Flylow athlete Isaac Freeland took the Freeride World Tour by storm this past winter.
It’s mid-March 2020, merely the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, when things hadn’t really reached pandemic status yet. Isaac Freeland is in a car, driving six hours from Innsbruck, Austria, to Verbier, Switzerland. Freeland is a skier—a rising pro skier, in fact, but no blame if you don’t know his name. Until recently, you wouldn’t know who he is. Because, not long ago, he was just a college kid, studying computer science at the University of Utah, who happened to be a very talented skier.
But then Freeland got in that car, headed to Verbier. There, he was scheduled to compete in the finale of the Freeride World Tour, which takes place every year on Verbier’s famed Bec des Rosses, a pyramid-shaped behemoth of a mountain scattered with cliffs and steep chutes. Before the contest though, there was an athlete meeting. Freeland was late; his ride didn’t make it in time for the meeting. And his phone didn’t have service.
So, when he rolled into Verbier that night, he had no clue what had just transpired. He walked into the hotel, carrying his bags, and another athlete said, “Congrats!” “For what?” Freeland wondered.
Due to the rapidly escalating situation surrounding COVID-19 and because of restrictions put in place by the Swiss government, the Freeride World Tour had just canceled its 2020 Verbier Xtreme for the first time ever. The statement the FWT issued on March 12 read: “The World Champions will be discerned from the current 2020 season rankings, which will remain as they currently stand.”
Well, guess who was leading the rankings heading into Verbier? Yep. A 25-year-old American rookie named Isaac Freeland.
Freeland grew up on the beaches of San Diego. When he was eight, his family took a vacation to the Southern California mountain town of Big Bear and he learned to ski for the first time on rental equipment. “I just knew I wanted to do more of it,” Freeland says now. “So many things resonated with me: Being able to move at high speeds, having the freedom to go wherever I wanted.”
He started ski racing with the Snow Summit Race Team, and by the time he was in high school, he decided to move to Tahoe to attend boarding school at Sugar Bowl Academy. Freeland was on the race program but a day or so a week, he’d train with the school’s freeride team just for fun. During his sophomore year in high school, he entered his first big-mountain freeskiing competition on the slopes of Alpine Meadows. He took second place. “That was when I realized, ‘Oh, I can do this,’” Freeland says. “The next year, I quit racing and went full freeride.”
While in college at the University of Utah, he continued competing in big-mountain competitions, including the Freeride World Qualifier series, essentially the try-out tour for the Freeride World Tour. Freeland was often a contender for the podium, but he narrowly missed the cut on qualifying for the FWT a few years in a row. After graduating college in December 2018, he decided to give himself one more winter on the qualifying tour, then he’d be done with it.
Then he won the final event at Kirkwood that season and made the cut for the Freeride World Tour. Skiing on the FWT this past winter—2019-’20—brought an onslaught of new experiences for Freeland. He’d never skied outside of the Americas before—now he was competing in Japan, Andorra, Austria. “New places, new cultures, a new style of competition,” Freeland says. “I was trying to learn as much as I could, listen as much as I could.”
For a rookie, his results were impressive. He earned two second place finishes and a fifth place—which was good enough to put him atop the overall rankings leading into the final event. “Of course, I had hopes of doing well, but you can’t anticipate the moment when you come down and see your score and you’re on the podium,” says Freeland, a Flylow athlete who lives in his Smythe Bibs and Kane Jacket. “I was just trying to ski lines that spoke to me and that were fun.”
Which brings us, of course, back to the Verbier finale. The event was originally scheduled to take place the last week of March 2020. But with coronavirus beginning to swirl around the globe, organizers decided to bump up the date a couple of weeks at the last minute. The competition and a live broadcast were set to take place, but all spectator events and parties were canceled.
“We’re watching the news. Major revelations are being put out on an hourly basis,” Freeland says. “We’re waiting for the tour announcement for the athletes. Eventually they say, ‘We’re going to try to move the Verbier event to this weekend. They’re like, ‘Everyone get here now.’ Everyone is panicking slightly. There are some athletes who can’t make it in time, people who can’t travel.”
But Freeland is in Austria and he hops that ride to Switzerland, where, eventually he’s the last to find out that a) the tour’s last stop has officially been canceled and b) he’s been named the overall champion of the Freeride World Tour. Freeland is just the third American male skier to win the title in the FWT’s 12-year history.
The news has barely sunk in. “Verbier is the pinnacle of big-mountain freeride. It’s such an iconic place and venue. I definitely wanted to compete there,” Freeland says. “The victory at that point was kind of dropped on me.”
Freeland celebrates with his fellow athletes that night, and the next day, he makes it to the city of Geneva, where he catches a flight back home to the U.S., just in time for the world to shut down.