Alumna Keri Herman is at the top of her game as one of the best female freeskiers in the world.
Keri Herman raced toward the jump going backward. She hit it fast and launched into the air. Herman whipped her body to the right, spun around 720 degrees (two complete revolutions) and grabbed one of her skis. She glided back to earth, landed backward and sped off to the next feature.
In slopestyle skiing, the move is called a switch-cork-7. And until Herman nailed it at the 2011 Winter X Games in Aspen, she was mired in last place. But by completing a snow stunt only a few women in the world can pull off, Herman vaulted into second place and earned an X Games silver medal in slopestyle skiing for the second year in a row.
2011 has been a good year for 29-year-old Herman, whose slopestyle exploits make her one of the best freeskiers in the world. Herman (BSBA ’05) won her second consecutive silver in the European Winter X Games and turned in a couple of podium finishes on the Dew Tour, the main competitive slopestyle skiing circuit in North America. By season’s end, Herman was ranked the No. 2 women’s slopestyle skier in the world by the Association of Freeskiing Professionals.
To top it off, she’s been named to the U.S. national freeskiing team and she’s hoping to compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
“I was pretty stoked with everything I did this year,” Herman says.
Birth of a trickster
Traditional skiers have been doing flips, catching air and jumping over stuff for more than a century, but Herman’s brand of freeskiing was born on the slopes of Whistler, B.C., in the mid-1990s. Tired of moguls, some two-plankers decided to start hitting the rails, tabletops and half-pipes that started showing up on the slopes after snowboarding became cool. The activity they called freeskiing eventually joined snowboarding in the category of competitive winter sports known as slopestyle.
The idea is simple: Freeskiers — or “tricksters” — ski down a terrain park dotted with jumps and other features and use them as launching points to show off a stable of moves, or tricks. Breaking the laws of gravity is strongly encouraged.
What makes her story all the more incredible is that Herman didn’t get an early start in the sport like a lot of other successful athletes. The 5-foot-7-inch, 130-pound skier first tried slopestyle in her early 20s, when she was an undergraduate at the University of Denver.
Like many DU students, Herman studied abroad. She chose Australia, where the seasons run opposite of the Northern Hemisphere. As a result, she ended up having an entire year of summer. When she returned to DU, she’d had enough of high temperatures and too much light, so she promptly moved to Breckenridge, Colo., to balance things out with some winter. That’s when she hit her first rail.
“It was scary,” Herman recalls. “I fell quite a bit. I completely bruised my legs and butt. But I wanted to keep going. Progressing and learning new tricks gives you a rush like no other.”
Growing up in Bloomington, Minn., Herman had skied on local hills most Coloradans would think were prairie dog mounds. She also skied on family trips out West. But in Minnesota, land of hockey, Herman focused on skating rather than skiing, even starring on her middle and high school girls’ hockey teams and holding her own with a few teammates who went on to play the college game.
Bonnie Blaylock, who coached Herman in youth hockey, credits Herman’s success to above-average athletic ability.
“She picks things up quickly and was the kind of person that has a certain grace about their movement,” Blaylock says. “Things look easy for her even when they aren’t.”
Herman’s mom, Diana Herman, says her daughter’s athleticism is only part of what makes her a slopestyle force. At a very young age, Diana says, Keri’s daredevil streak became evident. Keri always had to climb the highest tree in the backyard, jump off the balcony of their home onto a couch, or launch herself off their deck onto a trampoline when her parents weren’t home.
Diana also says her daughter didn’t exactly go along with all the other neighborhood girls when it came to sports.
“She liked to do things other girls weren’t doing,” Diana says. “She wanted to play hockey when no girls were playing hockey. She wasn’t interested in figure skating.”
Looking for gold
In a typical season, Herman headquarters in Breckenridge for most of the winter. When the Colorado snow begins to melt, she’ll head out to ski areas in California or Oregon to keep honing her tricks. She spends a portion of her spring competing in European events, then heads to New Zealand to practice during the North American summer.
In her downtime, Herman bikes and hikes Colorado’s mountains and hangs out with friends. This summer, Herman also took a job waiting tables. Given her status as a top international athlete, that’s like John Elway taking a summer gig washing cars.
“I do it because I enjoy talking to people,” says Herman, who likes to high-five people so much she got the words tattooed on her palm. “It’s boring sitting around doing nothing. I like to keep active.”
This season, Herman plans to compete in the Winter X and European Winter X Games, the World Ski Invitational in Whistler, the Nine Queens big-air competition in Serfauz, Austria, and several Dew Tour events. Her sponsors include Monster energy drinks, Under Armour outerwear and Scott ski gear.
In 2014, Herman could add the biggest event of her sporting life to her schedule. Over the summer, the International Olympic Committee added slopestyle skiing and snowboarding to the slate of events at the 2014 Winter Games. As the top-rated women’s trickster in the United States, Herman is considered by many to be the country’s best threat to win a medal in the sport’s initial Olympic outing.
Mike Douglas — known as the godfather of freeskiing — was one of those Canadian skiers who helped found the sport back in the mid-1990s. Nowadays, he broadcasts for ESPN during the Winter X Games. He’s watched Herman compete and says she’s the top American right now.
“Keri is someone who is really consistent,” Douglas says. “She’s rarely the one who puts down the flashy moves, but she’s always among the top girls. She’s got a good style and good flow and a good attitude to top it off. What makes her stand out is that she can throw tricks in both directions. There aren’t a lot of girls doing that well now.”
With Herman’s globetrotting lifestyle and stupendous success, it’d be easy for her to get caught up in all the hype. But for Herman, life is still about doing what she does — getting outside every day and playing with friends. It just so happens that while she’s doing it, she’s perfecting some of the world’s most dazzling “air ballet,” as her mom describes it. With another season of competition getting started in December, Herman is taking it all in stride.
“It’s all about having fun and having a good time,” Herman says. “I’m lucky to live the life I live.”