‘Once in a lifetime’: Winter Park’s Birk Irving, 18, eyes Olympic ski team
Birk Irving sat in the athletes’ tent at the top of the mountain in Lillehammer, Norway, wrapping his leg in soccer shin guards, plastic wrap, bubble wrap and anything else he could find. Three weeks earlier he fractured his fibula, and it still hadn’t healed. But this was once in a lifetime: a shot at skiing his way to a gold medal at the Youth Olympic Games.
Irving hadn’t practiced since his injury, and was getting ready to try out a brand new trick, the down-the-pipe double flat 900.
Leg throbbing and adrenaline pumping, he took off.
“I was thankful that the half-pipe was so perfect so I wouldn’t go too far this or that way on the deck,” said Irving. “I don’t know what happened there. I just somehow put together a run out of nowhere, and managed to win with a trick that I learned a couple weeks prior.”
Irving said that he couldn’t even stand on his leg after finishing. But pain is temporary, and victory is eternal.
Today the 18-year-old Winter Park native is the youngest member of the U.S. Ski Team, competing in the half-pipe. He’s also looking to become the newest member of the U.S. Olympic Team for the PyeongChang games.
Irving was bred on skis.
His father was a ski patroller and his mother a former alpine racer. His sister, Svea, is currently the youngest member of the U.S. Rookie Ski Team, with her own hopes to reach next year’s Olympic games.
“I began skiing because I didn’t really know about anything else,” Irving said. “So they put me on skis.”
By seven years old, Irving had already begun to stand out, earning his first sponsorship deal with K2 Skis. By the age of 10 he was regularly competing in competitions, and thinking about skiing as a career.
“I wasn’t super serious about it, but I definitely thought it was something I could do professionally when I was 10 or 12,” he said. “But it wasn’t something that I necessarily thought was realistic. It was more of a dream of mine. Then when I was 15 I had a really good season in the USASAs and moved up to the Revolution Tour.”
By 2015 Irving was a force to be reckoned with on the Revolution Tour. He placed first in half-pipe and slopestyle at the Seven Springs, and won two more half-pipe competitions at Mammoth Mountain. That year he also took home third at the Junior World Championships, and was named to the U.S. Rookie Ski Team.
Irving’s broken-leg victory in the Youth Olympic Games cemented him as a true up-and-comer in February, 2016. He competed in his first X Games in Oslo less than a month later, finishing 19th. This spring he was named to the U.S. Pro Ski Team, before returning to the X Games again in Aspen and taking home fourth in the Men’s Ski SuperPipe.
Irving credits his recent success with getting older and stronger.
“As I got older my body got stronger and I could go bigger, which led to a lot more amplitude and higher scores.”
Irving’s coach chalks it up to his creativity.
“Birk has always enjoyed skiing, and he has approached it in his own unique way,” said DJ Montigny, head coach of the U.S. Freeskiing Rookie Team. “He brings a lot of creativity and style to our sport. He is a lot of fun to ski with and to listen to his ideas about the sport. As he has brown as a skier and a person, he’s starting to turn a lot of those ideas into a reality.”
Irving shined on perhaps the biggest stage of his young career in March, finishing fifth at the FIS Freestyle Ski & Snowboard World Championships in Spain. Now, his eyes turn to PyeongChang.
There are four more half-pipe selection events to determine the team for the Olympics, beginning Dec. 6 at the Copper Grand Prix and continuing through Jan. 19 at the Mammoth Grand Prix.
“I’m hoping I can make it,” Irving said. “There’s a lot of really good people in the U.S. who that are also thinking the same thing. I’m hoping that I can do good at the first few qualifiers and get a spot to go. That would be a really amazing experience.”
Irving graduated early from Middle Park High School last year. He said he intends to go to college next year to study business, and is considering the University of Utah or Montana. He added that he enjoys working out and biking when he’s not hitting the half-pipe.
“I think we are going to see a lot of great things from Birk this year and in the near future,” said Montigny.
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Grand Concerts is hosting its first live event in 17 months featuring the Boston Brass on Friday at the Headwaters Pavilion in Winter Park.