Diamonds in the Rough

Sugarbush has been a hotbed of freestyle skiing since the culture took serious root in the early 1960’s. Former ski school director Stein Eriksen’s famous flips were inspiring to many young skiers. By the mid-70’s, athletes like Hoover Austin and John Egan were tearing up bumpfields and launching even bigger airs on natural terrain all over Lincoln Peak.

Born in 1993, the Diamond Dogs are an integral part of the Sugarbush freestyle evolution, thanks to a forward thinking Blazer coach named Kevin Wry. “I had the highest level Blazer group and they topped out where we were allowed to teach to, but wanted to keep going, so I asked Brownie (Paul Brown, former ski school director) if we could start a freestyle team.” Kevin is still coaching the Dogs, although threatens to retire every season now. At 66, he certainly deserves it.

An early Diamond Dogs poster from the 1990s

The name comes from the Mt. Ellen ski patrol, which was earned by skiing a non-stop no-falls run on the infamous Black Diamond trail. Kevin asked then mountain manager Blaise Carrig for permission to use it and the rest is history. 

The first coaches were Lee Morse (head), Kevin, Mike Millstone and Chris Parkinson, who still coaches for the Bush Pilots adult program. They went to Waterville Valley for USSA coach certification  with one of the grandfathers of freestyle, Nick Preston and current US Freestyle Ski Team coach, Glenn Eddy.

The structure has remained remarkably consistent since then. Meet in the Dog Pound. Organize the groups and coaches. Review conditions and weekly/seasonal goals. Plan training and freeski time. Go rip with a smile all day. Flexibility is built in and on big powder or refreeze days, plans can change to maximize fun and learning. Competitions usually mean late night car rides, early rising in dark hotel rooms or condos, rolling straight to the venue for practice/race runs, then a long tired spin home. Of course, the program is on hiatus this season due to the pandemic, but expect a big rebound when it’s all said and done.

The inaugural pack was strong, with skiers like K.C. Wry (Kevin’s son), Bruce Hyde Jr (currently co-owner and manager of Mehuron’s Supermarket), and Anna Eberle and Scooter Urie, who both went to US Nationals for moguls. Over the years, team members have distinguished themselves many times, including notables; Sabrina Cass, 2019 Junior World Moguls Champion and current US Ski Team member, Andy Woods, who won the US Freeskiing Open Big Air comp in 2000 with the first 1260 ever landed in competition and was the US Ski Team Halfpipe Head Coach from 2011-19, Cole Derrick, currently a Chinese Olympic Committee Freeski Coach, Roy Tuscany, founder of the High Fives Foundation, the late Ryan Hawks, inspiration for the Flying Ryan Foundation, Johnny Egan Jr., an extreme skier who was picked to lead an IKON Pass Tour around the country in 2019-20, and Keegan Hosefros and Dylan Okurowski, who are budding snowboard movie stars.

Long time coach Aaron Hersey joined the team in Winter 1998-99. “Why have I stayed with the team so long? It’s the pure stoke that the kids bring. As a non-academy program, the kids are in school all week, daydreaming about being on the mountain. Saturday morning could be raining or -30 and they show up with a fat grin, ready to rip. It’s easy to take skiing for granted or get jaded, but they remind me that skiing is awesome and every chance we get to do it is special. Even on the “worst” days, I finish up smiling too. One other factor that really makes us shine is there are real challenges off basically every lift in the Mad River Valley. You can cruise the groomers, but all it takes is going left instead of right and all of a sudden, you’re in serious terrain. Not every ski area provides that type of opportunity.”

John Egan, who’s two boys, Johnny and Will, were also in the program, added, “I wanted them to be somewhere that taught the techniques safely, while giving them a full-mountain experience, ripping the woods, jumping off rocks, skiing powder and learning on uneven ground. The park and constructed bump courses are great learning venues too, but you’re better when you play in the full variety of our awesome terrain. That’s Diamond Dogs.”

According to many observers, current head coach Joey Normandeau has brought the program to its highest level yet. Joey’s background as a high school racer, including in the GMVS race program for 7 years and as member of the UColorado Freestyle Team, helped prepare him. Now, he’s a USSA-certified  Level 200 Bumps and Aerials coach. Coach Hersey again, “Joey has it all; good organization, an even demeanor, deep freestyle knowledge, and top notch skiing, coaching and people management skills. Nothing fazes him and trying to ride herd on a bunch of ripping tween/teen athletes, unruly coaches and ambitious parents is not easy, even in the best of circumstances.”

Coach Joey filming a Diamond Dog in Riemergasse

Despite all the challenges, Joey has stuck with Diamond Dogs for many of the same reasons that the other coaches and kids echo. “Competition is great for kids. We work together to set goals and train hard to meet them. We don’t just show up and do what feels good, we’re pursuing a larger end goal. The cyclic nature is awesome too. Seeing athletes grow up in the program, succeed in competitions, become interns and progress to coaching is amazing. So few people can make a living competing that having this other track allows us to stay involved with the sport we love so much.”

Sabrina Cass may prove to be one of exceptions to the rule, having reached a very high level of competition even before graduating from high school. Now a member of US Ski Team, she remembers,  “Since I was 2 years old, we’ve been coming to Sugarbush every weekend. First, we started in the Blazer program and I loved it. When I turned 10, my parents wanted me to try Diamond Dogs with my brother PJ. At first, I didn’t want to do it. But after meeting the kids and coaches and seeing all the fun we could have, I was hooked. Once I tried competing, I liked it even more.”

Sabrina also emphasized the relationships that have come from her time in Diamond Dogs, “Some of my best friends came from the team, even though we live in different places. The coaches are awesome too and have left lasting lessons with me. Joey was really motivational and always pushed me to try new tricks. When I am about to start a run, I always repeat a phrase that Coach Alicia (Cavanaugh) said to me one time at the top of bump course. ‘This is your canvas, now go paint it.’ I don’t think I’d be where I am without Diamond Dogs.”

Coach Aaron added, “The Dogs have helped seed the sport with athletes that succeed in many venues. In addition to the ones who are competing and entertaining on the world stage, you can go to just about any marquee resort in North America and find former Diamond Dogs working as freestyle coaches, premier ski models, business owners, high level groomers and always a key part of the local hard core ripper crew.”

Egan agreed, “The really cool thing though is that when the kids learn the way to succeed in competitive skiing, they’ve gone on and transferred to this knowledge to the business world.” One of the biggest success stories that proves this is what Roy Tuscany has achieved with the High Fives Foundation.

Roy shared, “The competition side of Diamond Dogs taught us about grit. Freestyle was in its early stages and we were traveling in cramped stinky cars from Whiteface to Sugarloaf to compete on blue ice moguls and rock hard landings. How do you get kids excited about that? At a young age, we were taught how to approach tough situations with strength and enthusiasm. Going to work and running an organization can be fun, but Diamond Dogs helped me prepare for completing the hard jobs with a smile.” The successes and impacts of the Diamond Dogs are direct reflections of Sugarbush’s culture and the larger Mad River Valley community, whether it’s launching big airs or running organizations. For more on the Diamond Dogs, Sugarbush Parks and all the awesome athletes and coaches, check out sugarbush.com.

Next week I’ll share some fun history on the Parks program here, with former Diamond Dog head coach Tony Chiuchiolo widely credited as the primary architect that the program to forefront of the park scene. For more photos of the Diamond Dogs and Parks programs, visit this gallery I put together.

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