Flying High With Eskimo Olympic Snowboarder Callan Chythlook-Sifsof
As you can see from the above video, 22-year old Callan Chythlook-Sifsof, Yu'pik Inupiaq, is an adrenalin junkie. Sometimes she gets her rush from pitching herself out of a plane with a camera mounted to her helmet, other times the adrenalin comes from being dropped off on a remote mountain top by a helicopter so she can ply her trade down untrammeled, off boundary slopes. The shot of adrenalin she received, however, at the end of the 2009-2010 snowboarding season was unlike anything she had ever experienced in her life before. After a long, arduous comeback from tearing her ACL, Callan found out she'd be the first Alaskan Native in history to compete in the coming 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. She found out as she was en route to satisfy that craving that won't go away, heading to the 2010 X Games in Aspen.
Callan was born and raised in what the locals call the Alaskan bush, in Aleknagik, north of Dillingham, some 400 plus miles north of Anchorage, only accessible by air or boat. It is one of the most remote areas in North America. She was bitten by the snowboarding bug at the age of seven, when she made use of a small hill behind her grandpa's house. She followed her big brother to larger hills, and eventually mountains, including Marsh Mountain and the 2,426-foot Mable Mountain. They'd use snowmobiles to get to the mountains, or they'd hike, and fling themselves down the slopes with glee.
"I did it all backwards," she says, referring to the way she learned how to snowboard first on backcountry trails, in fresh powder far from the manicured, well-trodden slopes on ski resorts, where most snowboarders learn. Backcountry snowboarding is incredibly strenuous (fresh powder is harder to move through and exhausting on your legs) and dangerous—rocks and crags are hidden beneath the snow cover. Yet Callan loved it, and cut her teeth following her brother down these treacherous, beautiful runs. Then, at 13, she and her mother moved near the Alyeska Ski Resort, outside of Anchorage, where Callan began training in the usual setting, using the mountain's many runs to hone her craft.
Callan now competes in two kinds of snowboarding events, both of them are dangerous and terrifically exciting. The first is snowboardcross, which is a wild, exhilarating race in which four snowboarders start simultaneously at the top of a course that's filled with berms, steeps, flats and jumps. The ability to simply stay in control is a major component of this race in which collisions are common and you're flying down a slope at great speeds, taking flight off monstrous jumps with your competitors all around you. The snowboardcross debuted in the 2006 Winter Olympics and has been a source of awe for competitors and viewers alike. The second snowboarding competition Callan competes in harkens back to her upbringing; big mountain snowboarding. This event is pure backcountry, with competitors being airlifted to the starting point of the race via helicopter, where they fling themselves down the mountain, far from any recognizable slope. "It's like big wave surfing," Callan says, "they just drop you off at the top and there you are, on a huge mountain, no slope in sight."
Callan had a magical debut season in professional snowboarding in 2006-07. In her very first World Cup, in Furano, Japan, in February of 2007, she finished in third place, a stunning start for a then unknown snowboarder. "This was big. It was my first year. It's been a struggle to get those same results I got in that first season, but it's starting to happen." She followed up that third place finish at the World Cup in Japan, and then with a fourth place finish in the World Cup race in Stoneham, Quebec. Then, to cap this miracle season, she won the U.S. National Championship and Junior National Championship in the same snowboardcross race in the North American Cup in Tamarack, Idaho. It was as good a start as any first-year big time snowboarder can hope for.
The 2007-2008 season was another strong year, only without the same astonishing results at the World Cup events in Lake Placid and Stoneham. The World Cup events, in Chapelco, Argentina, Stoneham, Quebec, and Lake Placid, New York, saw her best finish at 6th, in Lake Placid. Yet there were many highlights from that season included nabbing second place in the FIS Junior World Championships for snowboard cross in Valmalenco, Italy, in March of 2008. She finished third in the South American Cup for the same event in Chapelco, Argentina, in May of that year. She also won the woman's title at the Jeep King of the Mountain Series, beating a legendary opponent and future teammate, Lindsey Jacobellis. She finished the season ranked number two in the country for female snowboarders, trailing behind only Jacobellis, the silver medalist from the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy (the first year the snowboardcross became an event) and the eventual seven-time snowboardcross champion at the X Games. These were good tidings for a young, up-and-coming snowboarder like Callan.
(Below is a video Callan competing in the snowboardcross World Championships in Stoneham, Quebec in 2008, where she finished seventh out of 30 total snowboarders.)
Then disaster struck in the 2008-09 season. "I came up short on a jump and came down, hard, on my knee." Callan tore her ACL. "It happens to everybody. It's difficult to come back from, but doesn't necessarily have to be a career ender." She rehabbed and fought hard to get back on the slopes. "That season I was really trying to get back to where I was before the injury." She steadily improved, and eventually got the call that she had made the U.S. Olympic Team, a massive, mind-blowing honor. "Results wise, I could have done better at the Olympics, but I am really, really happy to have even made the team." Although Callan didn't place in the Olympics, the boost in confidence, knowing her career thus far had been tracking the right way, despite the injury, led to her best season ever.
The 2010-11 season was nothing short of a spectacular success for Callan. "I trained a lot, both on the snow and in the gym. My mental game felt at a very high level, the pieces just came together. She placed second in the X Games in Aspen and second again in the World Cup in Arosa, Switzerland for snowboardcross. "I was qualifying in the top five for nearly every race. And then the World Cup in Switzerland, that was my best ever finish. In the seasons there isn't the Olympics, everyone you'd compete against is at the World Cups. Instead of just a few people from each country, there are a lot. The competition is really, really tough."
Currently studying at Westminster College in Salt Lake City (a safe guess she enjoys the school's proximity to world class ski resorts), Callan has a big mountain snowboarding event coming up in New Zealand at the end of July, where she'll also be training with her Team USA teammates. Then Olympic Training begins in earnest in Park City Utah. "The whole team will be there, we all live in a house together and train in Park City." It's like MTV's The Real World, only with well adjusted athletes and regimented, focused living. Then the World Cup in snowboardcross will take place in Telluride, Colorado, in December.
If Callan's current trajectory stays on course, a World Cup title and an Olympic Medal are both likely outcomes. We imagine she'll enjoy the adrenalin rush of ascending the Olympic podium just fine.