SOCHI, RUSSIA – The stories are told over and over every two years, each time an athlete is asked to recount the sacrifices required to make it to the Olympic Games. Some move away from home as preteens to train with faraway coaches. They miss proms, put college or family life on hold, max out credit cards to pay the price of becoming a champion.
To all that, Keri Herman would say: Whaaaat? The slopestyle freeskiier from Bloomington wouldn’t judge — that’s not in her nature — but she resists anything that would make her sport feel like work. Yet here she is at the Sochi Winter Games, one of three American women who will compete Tuesday morning in one of 12 new medal events.
Herman passed up a chance to play college hockey because it was “too serious,’’ and she rarely does workouts in a gym. From the minute she stumbled into an extreme park at Colorado’s Breckenridge ski resort, she knew she had found a sport that mirrored her personality: exuberant, free-spirited and fiercely individual.
When Herman, 31, won the World Cup title in ski slopestyle last season — the first awarded in her sport — she didn’t even know that title existed. The Olympics, with their universal brand, are a different animal altogether. As a woman whose favorite holiday is the Fourth of July, she relishes the chance to chase a medal for the United States and show off her little-known sport to the world. Just don’t expect that to change her life.
“The reason I got into freeskiing was because I really liked that there were no rules, that you could do whatever you want,’’ said Herman, who has lived in Breckenridge for the past 10 years. “And so I’m keeping that attitude. You can tell me to do things; if I want to do it, I’ll do it. But I probably won’t. I always try to just do what makes me happy.’’
John and Diana Herman, who still live in Bloomington, have seen their daughter guided by that attitude her entire life. When Keri first began freeskiing, Diana said, there were few contests that allowed women. She was skeptical when Keri said she wanted to become a pro skier, but 10 years later, she is a two-time X Games silver medalist and among the favorites at the Olympics.
“I doubt that Keri has ever watched the Olympics on TV, because she always wants to be outside doing something,’’ Diana Herman said. “But she really wanted this. This whole thing has been such an amazing experience.’’
Herman’s Minnesota roots run so deep that she kept her home state’s license plates on her car for nine years after moving to Colorado. She grew up playing hockey, joining the first girls’ team in Bloomington while in fifth grade and making all-conference as a forward for St. Paul United.
She was recruited by St. Olaf but chose to leave hockey behind and attend the University of Denver. Although she occasionally went skiing with friends, Herman wasn’t particularly interested in the sport until the day she discovered the jumps and rails in the extreme park at age 21. The mellow vibe, the creativity and the camaraderie of freeskiing instantly connected with her, making her want to spend every day on the mountain.
In 2007, she competed in her first major event, the Aspen Open, and earned both a victory and some sponsors. Being a pro in such a young sport was hardly glamorous; Herman worked two jobs and lived in a house with nine roommates and holes in the walls. Her six current sponsors include Breckenridge and Head Skis, but she still works waitressing jobs to pay the bills.
Not that it mattered. “The girls at the top, we’re not making anything,’’ she said. “But the thing is, it’s not about the money for us. We’re here because we love skiing. If I can make enough money just to do that every single day, in my opinion, I’ve got it made.’’
Like many extreme-sport athletes, Herman has spent plenty of time in emergency rooms and first-aid tents. She has had multiple concussions and too many broken bones to remember, but that is overshadowed by the rush of constantly landing bigger and better tricks.
The Olympics accelerated the progression of the sport, and Herman faced a deep group of Americans for the four berths on the Olympic team. During the grueling five-event selection process, she earned her way in by winning an event in Breckenridge and placing second in another in Park City. All of Herman’s slopestyle teammates are at least 11 years younger, including 15-year-old Maggie Voisin and 16-year-old Julia Krass.
Those younger women admire her both as a pioneer and as an unfailingly joyful presence.
“To have a role model like her is awesome,’’ said Maddie Bowman, 20, an Olympian in halfpipe freeskiing. “She is one fun girl. She really expresses the culture of our sport; she keeps the mood light, but she’s also a very stylish skier. Keri shows that you cannot take things too seriously all the time but still achieve a lot in the sport.’’
Sochi has built wickedly tough courses for ski and snowboard events; several competitors were injured during training and competition. Herman offered a one-word answer regarding her first impression of the slopestyle run: Yikes. But she has tackled equally intimidating courses at the annual X Games and produced medal-winning performances.
“You show up, it’s scary, you hit it a couple of times and you’re like, ‘All right. I can deal with this,’ ’’ she said. “It’s going to be fun.’’
Sports Illustrated and the Associated Press both predicted Herman will come home from Sochi with silver. Herman is predicting an electrifying show. To get on the podium, she said, she must do the same thing she does every time down the mountain: calibrate the proper balance of risk and caution, clear her mind and give herself over to pure bliss.
“I honestly just don’t even know what I’m in for,’’ she said. “This is something I never expected to be part of our sport. It’s just a very cool feeling to have ‘America’ on my back.’’