October, 2019

WHERE ARE THE UPCOMING FREESTYLE SKI TALENTS IN GERMANY?

German freestyle skier Sabrina Cakmakli is unique. She makes up the entire female German halfpipe “team”. That same huge 80-million-inhabitant-sports country, which brought 153 contestants to the winter Olympics of 2018. You know, that Germany. After Canada, the US and Switzerland, the Germans comprise the largest talent pool at the games. To put it in perspective, the Netherlands brought a team of 33, Belgium 22 and France 106 contestants.  Yet this large country has only one female skier in the Olympic halfpipe. Why? Because the freestyle-skiing sport, especially in the halfpipe, is tiny. We had a chat with Sabrina about her sport, her way to the top and importantly – her concerns. 

Where it all started

Growing up in the south of Germany, with snow-loving parents and the slopes next at the front door, Sabrina was geared up with skis at the age of 2. Although the ages six to fifteen brought along a fling with snowboarding. The cooler bad-boy sport was appealing. “I was never going to ski again. Skiing sucked, it was not cool at all” says a smiling Sabrina.

Only when a freestyle-ski serenade came along did Sabrina’s heart beat faster. Suddenly the bad-boy sport wasn’t limited to one big board. Skiers were allowed into the fun parks – flips, rail grinds, ramp jumps and all. “It changed everything for me. I switched back to skis at the age of fifteen. We went into the parks every afternoon, until late, with lots of night skiing on the rails.”

The next chapter

From that moment, Sabrina started watching tricks on YouTube, ski movies and X-Games videos – again and again and again. That same year she got her first sponsor, Nordica. This was the moment that she started dreaming of being part of the X Games herself. The X Games is the extreme equivalent to the Olympics, meant for the highest-action sports competition in either summer or winter. All the cool kids on the block are there – skateboarding, snowboarding, BMX and now, skiing. Her dream was a very serious one, but the sport was – and still is – not as mature as alpine skiing. Yet. Sabrina’s parents didn’t see the appeal like her daughter did. Going pro is much harder, sometimes impossible, as a freestyle skier. But, daughter has a strong will, matched by an incredible passion for a life on skis. 

When it all came together

So far, slopestyle was Sabrina’s expertise. At the 2012 World Cup qualifications for the Olympics, she got injured. That injury took her to New Zealand, so she could continue rehabilitation and practice. That’s when a befriended two-planker convinced her to take on the halfpipe. It happened in a split second: she found her big love.

Halfpipe skiing became an Olympic sport in 2014. Now we suddenly have  talent in a small sport with real potential, and a big dream to be part of the Olympic games. By nowm Sabrina’s parents saw the serious potential for their daughter to reach the top, and she gained their full support.

Sabrina had no pressure during the qualifications, after her knee injury and switch of discipline, she just gave it a shot. To her own surprise, she qualified for Sochi. “An amazing experience, absolutely unreal. The opening ceremony, the village with the German team, and to see your biggest heroes from all over the world having breakfast next to you each morning: just surreal. I felt no pressure during these games, it was an amazing and unforgettable time.”

Doors started opening. Next up: the  X-Games, travelling the globe for training and competitions, followed by another Olympian shot in 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The program as a pro athlete is intense, so where did Sabrina get the funding for her dream? 

Sabrina was able to join the German-government program, an army program for “sport soldiers”. They support her financially, together with around 750 other top athletes. Athletes with Olympic potential, or those already with the Olympic tickets on their name. The German police and navy also have several places for top talent. Sabrina did not feel financial pressure to proceed in her career over the years. Next to the support from the army program, she also found sponsors at a young age, so material and clothing are taken care off.

One day she asked her side-job manager at the Pizza Hut if he would like to sponsor her trip to the Olympics. He laughed. They had never sponsored an athlete before. One night’s sleep changed his mind, and Sabrina became the one and only athlete with a Pizzahut logo on her gear. Is lady luck her on side? No, not really. “Nowadays it’s really hard to get sponsor contracts, and the ones you do get are small in budget. It has clearly changed a lot over the years. Companies simply don’t have the money anymore, or decide to spend it differently. Social media has become very important to get sponsor deals as well”. Sabrina continues: “I think social is difficult. I don’t want to be an influencer, but I am learning bit by bit. Above all, I just want a sponsor to support me for my skiing talent and not for my social media skills.”

Big change in the sport

“A lot is changing in halfpipe skiing”, Sabrina states. “I worry about the future of halfpipe talent. The last five years saw all halfpipes worldwide asking for entry fees. The only exception is Laax, in Switzerland. The result?  Young kids can’t learn in a playful way. It’s certainly becoming too expensive for upcoming talent. All the training camps for halfpipe skiing are super expensive, but you have to join them to get better. So, where is the next generation halfpipe skiers in Europe? It’s too difficult for talent if it costs them too much.”

Sabrina is struck by other changes too. “On the other hand,” she continues “the older girls I started the halfpipe with are now quitting, they’re over it, or they’re getting too old. With these changes, and the Olympics coming up in China, we’re experiencing another shift. We now notice many new, very young skiers from China. They’re clearly hunting for medals for their own country in 2022. If you ask me, in five to six years we will see mainly Chinese, American and Russian skiers in the halfpipe, since they are up-and-coming, and get lots of money to cultivate their talent.”

Sabrina’s talent, but also her true passion and love for freestyle skiing got her this far. She is blessed with good funding to help her on her path. Her big dream is to get the magic X-games or Olympic medals. She really hopes the future for her sport will be brighter than she currently sees it, and that Scoutfunding will be able to help a big group of (German) talent shine in the pipe like she has been able to do all those years, and will do for many more to come. 

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