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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Dave Dubuque: They walk among us. Ordinary citizen… or gravity-defying acrobat?

By Dave Dubuque For The Spokesman-Review

I’ll wager that few ski articles begin with a trip to the periodontist, but life can be serendipitous, and I’m going with the flow.

While in the throes of an anxiety attack brought on by a fear of needles that resides at the core of my lizard brain, I began to blather on about my favorite subject and about this season’s goal of learning to do a 360 spin off of a jump. (It’s been a goal for a number of years.)

“I used to throw 1080s,” Dr. Nate Johnson said nonchalantly as I sweated and involuntarily contorted as he searched for a vein suitable for an IV needle. “I even competed in Freeskiing World Tour qualifiers.”

To perform a 1080, a skier flies off of a jump and spins not once (which is hard enough) not twice (most become nauseated), but a dizzying three times – with stiff boots and long boards strapped to their feet.

“That’s so cool, I can’t even get around once,” I said as my mind mercifully drifted into semi-consciousness.

Waking up one successful gum graft later, I made a point of remembering to call Dr. Johnson and ask him how he developed his skills.

“I grew up in Salt Lake City, skiing Alta first, then Snowbird,” he said. “My high school allowed students to leave the campus to work, but my friends and I would just go skiing.”

During these years, the sport of freeskiing – competitions outside the discipline of racing through gates for the fastest time – was in its infancy, and Johnson would watch videos of the sport’s pioneers, like the members of the New Canadian Air Force, and imitate what he saw, hitting jumps and performing terrain-park acrobatics that were, at the time, primarily the domain of snowboarders.

“My brother and I taped some kids’ skis we found in the garage to our shoes and practiced on our trampoline,” Johnson said.

“Then, in the wintertime, we’d build big jumps in the backcountry across from Alta and practice the tricks on real skis, landing in deep snow.”

The practice paid off.

Johnson recounted a memory of he and his brother entering a slopestyle competition while in high school, judged on the ability to do tricks off of jumps, rails and boxes. The problem? His family frowned upon skiing on Sunday – a day reserved for church.

“We told them that we were headed to another church to hear a friend give his pre-mission address to the congregation,” he said.

“We won the competition, held on a beautiful, sunny day, but missed the award ceremony so that we could make it to Sunday dinner and avoid blowing our cover.”

Unfortunately, the brothers came home sporting a telltale goggle tan, and the jig was up.

It was also in high school that he entered his first Freeskiing World Tour qualifying event – a competition held on the steep, ungroomed slopes of a large mountain face that’s judged on criteria such as the difficulty of the route taken down the mountain, the control maintained by the skier, the jumps taken and the rider’s “flow,” or smooth continuity of motion.

He didn’t end up placing, but after spending two years in Switzerland for his church mission, he entered the competition again in 2005 and ended up making it to the finals.

“I would watch the competitions from the bottom of the mountain, remember what routes the winners descended, and imitate them,” Johnson said.

“It usually involved jumping off a number of large cliffs.”

Was he nervous about pushing himself to the limits on consequential terrain?

“Competitors had to hike to the top of Mt. Baldy, which separates Alta from Snowbird, and I had butterflies in my stomach the whole way up,” Johnson said. “But once I was on my skis, I had the whole mountainside to myself, and it was actually very peaceful. And fun.

“Unfortunately, I lost a ski after I jumped off of a cliff and I crashed, blowing my chances of making it to the super finals.”

Johnson is now hard at work raising a new generation of skiers, ages 9, 11 and 13.

“They don’t like to go to lessons,” he laughed, “so we’ll watch big-mountain freeskiing competitions and I’ll tell them, ‘When you can do that, you don’t have to go to ski school any more.’ ”

If they’ve inherited their father’s aptitude for the sport, that might be soon.

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