by Jaime Collins (Series, Article IV)

“My greatest challenge,” says Kaylen Reiley, “Is the phase I’m in right now. I’m at a point I need to step into it.”

Just returned from summer training at Mount Hood, Oregon, where athletes can train year-round at high altitude, Kaylen is definitely stepping into it. Years of freeski training have shaped within him an understanding of life and fun and personal challenge that’s both unrestrained and wise, far beyond his 18 years.

Kaylen Reiley leaving a big jump, turning with skis in the air, at a freestyle competition.
Just off the jump and high in the air, Kaylen performs a challenging grab during competition.

“I’m ready to go for it and work hard and get down everything I need to,” he says. “At the same time, I’m going out on my own. I’m leaving home and moving out west. That’s a big step also.”

Interestingly, how Kaylen views his current life situation is not so different from how he describes doing a big-air trick for the first time. “You don’t do a big new trick for judges or anyone else. Do this new thing only because you want to do it. It’s gotta come from you. And you should have fun doing it. No one ever lands a jump when they start by thinking ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I don’t want to do this.’” A little doubt is normal, but when you’re really ready, you definitely feel it. That’s the time to do it.”

Both a freeskier and a free spirit, it seems Kaylen’s genuinely found the right sport for him. He loves freeskiing because he can do it his way This relatively new sport puts jumps, turns, and high-flying tricks at the center of every thrill-inducing moment. Of its separate disciplines – slopestyle, big-air, half-pipe, and ski cross – Kaylen’s is slopestyle.

Kaylen navigates a rail in the terrain park at Whiteface Mountain.
Kaylen practicing rails in the Terrain Park at Whiteface Mountain.

In traditional sports, an athlete has a singular basic objective. Shoot the ball through the hoop. Kick the ball in the net. Or ski the marked course faster than everyone else. But in slopestyle– a sport that with obstacles like rails and jumps – points are scored by the athlete’s amplitude, originality, and the quality of tricks performed in the air.

“You have to get creative with it and push yourself,” says Kaylen. “You really have to think about how this is going to look in the air. Is it original? The sport is very open. You’re able to do any trick you want. Even with the same trick, there are many different ways you can do it. You make it your own. There are no limits. That means the sport is always going to be changing.”

Kaylen stands poised for a run at a Futures Tour competition.
Kaylen stands poised for a run at a Futures Tour competition.

Kaylen’s been traveling to big competitions in recent years. The StepUp Tour is a series of freeskiing events held across Quebec Province in Canada. Another is the Revolution Tour (Rev Tour). Both serve as stepping-stones for athletes making the transition from competing at the grassroots level to the elite level.

Kaylen credits his environment and the people around him for his growth in the sport. “I grew up on Whiteface,” he says. “Been skiing there my whole life. It was a perfect place for me to learn growing up.”

Kaylen Reiley as a young child learning to ski at the Bears' Den Learning Center at Whiteface Mountain.
Kaylen Reiley as a young child learning to ski at the Bears’ Den Learning Center at Whiteface Mountain.

Before beginning with the New York Ski Educational Foundation (NYSEF), Kaylen began skiing at what is now the Bear Den Mountain Learning Center at Whiteface Mountain. Today, new lifts a beautiful new lodge, and new programs make the Bear Den a better learning environment than ever for any skier just starting out.

“What made Whiteface great for me is all the people I met there. All the friends I met there. All my coaches. All my teammates. I just had a really good experience with everyone there. I know it like the back of my hand. It’s my home mountain.”

Kaylen and a friend with Whiteface Ski Instructors Mary Ilaqua & Lana Washburn.
Kaylen (in red at left)  and a friend with Whiteface Ski Instructors Mary Ilaqua & Lana Washburn. Many years later Lana is still an instructor at Whiteface. 

Kaylen’s skied everything at Whiteface and despite the focus on slopestyle, he also loves to simply ski. Through the years, much of his sport specific training focused on tricks. After a few runs in to warm up, most training days are a progression of tricks, starting with simpler ones. Not easy tricks but certainly less complex ones.

“It’s 90 percent feeling,” he says. “. You have to feel everything. You start doing the simpler tricks well, and you do them until you really feel how you do it. At that point the scary thing is there’s not much more you can do. You just have to go for it.”

Kaylen stands on a podium with a medal at USASA competition at Whiteface Mountain.
Kaylen earns a medal at USASA competition at Whiteface Mountain.

Kaylen’s perspective is reminiscent of that famous line from Edmund Hillary after he and Tenzing Norgay were the first to reach the summit of the Earth’s highest peak, Mount Everest. “It’s not the mountain we conquer but ourselves,” said Hillary.

Rising to elite levels in a sport like this requires a relentless determination to overcome one’s fears and move beyond self-imposed limits. Kaylen also recognizes being fearless isn’t simply not being afraid. He knows success requires him to feel the fear and do new tricks anyway. Yet, he does them with awareness. That is, when he’s made the simpler jumps and feels he’s ready.

He’s adamant that a big part of really feeling it is having fun along the way because if you’re having fun, everything’s a lot easier. “The first time I do any of these tricks, especially the bigger ones, it’s pretty nerve wracking,” he says. “But I really enjoy it. And I want to keep doing it. I have a few tricks I really want to get down. Then we’ll see where it all takes me.”