If you don’t know the coach for the US Olympic Halfpipe Rookie Team, Ben Verge, it’s really no surprise. He for the most part has lived a skiing career in Idaho off the beaten path or radar of anybody looking for someone like Ben. Although he may have graced the pages of a few magazines over the years, his story is like that of many other skiers that chose where they want to ski over the best place for a ski career. Ben is one of those guys that likely stood a good chance of being a professional, but that just wasn’t his goal. The guy lives it. He skis every day despite conditions, and when they are unfavorable, chances are he knows every tree to bonk, every roller to butter, and every obscure stupid hit to have fun off of, and he will. In turn, if you are skiing with him, so will you. With parks and pipes spoiling freestyle skiers, it’s hard to find people with that much instilled creativity and the ability to make the best of any condition. Honestly, Ben does, and it wasn’t until years after being washed up as a ski bum construction worker he would finally find his professional career – as a Coach.
Ben’s parents, Gus and Judy first came to Sun Valley in the 70’s for their honeymoon and never left. This is a similar story to many ski families we all know, but from day one on skis it was apparent – skiing was what Ben does. Ben was one of those kids ripping Dollar Mountain (Sun Valley’s beginner hill) about the time he could learn to walk, and not too long after that, he had graduated to the much bigger – much steeper, Bald Mountain. Ben’s work ethic and ability to start at the ground-floor and work up may have come, like many of us, from his father Gus. Gus had found work in Ketchum for Scott USA where he glued foam in goggles, and after years there he then started Reflex Poles – you still may find these poles in the bin at the local thrift shop (gold and black in color with big hard rubber grips). In the mid eighties after selling Reflex, he was then asked by Bob Smith to come on as the president of Smith Optics and did that most of Ben’s younger life.
Ben began skiing through grade school with the Sun Valley Race Team, and learned the fundamentals of how to ski and ski fast, but he will attribute much of how he looks at skiing to Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain. “I think growing up on a steep mountain racing just gave a me solid skiing foundation, as well as in the way I coach…. a lot of similarities come from being able to turn correctly and have the correct body position and this translates to the half pipe fully.” Since Sun Valley never had a park or pipe, just steep long runs, it wasn’t uncommon to find Ben hucking off cat tracks. Long after the mountain closed, Ben would be ripping his truck through the base parking lot towing friends behind. I remember in the late 90’s; Ben and Dave Clemmens blasting 9’s and landing switch on their race skis, eating it, and wanting to do it over and over again determined to get to 10 (because they had to).
Even after graduating high school, Ben lived mostly to ski. When his paths in life led him back home, he always had a ski pass and a snowmobile. He was determined, like most of us, to shred as much as possible and make that the goal. He coached the alpine ski team for a couple years, but it wasn’t until 2007 when after being laid off a construction gig, he gave in and helped start a (much needed) freeski program with the ski team.
In his first year he had only a few kids (Colter Brehmer, Wing Tai Barrymore, Nathan Moses, and Ben Parker). “We didn’t really have any idea of what we were doing but we were just having a ton of fun. We started going to contests together and just learning what it was all about – just having a good time, and I got lucky ’cause I had some great kids”. At the time Sun Valley had a mediocre 18 foot pipe, and no park. Much of Ben’s coaching was spent all over the hill just having fun like he always had done, and sharing that stoke with his crew. “Colter, coming from a ski racing background, was the ringleader, he was such a good skier, and had this ability to always find his feet… somehow he convinced Tai to be on the team with him. You know Tai literally couldn’t buy a turn? (laughs) He was not a very solid skier”, Ben Jokes. “I have never seen anyone learn as fast as he does though. He could only do a 5 in the halfpipe at the beginning of that first year and by the end he had won junior nationals – he was doing 18 foot 9’s in an 18′ halfpipe and it was just insane. They are just such cool kids and that was really what made me love the sport and made me love coaching. And really that is what really brought other people into our team.”
Over the next couple years Ben took his crew all over the place, and was eventually recommended to help at an Olympic Gold camp in Mammoth, and then to take a team to Junior Worlds in New Zealand, as part of the US Freeski program. There he met Brita Sigourney, Maddie Bowman, Devon Logan, and Ty Wellman. Along with Tai and Colter, they quickly formed a pseudo-team. The next year he was able (through help from the SV Team) to freelance coach all of them. Over that year many of them did very well, and eventually most ended up on the US team’s radar. “We called it plan B like the morning after pill. (he laughs)”. One of his favorite moments he remembers taking the team over to Europe with “all their eggs in one basket”. Tai had to win the SFR to even be invited to Euro X, but they had banked on it, booking flights and rooms through the event. Tai ended up coming through, winning the SFR and a spot to Euro X in Tignes. That year Brita had also come out of nowhere, taking second to Sarah Burke at the X Games, and her career was catapulted from being a nobody to someone stepping up in women’s freeski.
This last spring Ben was chosen to help the U.S. Rookie team in preparation for Sochi 2014. “Its been really cool to work with the rookie team and having the opportunity to work with kids on different programs… and every kid is totally different. There is a Tai Barrymore who wants to get punched in the head, listen to metal and go as big as he can… then you have an Alex Fereria who is crazy talented and is way more technical in his head, and wants you to watch and give technical advice about tricks” Ben takes the time to get to know his kids. “Obviously there will be a ‘don’t be a pansy’ attitude…. but my philosophy is absolutely to have fun and to have fun with the athletes. You are learning it together and you’re all friends – living it with them… every opportunity I get I try to ski the pipe with them. I think that everyone learns better when other people are skiing/learning along side – and pushing each other is what it is all about.”
The week before heading off to the Olympic Test Event in Sochi Ben,Tai, Brita, and Maddie came to Sun Valley’s Dollar Terrain Park (looking these days much like NZ’s Snowbpark – minus the crowd) to train, and have a good time. “Honestly, there is just nowhere like Sun Valley… it’s where we all grew up and where we rode as kids, and to see it transform into a terrain park is rad. It’s just cool to see Sun Valley get behind what is going on and really kind of get to be a part of it… its awesome to see it revert to its roots, you know? The first chairlift ever is here in SV. It was a progressive awesome place; in the 70s when freestyle was huge and in the 80’s it was sick here as well. Then we had a solid 15 year lull, maybe 20, and to see it come back and keep moving forward and move into the forefront of what skiing and snowboarding are today it will be sick to see it keep going that way, and I hope it does.”
Ben’s commitment to coaching and having fun is apparent every day you ski with him. To emphasize this; one year Ben bruised his foot hitting a jump with his skiers. He was facing being out for the rest of the season, but he just strapped a snowboard boot on his right foot, and skied every run along side them. You would hear him screaming and whiz by you laid out in a carve heading to the pipe – it was impressive. That said, likely you will not find Ben just sitting at the bottom of the pipe watching runs, sipping a coffee in his sun glasses. He will be at the top of the pipe ready to make sure the right song is playing on your ipod, your skis are waxed, and you get a punch in the head before dropping in. And he will if you ask him for it.
As a coach Ben plans to see his crew of skiers through Sochi. “While I know everyone can’t go to the Olympics… I want to see everyone do their best, keep progressing the sport and themselves, and stay healthy keeping their bodies intact to have long happy careers that keep them involved in skiing – doing what they love. And for me its the same thing, I just want to keep doing what I love doing and be involved in the sport, in these kids lives, and being friends with all of them… you know? its so cool… its sick.” Not too bad for a washed up carpenter from Idaho. ~Mark