Talking shop with Swiss freeski star Elias Ambühl about competitions, filming, and rediscovering the fun in skiing.
Only 23 years old, Swiss freeski star Elias Ambühl already has a long history with the sport, with an Olympic appearance and several X Games medals to his name. We caught up with Elias to get his thoughts on competitions, filming, his love of fast cars, and the rising Swiss Freeski team.
How did you get started freeskiing?
I started with my brother Andri. He got some twin-tip skis and told me I needed to try it because it’s so much fun to ride backward, and do 360s and backflips. It’s how I came to the sport. Then we started traveling around Europe to ride the most parks that we could. At the beginning, we never thought we would make a living from that. We just skied because it was so much fun.
Then you started to become known?
I did two years just for fun, then started to do some competitions with my brother. Four years later, when I was sixteen, I started to win bigger comps like the Austrian Open. From age seventeen to nineteen I skied in as many comps as I could. The competitions were good, even when you try to win, it’s cool to chill on top and it’s what I love about sport. I had a good run for three or four years. Especially with city Big Airs and X Games.
Is the atmosphere still good up on the drop-in these days?
I think it’s changed, especially at the start because everyone is more competitive – they’re checking everyone else’s runs. But not for me, because I always said that even if the Olympics come up, I want to keep skiing how I grew up in it. If I go to France I ski with friends over there, in Austria or America it’s the same. I know people all around the world, which is the sickest with this sport. You can make relationships and have fun with friends.
At the X Games Big Air, the coaches got kicked out of the start gate, and I high-fived the guy who did it. I was like: “You’re the man!” I prefer to be alone at the start, doing it by yourself, and if you have any questions about your trick, just ask your friend.
For sure it’s nice to have a coach, it’s safer and more professional, but sometimes I think it’s sick when it’s like it was back in the day.
You’re also on the Swiss Freeski Team.
I’m with the team, but I had a good talk with my coach, and he does a good job with all the kids. I think it’s good when you’re starting to have someone to look up to, who can tell you what you need to do. But for myself, since I’ve been doing this for more than ten years now, I don’t need a coach, I just can ski with my friends. But I think you need to have a little bit of both.
How the atmosphere with the kids on the team?
When I’m at the mountain and they are around, we ski together, but I try to travel most with my filmer and stay at places where I met people ten years ago. Keep those relationships alive, because it’s what you will keep after the sport.
At first, you were the only Swiss guy winning big comps. Now Kai Mahler and some other Swiss kids are right up there with you. How’d it feel going from being the only guy, to being one of a pack?
I knew the time was coming when the kids would grow up. At the beginning it was a bit hard, because it felt like my skiing was getting worse and theirs was getting better. Then I found some time in New Zealand and skied with Jossi [Wells] and the boys, and started to have fun again.
Was it an important change for you to bring the fun back?
It was a big change, because when you’re winning a lot, you never ask “why am I winning” because you just win. Then, when you don’t win anymore, you ask yourself why, and you start to freak out because it seemed so easy when it worked. I kind of lost the fun of skiing when the Olympics started, and I didn’t ski a lot during the season.
I decided to either quit competition, because I didn’t want to hurt my name and what I had built by hanging around in tenth place, or try to get the fun back. It’s bad when you lose, but even worse when you know it’s your fault and you skied shitty.
In New Zealand the fun came back, I felt more comfortable and I didn’t care any more about the kids, what I could do and what they could do. It was not fun to ski being scared.
Is your video project a part of the “new” Elias?
I definitely want to show people that I can do more than just hit a big-air jump. I want to show urban and powder, because I ride two or three weeks of powder during the season, but I never filmed it – I just did it for myself, and now I think it’s the right time to show that to people. A lot of people under-rate filming because they think that you have 500 tries to land the trick. But it takes so much more effort to land when you film than in competition, because in a competition you have two runs, the crowd is pushing you, and you’re just in the moment.
With filming, you’re not sure about anything—if you’re going to hit this rail for ten minutes or four hours, and you never know when you’re going to get to ski powder lines. I hoped people liked the first few episodes, it’s a little new for me to have a filmer with me for four months now. We need to get used to each other to keep improving.
So you want to do more urban skiing?
I want to do 50/50 in January and February, a lot of comps, then one comp in March, and then I’ll just film and do more urban depending on the snow. I’ll go home, film powder, and maybe one more comp in Whistler at the end of the season.
So you still like competition?
I still like it. You’re up at the start, your heart is pumping faster and faster, you get nervous. It’s sometimes hard to get that feeling with filming, but when you ski X Games or freestyle.ch, you have ten thousand people down there, and this feeling of people watching you ski is incredible. As long as I can maintain that level, I will continue to compete.
What do your sponsors think about your changes?
Every year they asked me if I wanted to film, because they really wanted me to go in that direction, and I always said no because I’m not done with comps yet. After Sochi when I decided to do a project, they were super hyped to support me on that. I’m more free now and more comfortable with my skiing, and ski a lot more with people just to have fun. I used to be scared of getting hurt doing an urban spot, but now I’m just like, “I need to do this.”
Sounds like the typical freeski career pathway – contests to filming.
In the end it’s like everything else in the world. Money sets the rules, and the thing is, just proving yourself with filming is really hard. You have to do crazier stuff than anyone else, and you need to find a sponsor who will give you €20,000 without knowing what you’re going to do. With competition you can build a name for yourself, and it’s easier to find sponsors. I don’t think you have to do that route, but it’s human to want to compete against others – even if you’re filming. If you watch X Games Real Snow, those guys are pushing their limits far beyond just a fun day in the snow. There’s always this competition to have a better trick or a better segment. For me, comps were a good way to start and a good way to learn about freeskiing. But if I didn’t have fun, I wouldn’t do it just because I’m getting paid for it.
What’s ahead for you?
When everything goes well and you’re winning comps, you don’t think about later – you live in the moment. But when I had this low in my career, I only had one or two podiums a year, and I was unsure how long my sponsors would stand by me and everything. You start thinking about what’s going to come, and there wasn’t a day when I wasn’t thinking about what I would do after skiing. Like opening a bar, for example. But as soon as I started having fun again, I stopped thinking about it as much. When I talk about my future with my father, he always says, “You still have six or seven years as a skier, why do you want to talk about afterwards?”
I think a lot about the future, but what we experience with this sport is priceless. You have the feeling of being on holiday, and I want to use this time to build something and not be left with nothing when I stop skiing.
Do you save a lot of money ?
It was never about money when I started skiing, and then I got my first contract for a couple thousand euros and I was like, “This is insane, they pay me just to have fun.” So I’ve never thought that I wasn’t paid enough. Getting paid to ski is fucking crazy, and if you’re lucky enough to put aside some money, it’s definitely something special.
You know my little tic with the cars. I’ve always said that “you only live life once” and if I was saving money, I would think that I wasn’t living enough. I bought cars and went on vacations. Then I thought, it’d really be easier if I had some money on the side to go to school when I stop skiing. I don’t want to stop and be poor, working some shitty job.
I never argue with my sponsors about money, but I understand that we need to be paid well because we do crazy stuff and take risks.
Last year at X Games you tried a switch triple 18, was that the first time?
I had this trick in my mind three years ago at JOI but I didn’t feel comfortable. At X I thought it was the time to do it, and I kind of landed on my feet and skied a few meters before crashing. I don’t know, maybe it could work on a bigger kicker, but it’s cool to see that this trick could work, and it’s by far the most insane thing I’ve ever tried.
I think the difference between a triple and a cork 3 or 5 is that in a five I can enjoy it during the whole airtime, see everything, grab, feel like I’m in the air for a minute. If I do a triple, it’s more the adrenaline before you drop. You don’t see a lot, you just know how it should work, and then you land and you realize it. It’s almost a better feeling than just flying through the air—it’s how hard and how big you can go. And this feeling, there’s not money or anything that can match that.
I hope freeskiing will return to more like it was a few years ago, when groups of friends made their own teams to ski together. Everything that guys like Candide [Thovex], Jon [Olsson] and Simon [Dumont] did will be for nothing if things change now.
I heard you run a ski camp as well.
Two or three years ago, my manager and I came up with an idea to give something back to the kids, so I was looking for a resort to work with and my home resort Arosa was motivated. It’s hard for kids to ski because it’s expensive, and if the parents don’t ski, how do you go skiing when you’re twelve? So I asked my sponsors to put some money into it and make the price really low for participation. Then the kids could pay 10 francs a day for food, accommodation, coaching and a ski pass.
Now I have this camp every year and it’s good to talk with the kids, they have so many questions. It’s good to show them the right way, because they’re twelve and already thinking about competitions. Some learn a 540 and ask how to do a double 10, so I’m like, “Let’s go for the 720 first.” My brother told me, before doing a switch 10, learn how to do a proper switch 9. A lot of kids can do switch right 10 right now, but not switch right 9 because it’s harder.
We do three camps in three days, and this year I had to say no to the Air & Style in L.A. to do the camp. But it was worth it, because it would be really bad to cancel it and disappoint the kids.