Living the impossible dream
A passion for skiing has taken Neil Williman to places some Kiwis can only dream of - and other places fellow skiers would have nightmares about.
The Blenheim-raised 27-year-old is a unique sportsman, a world-class freeskier who travels the world risking life and limb for competition points and movie clips.
Williman competes alongside the 30 top-ranked male skiers on the Freeride World Tour, an adrenaline-fuelled competition which used to be known as Extreme Skiing and is called Big Mountain Skiing in the United States.
Freeride skiing, as Williman explains, involves tackling "nothing man-made. You are going to be in terrain or a zone where it's usually pretty gnarly, pretty steep, natural snow conditions, usually powder snow".
"In competition, or for filming, we are jumping off cliffs, skiing down couloirs [steep narrow chutes]."
The Freeride circuit takes competitors to Canada, Italy, France, Austria, California and Switzerland. At the end of the year the top 18, from their three best results, are allowed to remain on the tour. The rest are relegated to the qualifying tour which takes place all over the world, including New Zealand. At the end of the northern winter the top competitors from that tour are sorted out, with four from the Americas, plus four from Eurasia, being promoted to the world tour.
Judging is loosely based around five categories - the main one being line score [how difficult it was to ski where you skied], plus control, fluidity, aggression and technique. Skiers pick their own course, walking or getting a chopper ride to the top. But that's when the hard decisions start. "You have to pick a face that's both big enough for lots of different options, so people can do different stuff and not track out the snow for everyone else, but is also gnarly and steep and scary enough to put on an impressive show. At the same time you've got people with different levels of abilities . . . so it has to be doable, you can't have a lot of zones where, if you fall, you are going to get seriously injured for sure. Plus they have to be viewable by the public, close to a ski resort. So it's really difficult to find these faces."
Williman has discovered how tough it is to stay in the top echelon. Three years ago he finished fourth in the Eurasian section and qualified for the world tour. However he had a poor debut season, through a combination of factors, finished 25th and was relegated to the qualifying tour. But he enjoyed a better season last year, finishing third overall, and was promoted back onto the world tour for the coming season.
He will be based in Innsbruck in Austria for the European section of the Freeride tour, along with his Swedish girlfriend, who is on the qualifying tour. The reason is twofold, he explains. "Fischer, my ski sponsor, is based there as well as the film company I work with.
"Because when I'm not competing what I like even more is filming projects. I've been lucky enough to be in a ski movie for the last two years; we make one every year.
"That's kind of always been my goal, what I'm passionate about. When I couldn't ski, through injury, I would come home and watch a ski movie pretty much every day . . . that's what kept me motivated and focused."
The main market for the ski movies is the internet, with the sponsors who finance the movie happy to get their products out there in such an exciting format. "We got 25,000 views on the trailer for our latest movie, so the sponsors will be happy with that."
Although his life is now spread between film work and competitive skiing, Williman is well aware of the path to success. "Pretty much the way it works is that sponsors love competitions and rankings, athletes love filming and photos. So the sponsors help you out with travel expenses; if you do well in the competitions and you go filming and hopefully make enough of a name for yourself that you don't have to do competitions any more and you can just do filming."
Given the nature of freeride skiing, injuries are always a concern. "I've had some big crashes for sure," says Williman, "but I try to be pretty calculated and make good decisions. I never try and do anything where I think I will crash, reasoning ‘I might crash here but it'll look cool'. If you make decisions like that you will end up pretty badly injured."
Ironically, given the sort of terrain he skis down in Europe, the biggest injury threat to his career came when he was based in Wanaka after leaving school. Operations on both knees, not through injury but from what he labelled overuse, left him pondering his future on skis. Instead of chasing the snow around the world with his ski buddies, he studied at Canterbury University and "gave up [skiing] a little bit, in my head". But, despite thinking he "was out of the game", while at university his skiing got better, his knees got better and he eventually headed for California and France for consecutive winters.
The sport runs in the Williman family. Neil's parents, Brin and Jo, moved to Blenheim from Christchurch when their son was 2 and quickly introduced him to a sport they had come to relish. Both enjoyed alpine pursuits and Neil reckons they got into skiiing as a way to get around and down the mountains they had climbed.
"As long as I remember [skiing] was all I wanted to do," recalls Neil, who strapped on skis as soon as he got out of the parental backpack. The Williman family, including Neil's sister Kate, spent many seasons at the Mount Robert club skifield in the St Arnaud range, a place he recalls with great affection. "I enjoyed the culture there. It wasn't a flash resort, you can't drive all the way there, the tows were old but the terrain was good and there were less people . . . good snow was the priority rather than good coffee at lunch. Also, with no piste at Mt Robert, it was a good introduction to freeskiing."
Neil attended Witherlea Primary School, Bohally Intermediate and Marlborough Boys' College before finishing his secondary education at the Mount Aspiring Outdoor Pursuits School in Wanaka, a harbinger of things to come. After Wanaka he attended Canterbury University, completing an honours degree in natural resource engineering, the same qualification as his father.
But the move to a "regular" job is still some way off for Neil, who has unfinished business on the world tour. "The top 12 skiers at the end of the world tour this season get to go to the finals. They have to pick venues that are rowdy but also safe, this one (in Switzerland) is just rowdy. It's so extreme, so steep, it's really dangerous . . . I get butterflies just thinking about it. But that's the aim, I know I'm good enough to be there, I want to go out and prove it.
"What I do is not about making a living really - more about making a lifestyle. Every single day I have to pinch myself. When I was a kid, to be a skier at the level I'm at was a dream, not a goal because I thought it was impossible. I couldn't think of anything else I wanted to do in my whole life. To be a professional skier is just impossibly amazing. It's a dream come true."
- The Marlborough Express