It’s the dream of many Kootenay kids: be discovered on the slopes, get air time in popular ski videos, and ride a wave of sponsorship dollars. Then what? Freeskiing star Sam Kuch contemplates it all after a brutal crash sidelined his ride. By Mitchell Scott
Before the intense pain or the nauseous onset of shock, there is a loud crack. Deep in the backcountry, with a low, cold sun trailing behind the mountains, 24-year-old professional freeskier Sam Kuch isn’t right. He’s lying on his back in the snow, having ping-ponged through a group of mature trees, and he doesn’t know if that crack was his ski, a branch, or something else altogether. Righting himself, Kuch takes stock of his body and is immediately drawn to his right thigh. As he goes to move it, the whole quadricep shifts in a grisly way. He knows now that sound was his femur snapping. “It’s broken! It’s broken!” he yells to the film crew.
As they hurry to get to him, Kuch lies back and the pain starts in a rush—a wild burning sensation radiating from his foot to his hip. He looks up at a cobalt-blue sky. That’s good, he thinks, they can probably get a helicopter in before dark. He knows how remote they are in Redfish Creek, a technical snowmobile-accessed touring area west of his hometown of Nelson, British Columbia. He closes his eyes as the pain comes in more intense, nauseating waves. It is cold. This is bad. “I couldn’t stop thinking about all the people I would have to tell and how disappointed they would be,” he recalls about that fateful day last winter, in February 2022.
Kuch is handsome, in a tough, subtle, small-town-Canada kind of way, with dark skin and jet-black hair, which he credits to the Métis heritage on his mother’s side and his father’s Eastern European roots. He’s humble, almost shy, and not huge physically. There’s this cool, Kootenay-kid swagger about him that comes alive the better you get to know him. Or if you’ve ever seen him ski.
Kuch is a film athlete. As in, he doesn’t compete, so the fact that he is considered one of the best freeride skiers in the world is a subjective judgement. Ski-film juggernaut Matchstick Productions (MSP), which has been producing iconic feature ski films for 30 years, put out a five-minute edit of Kuch’s skiing in 2021 and titled it “Is This the Best Skier in the World? Sam Kuch Two Years of Shred.” “From the get-go, Sam was someone who exhibited the entire package,” says Scott Gaffney, a director at MSP who has filmed freeski legends like Shane McConkey and Seth Morrison. “He’s someone who can attack big mountains with a whole lot of skill and style. He has a turn that’s beautiful to watch and an arsenal of tricks he can throw off anything.”
In his two decades of skiing—first as a child at Nelson’s Whitewater Ski Resort, then as a junior freeride competitor, and through to his meteoric rise as a professional athlete—this is Kuch’s first real injury. “I remember that morning loading all our safety gear onto the snowmobiles and thinking, ‘Do we really need this? Sam never crashes,’” recalls Simon Shave, a producer at CK9 Studios, a Nelson-based production company that works regularly with Kuch. “We’ve filmed with Sam nearly a hundred days over the last couple of years, and I’m not joking: I think I’ve seen him crash once or twice, and no injuries. He’s like a cat.”
Lying in the snow, the longest bone in his body snapped in two, Kuch runs through the gamut of what ifs. “I knew I was going to be okay, well, at least I was pretty sure,” says Kuch. “I mean, I knew it was bad, but it was funny—I was more worried about not completing our film project, how this would affect Cole’s winter [Sam’s main ski partner and co-star of the film project], the CK9 guys, my sponsors. I guess I cared more about the business side of the injury and less so about my body. When I look back at it now, my worrying about the business side of things definitely played a role in my crash.”
The action-sport world is brutal. It chews through kids, pushing them beyond their comfort zones regularly. It’s a facet of sport focused on individual exploits and luring athletes into never-been-dones and bigger, faster, smoother tricks, and it can have a lot of negative repercussions. Athletes crash, sometimes irrecoverably hard. Some never get back up again. Others survive the edge of disaster to ignite in a flash and then fade away. Very few turn that youthful flow state into a long-lasting, sustainable career.
As recently as 2018, Kuch was leading a fast-growing cadre of hyper-talented young skiers from the Kootenays. He enjoyed success on the junior freeride circuit as a teenager, winning the IFSA North American Junior Championship in 2016 when he was 18. But the transition to a fully-fledged professional freeskier seemed like a fleeting dream. “I wanted to be a pro skier, but didn’t really know the path to get there,” explains Kuch. Freeskiing is not like hockey or soccer, where each level you excel at is a step toward becoming a professional. Non-competing professional freeskiers get paid because people like watching them ski in videos. Getting there is a non-scripted mix of luck, talent, network, and privilege. There’s no road map. No college courses. Just those who’ve managed to pull it off in their own way. Of course, you must be extraordinarily good, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle.
A little luck landed Kuch with an opportunity that changed his life forever. On a sunny, powdery winter day in 2019, he was asked to ski with a film crew visiting Whitewater Ski Resort. In the subsequent three days, he astounded them. From 2019 to 2021, Kuch went on to ski around the world, blowing filmmakers, audiences, and sponsors away with his smooth, aggressive style and his propensity to land massive tricks on huge natural terrain. He signed large sponsorship deals with Arc’teryx and Head skis, won awards like Powder Magazine’s Best Male Performance, High Five Festival’s Male Skier of the Year, and IF3’s Best Male Freeride Segment. In almost an instant, as it says on the MSP YouTube video, Sam Kuch was the best skier in the world.
Kuch had extensive plans for 2022. He and his skiing partner, Cole Richardson, aka SkierCole, had secured significant funds to make their own movie, with Arc’teryx as the main sponsor and CK9 as the production company. They’d be travelling all over British Columbia, with a trip planned for Alaska in the spring, which would be Kuch’s first foray to the hallowed testing grounds of big-mountain skiing. It was going to be a definitive year. “Something was off last winter,” Kuch recalls. “It wasn’t like the winter of 2020–21, where everything just lined up: the weather, the snow, the crew, my skiing. Last year was tough, with lots of grey days, challenging snow, different crews. It lacked the flow I was getting used to.”IT’S EARLY JULY 2022, and Kuch’s healing is going well. He had a metal rod put into his leg and is expected to make a full recovery. You can hardly see his limp, and he no longer needs a cane. He missed nearly a whole winter, and through his rehabilitation, he’s had a lot of time to reflect. In the past, he had never experienced real pressure when it came to his skiing. He was the new meteor crashing into the freeride world, where he stomped tricks and nailed lines he had visualized since childhood. “In the winter of 2021, I felt like I was in full flow state,” he says. “I would see the line, visualize how I was going to ski it, and then execute exactly on that. It just all came so naturally. It was easy.”
But then came the job part, a common stumbling block for young athletes who grow up living their passion. “Instead of visualizing my tricks or my runs last year, I couldn’t stop thinking about all this other stuff,” he says. “How much work we had to do to get this film done. How my sponsors were counting on me to perform. How we were already behind. For the CK9 guys, this was basically their whole season of work. For the first time, I was feeling the pressure of all these other people. Skiing wasn’t just about skiing anymore.”
Kuch’s crash came after doing a trick he’s done many times. He landed in a bomb hole, end of the day, got a little back seat, and was catapulted into a group of mature alpine trees. “He’s really lucky he didn’t hit his head or his chest,” says Shave. “It would have been a much different outcome.” His sponsors are standing by him, so now he needs to get back to work and be the best skier in the world again. As Kuch is quickly learning, being a professional freeride athlete requires an enormous amount of will, stamina, and focus.
His story is quite unique in the Kootenays. No one from the region has ever made it this far. Whitewater skier Trace Cooke, Kuch’s good friend, made a run at being a professional freerider via the competitive route, where scrappy skiers duke it out for judges in gnarly venues, often with less-than-ideal snow conditions. For two seasons, 2016 and 2018, Cooke qualified for the show, the Freeride World Tour, but for a variety of reasons, he found it increasingly difficult to turn his passion for skiing into a career. “The biggest thing that hit me coming out of high school was the real world. My parents weren’t always going to be there to be that cushion of support,” says Cooke. “I set myself a goal, a financial budget, and I started working in the bush brushing and planting. My sponsors helped me with gear, but financially I had to get there myself. I lived those first couple of winters off of $6,000, sleeping on couches, eating the bare minimum, doing what I had to do.”
Today, 10 years into his skiing career at the age of 26, Cooke has turned his experience as a tree planter and forest firefighter—the summer jobs that helped fund his freeride pursuits—into his own tree-falling company. “[The year] 2018 was tough,” says Cooke. “The tour was lacking followers; it was big business and not about the athletes anymore. I was dealing with injuries and huge pressure to perform in really marginal conditions. I started to wonder, ‘Is this really worth it?’ I realized I worked hard to reach my goals, which I did, and now I had a life to lead. Thankfully, I had a plan B.”
While Kuch might be somewhat isolated in the Kootenays, he can look to many athletes with long careers for inspiration. In the snow-sports world specifically, there is Travis Rice, a professional snowboarder who’s created a competition series called Natural Selection. There’s Chris Benchetler, a professional skier well known for his artistic talents and custom ski graphics. Olympic gold snowboard slopestyle medallist Jamie Anderson runs women’s snowboard camps and a foundation that gets girls into snowboarding. Tom Wallisch is a 35-year-old park athlete who made his mark with viral YouTube videos and still enjoys a multifaceted career rooted in skiing. “Something that’s lost in our sport is well-roundedness,” says Wallisch. “There’s such a push to be specialized: to compete in the X Games, to be an urban skier or a big-mountain skier. People have lost the incentive to develop a craft where you’re good at everything, where you can perform in multiple opportunities that come your way.”
Kuch’s vision of his future is emerging. He’s inspired to spend more time with peers like Richardson, who wants to get into fashion, and Michelle Parker, a professional skier who Kuch says “always has something cool and artistic on the go that’s not skiing related.” His challenge right now, though, is getting back to the passion of skiing. “Whether I like it or not, my skiing is what I’m known for,” he says. “It’s gotten me to where I am. My goal this next season is to find that flow state again, and as I go, start to figure out where my career can go from there.” Some of those ideas include freeride camps, more creative film projects, and working with kids. “My community and my family are super important to me,” he says. “They’re why I’m here, and I want to figure out a way to give back to them.”
As Kuch prepares for a summer trip to South America, his first trip on skis since his injury, you get the sense this setback might be a powerful lesson. He’s realizing that being a professional skier isn’t just about skiing; it’s about contracts, deals, relationships, and hard work. It’s about the people who surround him, who help him keep his body, his mind, and his spirit tough. People who help him develop a healthy, unwavering resolve and a deep focus. Like when he’s dropping steep, cliff-riddled mountain faces. It’s about balance. Yes, the business side of a career in skiing is big, but so is enjoying every second of the opportunities that unfold underneath your ski tips.
“The one thing that might hold Sam back is making himself too busy,” says Gaffney. “I’ve seen it with other athletes who see skiing as a job and not something they do because they love it. If Sam stays passionate, everything will come to him. Just keep doing what he’s doing. He’s a guy who lets his skiing do the talking, and he’ll always have a place filming with us.”
Mitchell Scott is a Whitewater freeride dad whose son Mason placed sixth at the 2022 Freeride Junior World Championships in Kappl, Austria. Sam Kuch was his coach.