Stuart Whittier, 19, of Cape Elizabeth is in his first season on the World Cup ski cross tour. Last winter, he was a high school senior at Maine Coast Waldorf School while taking part in Carrabassett Valley Academy’s weekend program for young skiers. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

A former coach says Stuart Whittier always had a knack for carving his own path on skis, literally and figuratively.

Well, it is working.

Just months after graduating from high school, the 19-year-old from Cape Elizabeth is one of four Americans on the World Cup ski cross circuit. In December, he cracked the top 30 in his first event in Arosa, Switzerland, finishing 28th to earn World Cup points.

“He’s a little different. He wants to do it on his own,” said Michael Phelan, the head ski cross coach at Carrabassett Valley Academy, where Whittier learned the sport while enrolled in CVA’s weekend program. “He listens to coaches, but he’s so disciplined and he knows how to get there.”

The youngest skier on the World Cup tour, Whittier is currently ranked 53rd – last among skiers who have scored. But many racers have yet to earn a point.

“I am happy with that dead last,” Whittier said. “It’s really difficult to get World Cup points. It was a surprise. It was a very good race.”

“There are guys who have been on the World Cup for three, four years that still haven’t gotten out of the first heat, and Stuart did it in his first race,” said Mike Mallon of Yarmouth, the executive director of the United States of America Snowboard and Freeski Association and the former director of CVA’s ski and snowboard cross programs at Sugarloaf Mountain.

Ski cross, an Olympic sport since 2010, is known for its heat race format where four skiers fly down a course at the same time. The dramatically shaped courses combine freestyle ski features like rollers and big-air jumps with the gates and turns found in traditional Alpine events.

When it became apparent to Mallon and then Phelan that Whittier had a special knack for the sport, especially his ability to “feel the features” of a course, as Phelan put it, they tried to convince him to enroll at CVA as a full-time student. Instead, Whittier chose to continue his academic studies at Maine Coast Waldorf School in Freeport, where he ran cross country in the fall and played on the Ultimate team in the spring.

“So he wasn’t skiing nearly as much as the other athletes, but he was so talented from the beginning he just ran off with it,” Phelan said. “And he did a lot of work on his own. He really pushed himself to get where he is. I helped him a lot, but he definitely gets most of the credit.”

Home in Maine over New Year’s, Whittier said his rookie season has been a daily learning experience, starting with a two-month training session in the Alps.

He said he tries not to think about how quickly he’s gone from high school student to a professional athlete traveling and competing in Europe.

“I don’t think much of it because, well, it feels very premature. I’m on the World Cup circuit, but I’m not necessarily at that level to be proficient at that level,” Whittier said.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic and strict COVID-19 travel restrictions, to this point only World Cup events have been held, and some of those have been canceled. Whittier said he hopes some Europa Cup events will be held. The Europa Cup is one notch below the World Cup circuit.

“The Europa Cups are still very iffy because of all the COVID restrictions,” Whittier said. “I would say I’m a Europa Cup skier skiing in a World Cup, and that, I guess, I’m fortunate and it’s been amazing.”

“The expectation for Stuart is really just exposure,” said Adam Bourns, Whittier’s coach. “He’s a young athlete and we want to give him as much experience as we can, from tactical to course environments to the strain of all the traveling. His goals are not results-based but more to gain every ounce of experience and get him as confident as he can be.”

If Whittier can get into some Europa Cup events, the approach will change.

“At the Europa Cup level, we’re pushing for him to be competitive and get onto the podium and push some really good results there,” Bourns said. “I think he can do it. He has the skills.”

Whittier comes from a family that loves the snow.

His parents, Steve and Libby Whittier, had him on skis before he was 2. Most of the extended family are regulars at Sunday River. An uncle was a competitive racer and college ski coach. His cousin, Cooper Whittier of Cumberland, also 19, is a rising star in the snowboard film scene, known for his tricks in urban areas and being named Snowboarder Magazine’s 2020 Rookie of the Year.

Whittier said he shifted from Alpine racing to ski cross when he was around 14, primarily because that’s what his friends were doing, it seemed a bit friendlier than Alpine racing, and it was fun racing “shoulder to shoulder.” As the level of competition increased, “I realized I was able to ski those bigger courses with more competition.”

Stuart Whittier, center, on the podium after winning the U.S. Ski Cross national championship in 2019. Photo courtesy of USA Snowboard and Freeski Association

Although he continued to train with the CVA team only on weekends, being at Sugarloaf was a huge advantage. The CVA ski cross program is among the best in the country and the mountain has a dedicated course for training. Gould Academy in Bethel also has a ski cross program at Sunday River. And, the CVA coaches continued to accommodate Whittier’s desire to be part of the travel team but not be a CVA student. “We don’t normally do that,” Phelan said.

In 2018, his sophomore year of high school, Whittier moved up to the Nor-Am circuit, one of the International Ski Federation circuits that lead to the World Cup. Traveling with the CVA team and his father, Whittier had one top-10 finish and was invited to the Junior World Championship in New Zealand, where he finished 10th as the top American.

In 2019, Whittier posted seven top-10 finishes on the Canadian-dominated Nor-Am tour and won the U.S. Ski Cross national championship, run by USASA, at Copper Mountain in Colorado. Last winter, he had six Nor-Am top-10s before the pandemic shut down competition.

Now he is the only skier or rider from Maine competing on the ski or snowboard cross World Cup circuits.

Unlike snowboard cross, which Mainer and Sugarloaf product Seth Wescott helped popularize with Olympic gold medals in 2006 and 2010, ski cross is not supported financially by U.S. Ski and Snowboard. The organization does handle the bulk of the travel logistics for World Cup ski cross racers, but when it comes to money, the Americans are a self-funded bunch, responsible for hiring their own coaches and securing whatever sponsorship deals they can.

Whittier has equipment deals with Head (skis, bindings, boots) and Shred Optics (helmet, goggles, gloves) and a small donation from the Vermont-based Flyin Ryan Foundation.

“Most of the guys he’s racing against are driving Audis and their names are on billboards in their home country,” Mallon said. “All the other nations except the U.S. have national teams in ski cross.”

Mallon said Whittier’s ascension represents a change in how U.S. ski cross racers are developed. In the sport’s early years, the top U.S. racers were older Alpine racers who switched events to extend their careers.

“So Stuart, he’s really breaking ground,” Mallon said. “The cool part of this story is, there wasn’t really a foundation or a pipeline for ski cross in this country. CVA got behind this and Stu’s been able to take it, and kind of develop a pathway and take it all the way to the World Cup.”


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