal at times.


I guess this isn’t that different than asking, “is it possible to continue my high school career successfully while also serving my country by moving around on the world (or even just national) tour the military is taking me on?” This might seem like a joke of a comparison to some of us who by now almost take moving for granted (we mostly don’t like it, but the question of whether it’s possible or not together with school seems trivial). However, for me, who, by now, wants to snowboard almost every weekend anyway (and is grateful for his parents to let him do so), I might as well snowboard in competition some of those weekends.


If you’re going to move across the world for the military, you might as well get paid to do it, which our parents do, and as us military teens move with them, technically we’re all professionals on the USMWT (US Military World Tour, oh, and I guess I just retired from said tour). Your USMWT “Sponsor” (yes, that’s right, you’ve got sponsors) is your active duty parent(s)- if you don’t believe me, just take a closer look at your ID card. Most people I meet in Switzerland are super jealous of me having been able to move all over the world, and then there’s the fact that we’re paid to do so- to someone unfamiliar with the US Military, it almost sounds like some sort of professional tourist.


The problem is, being a professional <fill in the blank> isn’t probably as fun as you think it is…for example, unlike a tourist, we military teens don’t get to choose where we move, we don’t have a “hometown” to return to after our travels or consistent friends from that hometown, and instead of relaxing and enjoying the place we live, we have things to do like unpacking, registering for schools, and making new friends. The “pro” title definitely has some strings attached. Then combining this with a second, more full-time job, school filled with academics, sports, clubs- wow, congratulate yourself- you’re definitely a pro, but it’s not easy.


Most people, even the small percentage that has been snowboarding before, see it as a once or twice a year vacation activity. But for me, my daily (well, I wish it were daily, in practice only a few times a week) workout routine consists almost only of snowboarding, surf skating, and mountain biking. The latter two are my cross-training during the week, as well as part of my commute to University (well, whenever it isn’t online), as much as I want to snowboard more, I know it doesn’t fit in my schedule or budget to go to the deeper alps more than once every 2 weeks, once a week in the lecture-free exam-study period (sometimes enough snow to snowboard in my neighborhood, but I hear this is rare, even though this winter it's been quite often).



Slide from Left to Right: Snowboarding at night in my village after the most snow this small town has had since 2006, A drop on one of the nearby mountain biking trails (mountain biking builds skills in incorporating jumps, rocks, trees into a snowboard line), Someone was nice enough to build our village a snowpark-worthy jump!



Anyways, my first competition, a 1* Freeride World Qualifying Series event, showed me a bit of what it’s like to “Go Pro”. Leading up to the competition, I got to snowboard with a bunch of pro skiers (from the competition group chat), on some of the most fun and challenging terrain I’ve ever ridden on a snowboard- cliff jumps, “sharky” (rocky) descents and icy/sketchy conditions. The actual competition itself though was pretty stressful, we only had around an hour to choose our line by looking up at a mountain from far away that we weren’t allowed to practice on beforehand. In fact, the location was kept a secret till the night before- sort of like when they don’t tell your family where you’re going to move until last-minute. Then I hiked up said mountain and waited till it was my turn to drop onto the competition face.


I couldn’t really decide on a good line, there just wasn’t much interesting terrain, (at least compared to the stuff I had snowboarded the day before) except for a rocky spine near the top, which I wanted to jump off the riders right (viewers/in the picture left), but saw all the skiers before me either did a 360 or backflip off of it- so I felt if I just did a straight air with a nice grab it would be embarrassing. So instead, I opted to go riders left and hug the side of a steep face, hoping to traverse to a more distant jump, but I lost grip and just barely fell- I stood back up real quick, but a terrible score deduction, and I lost the speed I needed to stay higher up on the slope (so I missed some jumps at the bottom). So I was pretty disappointed with myself when I got down. But if this weren’t a competition, I would’ve jumped right off the top spine, no trick, and had a ton of fun, like the snowboarder who ended up getting 2nd place! I shouldn’t have been comparing myself to the skiers doing crazy tricks- for some reason they ride at a lot higher level than us snowboarders, and just done the run that looked the most fun. I’ll remember that for my next competition!


The day after I got home from my snowboard competition, I had a Physics exam, which, unlike my last-minute line choice of a snowboard run, I’d been studying for all semester (albeit not the 2 weeks before it, too busy snowboarding), and it went really well! Due to a combination of the new mutation of the coronavirus and unprecedented avalanche danger, my next freeride competitions have been postponed, (when or if they'll happen, not quite sure) but this is actually great because this gives me more time to study for my exams in February: Analysis 1, (aka. writing unnecessarily complicated proofs to solve simple problems) and Linear Algebra 1 (something probably actually useful later in my studies: vectors, matrices, etc...).



Slide from Left to Right: Skier I was riding with pre-competition sending it over some rocks on a mandatory, (something everyone had to jump- or turn around and hike) though all of us cleared the rocks most (incl. me) fell in the snow on the landing, Competition face as revealed in a poor quality photo in a Zoom meeting, me during competition going rider's left instead of jumping off the spine to the right



As one of the only Americans (if not the only one, due to travel restrictions), skiers asked me, "hey, have you been to Revelstoke, Jackson Hole, or Mammoth (famous ski resorts in the US)?" What's your home mountain? The skier's way of asking where are you from- and just like when asked the actual question, I have no clear answer except to talk for a whole 5-10min about traveling with the military- which everyone found so interesting, but didn't quite grasp that my 3 winters in Japan weren't spent snowboarding powder every day.

When you’re a military teen, and then have to get scored against non-military teens (or in my case, snowboarders from 19-40, I have lots of time to improve, it takes wisdom that comes with age to choose the perfect line), it won’t always be fair. Take the SAT for example- some kids get tutors, or self-study with Khan Academy for hours and hours- but life on the military world tour might not give you the time for that. Or on college apps, maybe an extracurricular you loved at one station isn’t there at the next due to moving all the time, or a favorite teacher sure to write a good recommendation letter no longer contactable (what was their email again??). But that’s the whole cool thing- the odds might be against you, but you’re still succeeding nonetheless- I don’t mean in everything, and maybe you don’t think of anything, but hey you can always put “Pro Mover and Shaker for the US Military World Tour” on your resume (just kidding- that’s a bad idea- unless whoever read it really understood).


Do you find yourself questioning whether or not your dreams are possible- maybe because of moving around too much, maybe because of the coronavirus, maybe racism, judgement of others, something else?


Here's some encouragement:


Realistic, or unrealistic?

“With man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible” Matthew 19:26


You never know till you try- often things we see as impossible actually happen, and things we see as totally easy don't.


And if I fail a test, or fall and get injured...etc?


“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

So are my ways higher than your ways” Isaiah 55:9


Things won’t always go as planned, sometimes God’s plan won’t align with ours, and we need to accept that. It’s ok to fail, don’t attempt something if you’ll never forgive yourself for failing. A fail to you now might be a win to you later. Don’t be afraid of plans B & C- or even plan D, something you never even thought of but ends up happening might be amazing!


Watch my full run in 4K:


Bloom takes pride in being a safe, nonpartisan platform for military kids to share their stories and be empowered. All of the opinions expressed in articles belong solely to the author and are not a reflection of the views of the founders and editors of Bloom. Additionally, we understand the struggles and emotions of being a military child, but are not a mental health resource and are therefore unequipped to administer advice and assistance in that area. If you or a loved one are suffering from depression, abuse, or trauma, please visit our Resources page to find help.

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