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April 12, 2021

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Sky’s the limit for young Camas freestyle skier Zoe Smith

Potential has earned invite to U.S. Olympic training

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Zoe Smith of Camas holds medals she won on March 7 at a United States of America Snowboard and Freeski Association slopestyle  competition at Timberline on Mount Hood.
Zoe Smith of Camas holds medals she won on March 7 at a United States of America Snowboard and Freeski Association slopestyle competition at Timberline on Mount Hood. (Suzan Heglin/for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

It’s a future up in the air for Camas ski-jumping 15-year-old Zoe Smith and her parents, Zane and Leslie.

Zoe has already been invited to train with U.S. Olympic freestyle team coaches in Colorado. Being separated from her family for long stretches and a major accident have not deterred her.

Zoe took to the air early. She started with the Freeride ski team at White Pass and discovered jumps at the age of 8. She had already had the sensation of being in the air from her experience of being on the trampoline as a gymnast.

Leslie got her first clue that her daughter would keep pushing forward when she was only in fourth grade.

Zoe and her brother had done “little skiing competitions,” said Leslie, but soon Zoe wanted to try a “big mountain.” So the family headed to Crystal Mountain for an International Free Skiing Association freestyle competition.

“It was a tough day,” said Leslie, noting heavy snow that stopped and started the competition. “It was six and a half hours, standing at the top of the mountain, before Zoe got to do her run. We thought ‘this is it, she’ll never want to ski again.’ ”

When at last she had the chance to ski down the mountain, though, Zoe said she was “totally doing that again,” and Leslie knew their lives had changed.

The next year Zoe did competitions on Crystal Mountain, Stevens and White Pass. At that point, it was still mostly for fun. When she turned 12, it got more serious.

“She always told me: ‘Skiing lets you fly.’ ” Leslie said.

Zoe was in sixth grade when she was invited to Nationals at Copper Mountain in Colorado.

“It’s not something we had been looking at,” said Leslie, “but Zoe wanted to do it.”

She competed in slopestyle and rail jam and came in at 14th in the nation.

After that small taste of competition on the national level, Zoe was hooked. They decided as a family to go all in for the next season and see how far it could take her.

They set a goal of just making the podium.

Zoe blew that away.

She entered slopestyle competitions from Tahoe to Northern Washington earning gold at every competition. She won the North Tahoe, Central Oregon, Mt. Hood and Western Washington series and was heading into Nationals with her eye on gold.

During the 2019-2020 season she got recruited to the Cooper Spur team from Hood River, Ore. One of her parents would take her out of school at 1 p.m., drive her to Hood River for the team bus, and then pick her up at 8 p.m.

She competed in the Hood Series and the Central Oregon Series, tucking away 11 first place medals.

Zoe was invited by the U.S. Olympic Ski Coaches to train for a week in Colorado to prepare for the 2020 Nationals, but that was shut down by COVID-19.

Having no other women in her age range to compete against has hurt her. In a three-way tie for fourth place, the national committee placed her sixth going into Nationals for the 2020-21 season because of her unchallenged victories.

In June 2020, Zoe joined Wy’East Mountain Academy, an outdoor-sports oriented private school near Mount Hood, where she lives while school is in session. Again, she was the only female park skier in the competitions.

Leslie said that recently at Mount Spokane for a sunrise photo shoot, there was one girl just learning jumps.

Zoe got excited to see a girl her age, a rare sight.

A few weeks later the family spent the weekend at White Pass and again she was the only female Park skier. When she did the jumps, people from the chairlift could see her. They were yelling “Go dude!” and “Right on man!” Zoe heard them and would yell (while in the air doing 540s off the jumps), “I am a girl!”

Zoe notes that the girls are catching up to the boys. “Girl tricks are starting to rival the men’s team,” she said.

Still, her father, Zane, sometimes worries that the coaches don’t have the same expectations for her as they do for the boys. “They were treating her like a china doll,” he said. “She needs to have no doubts when she is going off a 60-foot jump.”

Meditation is part of Zoe’s daily routine and she uses visualization. She’ll meditate on the complications of a trick and if she’s nervous she “sets the intention.” She tells herself: “It’s only me here … that’s how I realized I can do this. If the conditions are right you just go, go, go!”

She is now going off 45-foot jumps, with grabs, 360, 540 and almost has her 720 spins off those jumps. She is also spinning off the boxes and rails.

She doesn’t have a daredevil attitude, but wants to keep moving forward. When looking at the features of a competition “you kind of go with what you feel … you give yourself a little extra push.”

Pushing is necessary for learning, but it can be risky.

“I crash a lot,” Zoe said.

But she crashed in a big way on Jan. 11 at Timberline.

She overshot a 40-foot jump and landed flat. The crash ejected her out of her skis and onto her face. She was rushed to a local hospital where the radiologists first thought Zoe might have a broken neck.

“She came back from the injury quickly, but we have really learned what the psychology of an accident consists of,” Leslie said, noting that despite facial lacerations and bruises throughout, Zoe’s first question was when she could get back to skiing.

Zoe was up for more training, and jumps, the next day and had to be forced to take off the time to recover.

“It has been tough,” says Leslie, who struggles for the balance between pushing and protecting her daughter. “Her coaches work with mostly boys and their psychology after Zoe getting hurt is immensely different.”

Zoe has become a major helmet advocate, her posting on her Instagram with her message of “the helmet saved my life.”

Through it all, Zoe knows how she feels about skiing.

“Jumps are a different sense of freedom. I can fly,” she said. “I guess, it’s kind of an escape from anything around me. It’s something I can do for me.”

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