Hunter Hess started ski racing with the Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation when he was about 6.
But he never really liked it. Soccer was his true passion at the time.
When he was 9, a friend told him about the Enter the Dragon freestyle skiing and snowboarding contest at Bachelor. Hess decided to enter.
“I ended up doing a front flip or something and I had never flipped on my skis,” Hess says. “I skipped the rest of the (terrain) park I was so excited about it. I ended up getting third place. I stopped playing soccer and joined the MBSEF freeride program.”
Now 20, Hess, born and raised in Bend, is making some statements as a member of the U.S. Freeskiing Rookie Halfpipe Team. He has finished in the top 10 in two World Cup halfpipe events this season, including a third-place finish last month in Secret Garden, China, at the same venue where the freeski halfpipe will be staged in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
Hess is also the first alternate for the X Games men’s freeski superpipe event set for Thursday night in Aspen, Colorado. He will only compete if another rider gets injured in practice or opts out. To simply be part of the X Games is an honor for Hess.
“I always looked up to all the dudes in the X Games when I was younger,” Hess says. “X Games was the biggest thing I dreamed of when I was younger. The Olympics is a really big opportunity for guys now, but when I was younger it was all about the X Games.”
In freeski halfpipe, skiers are judged on the style, execution and amplitude of the aerial tricks they perform as they soar in and out of the pipe. Freeski halfpipe did not become an Olympic event until the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Hess was 3 when his mother, Anno Hess, first took him to Bachelor to ski. After switching from racing to freeskiing, Hess has steadily progressed over the last 10 years to the point where the 2022 Olympics are a realistic goal.
“I just wanted to ski and I just loved skiing,” Hess says. “Then I got to start traveling, and one thing just led to another. It’s all just kind of led to what my goals were when I was younger.”
Hess spends most of his winters now in Colorado with the U.S. freeskiing team, training on halfpipes at Copper Mountain and Breckenridge. On Dec. 12, he placed seventh in a World Cup freeskiing halfpipe event at Copper Mountain. The breakout moment of his career came about a week later in China.
“It was insane,” Hess says of his podium finish at Secret Garden. “For me it was a big mental feat to pass. It meant a lot to me. It’s something I was trying to do for a long time and I really wanted to make happen. I wanted to really push myself and get more confidence in the halfpipe. It all ended up working out way better than I expected.”
For Hess, it was a big step toward making a push for the 2022 U.S. Olympic Team.
“Just getting a little bit of a taste of it this year was pretty cool,” Hess says. “Seeing what was expected and what had to be done to be up there with those dudes. It was all really eye-opening for me. I just want to be moving toward that. It was cool to get there, and get our minds right, and start to kind of get the idea that we have to work really hard to make it happen the next three years.”
Hess says he has been working on the technical aspects of his halfpipe riding, and trying to put together a run that will earn him high places in upcoming events. The most common trick among halfpipe skiers now is the double cork 1260, according to Hess, which includes two back flips and 3½ rotations. Hess says he has that trick dialed, but he is also working on tricks in which he takes off “switch,” which in skiing means backward. He is working on a switch double cork 1080.
“That’s super technical,” Hess says. “It takes a lot of different pieces. It’s kind of like a puzzle you have to put together. I’ve been trying to work on that and get that more down.”
Hess is close friends with Alex Hall, a U.S. team member from Park City, Utah, who finished 16th in slopestyle at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. He looks up to Torin Yater-Wallace, a U.S. team member from Basalt, Colorado, who finished ninth in the freeski halfpipe at the 2018 Winter Games.
As he gets older, Hess says he is learning when to really attack the halfpipe and when to hold back as he continues to add new tricks to his repertoire and progress in the sport.
“You’ve got to decide, is this worth putting my body on the line?” Hess says. “You’ve got to save yourself for sure. I approach it with being open-minded. If I’m able to attack my weaknesses as often as possible, they become more of a strength. It’s a really, really hard task. It takes a lot. And I’m trying to do more of that as time goes on.”