Officially it’s spring, but here at Rippers, we’re determined to squeeze every last drop out of winter. In honor of fresh snow in the Northwest, epic powder onslaughts in the Sierra, and a good foot right up the road, I checked in with extreme skier Wendy Fisher for tips on living the life as a ski family and getting your little shredders off the groomers and into the terrain park—safely.
Fisher spent eight years on the U.S. Ski Team, dominated the extreme skiing circuit in the 90s, won two world titles, and ripped crazy lines on camera in dozens of ski movies. These days she lives with her husband and two sons, Aksel, 6, and Devin, 4, in Crested Butte, where she works as an ambassador for the ski resort and offers private coaching. Not that she has settled down, exactly: Fisher logs more days on the slopes now than she did when she was competing—in part because she’s chasing her kids all over the mountain but also because she’s smarter about carving out ski time just for her. Fisher took a break from riding chairlifts to talk about overcoming tragedy and moving past fear—even pro skiers get freaked when their four-year-old goes big—and spills her secrets for bringing up kids who can bring it in the park.
How has parenthood affected your skiing?
I feel like I’m a stronger skier now than I was back then. Now that I’m home a lot, I have a lot more skiing hours and I ski all these hard lines in Crested Butte, and in that way I’ve gained more confidence and am a better skier.
Wow, that’s encouraging.
Before kids, I backcountry skied a lot. It’s great exercise, but you get one run, maybe two. Or you go up to Alaska and sit and wait for a perfect day. You get a run or two. Then you to Europe and you travel a lot and you get a few days here and there. It’s not like you’re charging everyday. But now I ski almost everyday. With my kids, yes, it’s slow and I’m snow plowing, but I’m making an effort to get out there on my own, too.
How do you find the time?
I’m very fortunate that my parents move here for the winter, so I can work and then ski for me. My parents have their ski days, which I try not to interfere with, but if something comes up or it’s a powder day, they’re there to help or take them skiing. I put Aksel in half-day kindergarten, so I can ski with him everyday. We live one minute from the ski area, so we’re on the hill between 1 or 1:30. He’s probably gotten 80-something days in this year so far. My four-year-old has 50-60 days in. It’s been a really crappy winter for adults, but it’s great for kids.
When did you teach your boys to ski?
Aksel was 14 months when we first got him on skis. He actually did a snowplow stop at that age, but that was maybe a fluke. Mostly you’re going through the motions for a good year and a half, where they’re just standing and you’re stopping them. They really start turning it on at three. I really believe that the younger they are when they get these skills, the better. It sets them up for life.
Did they take lessons from anyone else?
I taught them to ski until they were three, and then I put them in lessons. I wanted to teach my kids to listen to other people. It’s important to learn how to ski with a group, with other kids. They can’t ski with me all the time.
So now they ski in the terrain park a lot?
It’s all about going to the park. It’s all they want to do. Being a professional skier, that was the one advantage I did have was that when my kids were two, I started taking them into the park. I’d go straight with them between my legs, then the jump would come and I’d fly in the air with them. Aksel just got his 360 down. Devin likes the boxes—he’s so comfortable in the air. He’s doing rainbow boxes, he’s doing step-down boxes. He’s still going straight, but he’s able to air over the gap. It’s super fun to give them the air awareness.
What are your secrets for teaching them freestyle?
We’ve got a trampoline, and I take them to gymnastics lessons. I think it’s super important if you’re a ski family or a snowboard family. We live in the mountains. They watch the X Games. They need to have air awareness because this is their path. Whether or not they keep it up, I want them to have the proper training. It doesn’t have to be super structured gymnastics, just a tramp, foam pits, and maybe an instructor.
Also, I communicate a lot about the park. I taught them that they have to say ‘dropping’ before they start because you can’t just go and cut people off. You have to have manners out there. I make sure they give each other space. I want to let them know that there is structure. That’s another thing I do with kids. I shadow them like crazy. If it gets crowded, I’m constantly playing block. I’m making sure no one is there that they’re going to throw off. I teach them about looking uphill, and intersections. It’s the repetition, over and over.
Do you travel to ski?
We haven’t gone anywhere at all. The kids don’t care. At this age, they are so happy and content going down the same runs. It brings me back to my days at Squaw. We skied the major crap and we loved it. The kids don’t want to stay on the groomed trails, or at least the kids I know. They want to play in the woods.This is why I fell in love with skiing because it’s an adventure out there. I still teach them the safety: You have to watch for stumps. Of course, they know when they’re ready. Kids don’t really step up until they’re ready—they’re too scared. It’s a natural thing. But then when they are ready, that’s when you have to watch out. They’re gone.
What's your strategy for getting them out on the hill when they're really little?
I didn’t ask them too much if they wanted to go skiing because kids usually say no, and once they say no and you want to take them skiing, that’s when you’re hosed. I was like, ‘Allright, this is what we do. This is our routine: Brush your teeth and get ready for skiing.’ As they get stronger and get more control of their body and they get that freedom, and the next thing you know, they forget about having hot cocoa in the lodge or going home after two runs. Until that point, I didn’t want to force my kid to ski all day.
Do you think your kids will start competing?
Yeah, they want to do it. Aksel says he’s going to be a park skier. But he loves to ski gates, too. He knows I was a racer, but he idolizes the park skiers. If he’s a pro skier, great. If he’s not— I don’t care. It’s not like I’m trying to create the next Seth Morrison. I just want us to be a ski family and go to Austria and eat yummy food and go to South America as a family and rip around.
How do you deal with worry as a parent?
I don’t know. It’s a double edge sword. Aksel skis all the double blacks. That’s what scares me the most. Sometimes I ski in front of him to be there in case he falls—I’ll catch him down the chute. Now he’s at the age I can’t do that as much. He’ll be going down steep, steep run, and I’ll be crossing my fingers. As a mom it tears you apart to watch it. But he’s capable of doing it and he’s at that level. My parents did it with me. I skied the Palisades at 6. One brother carried my skis and the other brother carried my poles up the ladder to the top. I’m an athlete, and I can’t help but want my kid to be athletic and the best time to learn is now, so you can’t let that fear overtake you, even though at times, I’m panicking. This is how I grew up. Kids can do aggressive sports at a young age, and they are living life to the fullest. My brother died at 13. And I saw him on the hill, at Squaw. So I have this all in my head.
I’m so sorry. I had no idea.
He loved skiing and it was his life. It sucks that he died, and I hate it and I still think about it. But you want your kid to love life and have fun and I don’t want him locked up indoors because of my fear. I’m kind of taking more risks than the average person because of my ski background. But there are amazing little kids ripping around here whose parents aren’t pushing it as much as I am. All these kids are going to be rippers—they’re going to catch up. I tell my kids that: Don’t get ahead ahead of yourself.
Do you ever worry about them burning out?
Some people say ‘I don’t want my kids to burn out.’ And I think, ‘hmm, I never did.’ Well, I take that back. I did burn out on the US ski team—the intensity of competition burns you out. But if you’re just having lots of fun and feeling the joy of skiing and you’re good and you’re loving it, that’s not going to burn you out. Don’t worry about it now. Just get the kids out there.
Fisher’s Top 5 Ski-Family Shortcuts:
1. Get a locker. “If you can afford it, it’s totally worth it. Schlepping all that gear takes a lot of energy. Get your kids dressed at home, but leave their helmet, boots, mittens in the locker.”
2. Don’t force skiiing in the beginning. “We’d get Aksel all geared up, and then he wouldn’t want to put on his skis. But he’d play at the base area, trying to step into adult skis. He enjoyed his day at the mountain, even though he didn’t put on skis. That's what's important.”
3. Go big—together. “You don’t need to catch a lot of air—well, I catch a lot of air sometimes—you just hold them around their waist, under their arms, and go straight off the boxes together. Watchtheir tips so that they’re landing straight."
4. Teach air awareness and etiquette. Enroll them in gymnastics classes. Let them practice their tricks while you spot them on a trampoline. Remind them constantly to look uphill before they go, don’t drop in when it’s not their turn, and watch for stumps and obstacles in the trees.
5. Let them be kids. If they want to ski the same runs over and over, and hit the park incessantly, let them. "Most kids just do not care about carving corduroy at 9 in the morning."