BELLINGHAM – Big mountain skiing had its grip on Angeli VanLaanen early at the Mount Baker Ski Area. A full-body grip.
“I remember being a little kid and getting stuck in the powder and having to have my mom come help me get out,” VanLaanen said. “It was so deep, and I was so short. I think really early on I knew that’s where I wanted to be. I wanted to ski off the cat tracks.”
VanLaanen dream was to be a mountaineer when she grew up, dreaming of scaling the world’s big peaks.
It took a different kind of climb to land a berth on the 2014 U.S. Olympic team. VanLaanen had to take three years off after being diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2009. She recovered and is set to compete in ski half-pipe, which makes its Olympic debut at the Games in Sochi, Russia.
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Groomed trails didn’t hold much appeal for the young VanLaanen, a member of the mountain’s Air Bears freestyle club. Members skied Mount Baker’s varied terrain, including cliffs, trees and steeps, sometimes building their own jumps.
“Mount Baker has some really amazing big-mountain terrain that is accessible inbounds,” she said. “You can learn how to ski a big line or jump off a cliff.”
But the Olympics never seemed part of her future, because freeskiing was outside the realm of the rings.
VanLaanen, 28, now lives in Salt Lake City, close to training grounds in Park City and the Wasatch Mountains. Born and raised in Bellingham, shortly after graduation from Bellingham High School she knew exactly what she wanted to do: make a living as a professional freeskier.
The seed was planted when she was a teenager. Her big brother, Cachaulo, let her tag along with him and his buddies to a summer ski camp on a glacier at Whistler. There, coaches introduced Angeli to things like skiing rails and a half-pipe. One coach, star freeskier Sarah Burke of Canada, played a key role.
“She taught me my first tricks in the half-pipe,” VanLaanen said of Burke, who became a mentor to VanLaanen and other women freeskiers.
VanLaanen left town, first for Mount Hood, then Breckenridge, Colo., then Salt Lake. She became one of the top freeskiers in the world. Meanwhile, Olympic powers had been trying to make the Games more appealing to a younger audience, in 1998 adding snowboard half-pipe competition — skateboarding on snow.
Skiers were doing similar tricks. In fact, they were going even higher. Inevitably, they had to get in. Burke was among those leading the way. In 2011, ski half-pipe — an event where half-pipe skiers are judged on tricks similar to snowboarders — was approved as an Olympic sport for 2014.
For VanLaanen, the news came at the best and worst time. In 2009, VanLaanen had been diagnosed with Lyme disease, a debilitating bacteria-based illness. Her symptoms included joint pain, blurry vision, migraines and fatigue. She fought through it all and continued skiing.
Usually obtained through a deer-tick bite that can be undetectable (only half get the telltale bulls-eye-shaped skin marking), Lyme disease symptoms are so similar to other conditions, like chronic fatigue or arthritis, that it can be misdiagnosed. VanLaanen believes she had it for 14 years before her diagnosis. She suffered financially and emotionally, and some doctors told her it was mental.
Knowing what she had was a relief, but also meant leaving competition for three years of treatment and recovery. She didn’t know if she’d be back. The Olympic news erased the doubt.
“When the announcement was made, I absolutely had a thought: ‘I want to ski on that team. I want to make the U.S. Olympic ski team.’ ”
She says she is suffering no symptoms and is adamant about keeping a healthy diet and a quiet mind through meditation. “I don’t take it (her health) for granted,” VanLaanen said.
VanLaanen has become a spokeswoman for a national Lyme disease foundation. She made a documentary on her struggles in hopes that others get help sooner than she did.
One of VanLaanen’s great sadnesses is that Burke isn’t around to walk into the stadium during Friday’s opening ceremony. The freeskiing pioneer died two years ago after hitting her head during a half-pipe event.
VanLaanen earned her Olympic spot in dramatic — and emphatic — fashion, winning the last of five qualifiers to claim the third and final automatic berth despite bruises from a training crash before the competition.
Ronni Weston, her dance team coach at Bellingham High, had a feeling VanLaanen would go on to do something great, remembering her as a smiling student who could cast positive vibes simply by entering a room.
As a dancer, “She was just powerful and graceful, and that’s something you see in her athleticism today,” said Weston.
VanLaanen comes home occasionally to visit her mom, Allain, who owns an educational art center in Bellingham. VanLaanen might not live here any more, but will bring a good bit of Bellingham with her to Sochi.
“The sense of adventure and exploring that the city of Bellingham has is something that really influenced me,” she said. “Just thinking outside the box and reaching for something new and unknown. That’s how I got into freeskiing.”