Editor’s note: One of a series focusing on Colorado athletes vying to make a splash at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Today: freeskier Birk Irving
DILLON — If Birk Irving makes U.S. Freeskiing’s Olympic halfpipe team, he will be the youngest member of the squad. And to get there, the Winter Park native will have to bump a hero off a throne.
“It’s a way bigger accomplishment to ski against all the guys on the U.S. team and compete against them than actually going to the Olympics,” said the 18-year-old freeskiing wizard, who’s leading the next generation of halfpipe heavyweights. “It just means a lot more moving up in this team and actually making the U.S. Olympic team. It would be so crazy to go to the Olympics because all my biggest idols are the U.S. guys.”
Irving has spent a lifetime on skis, tracking toward this Olympic season. Last year he missed the finals in only one of many competitions. He just missed the podium at the 2017 Aspen X Games, finishing fourth ahead of mentors such as Torin Yater Wallace, Gus Kenworthy and David Wise.
In February 2016 he won the Youth Olympic Games halfpipe contest in Norway, four weeks after he suffered a fractured fibula. Atop the halfpipe, he cranked down his boot, winced through the pain and stuck his acrobatic run, including a double-cork 900.
It’s that hunger, agility and style that earned a nomination to the U.S. Freeski Team this past spring; the only teenager on an internationally renowned team that elevated two teenagers at the Sochi Winter Games: Aaron Blunck and Yater Wallace.
“He’s scary for me,” said halfpipe pioneer David Wise, who won gold in the first-ever Olympic ski halfpipe contest at Sochi and remains a top contender for PyeongChang in February. “He has some talent, and I see him watch what I’m doing and stuff I’ve been thinking up and working really hard on for a long time. He watches me do it once and he’s like, ‘I’m going to do that too,’ and does it and I’m like, ‘Hey, that’s my ace in the hole; you can’t just do that.’ He keeps it fresh and he keeps it edgy.”
Wise won the first contest of the season at Copper Mountain’s Grand Prix on Friday in a fiery competition that saw first-ever tricks. Irving was the youngest rider and, pushed by an international cast of the best pipe skiers, linked a trio of double-corked spins. He stayed on his feet and his third run was his highest scoring, enough to finish a respectable seventh in the biggest competition of his career.
“I was glad I was able to put something down I’ve never done before,” he said of his switch double 1080 on the right side of the pipe. “I’m just super excited to put that down.”
Irving indeed has the technical talent to ski in South Korea in February. But to make the big show, it’s going to be a matter of style. Olympic-bound skiers from the impressively deep U.S. team will have to differentiate themselves while performing the hardest tricks possible in the halfpipe.
Every single run must include the notorious double-cork 1260, a twice-flipping, three-and-a-half spin trick performed high above the 22-foot halfpipe. Irving, taking cues from Yater Wallace, is tweaking his tricks to include varying rotations and different grabs.
“I think that’s what will make you really stand out to the judges,” he said. “Style is what makes you stand out.”
U.S. Freeskiing development coach DJ Montigny said Irving, at a young age, has cultivated showmanship as well as the requisite body-awareness for high-speed spinning above vertical ice on skis.
“It’s very impressive to watch Birk take an idea for a trick, and watch him progress it to snow. He has a very unique and creative style of skiing, that I see as the future of halfpipe skiing,” Montigny said. “He is so consistent, and has all the technical ability to take any trick he wants to do to snow, and do it in a way that few athletes do and he really stands out.”
Irving doesn’t spend much time on trampolines, practicing his contorting trickery. He prefers to ski. He envisions himself stomping a trick and taking it to the pipe. Most of the time that works.
“I don’t like falling,” he said, explaining his catlike ability to land on his skis in the halfpipe. “That’s my biggest motivator. l hate falling in halfpipes.”
Lots of people have been watching Irving’s ascent over the years. Including his younger sister, Svea, who took silver in the junior world halfpipe championships in Switzerland this spring, earning an invitation to join the U.S. women’s rookie freeski team.
While the Irvings didn’t grow up at a resort renowned for its halfpipe, their proximity to Winter Park’s daunting terrain park helped them hone their jumping skills. And their family’s slopeside home certainly encouraged daily skiing. Their dad, Brendan, is ski patrol supervisor at Winter Park, and his kids have skied since they could walk.
While Birk and Svea are increasingly drawing applause in the freeskiing world, their grandfather, famed novelist John Irving, turns even more heads. John Irving, wrapped in a beanie and scarf, was incognito at the bottom of the halfpipe at Copper on Friday. He flew in to watch Birk’s debut on the big stage.
“He’s a good kid,” the grandfather said of his poised-for-greatness grandson.
Irving, who isn’t big on reading, hasn’t read his grandfather’s widely beloved novels, which include “The World According to Garp” and “A Prayer For Owen Meany.” Yes, that drove his high school English teacher crazy, he admits.
“I probably should read his stuff so when people ask me about it I know what to say. Sometimes I forget about all that,” said Irving, noting how his grandfather’s attendance at his graduation from Middle Park High School this past spring harvested plenty of fawning. “We picked him up at the airport and people were pointing and looking at him, and I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s not just my grandfather.’ ”