The Man Behind the Goggles
A light drizzle coats the smudged window of the Wilmington Candle Shop as Nancy Logan, the owner, carefully rolls a wick into a warm sheet of blue beeswax. She’s dressed simply: a pair of blue jeans, an understated beige sweater and dark-framed reading glasses. The store, quiet and cozy on a rainy late September afternoon, overwhelms my senses with scents like “Fresh Snow,” “Summer Rain,” and “Pomegranate Melon.” The candle-making area consists of a small retrofitted kitchen, just big enough for Nancy to carry out the process of melting the wax, blending the scented oils, and adding the wicks. The weathered cedar floorboards of the shop creak underfoot.
“How long have you been hanging out with these hooligans?” Nancy asks me with a raspy but endearing voice. She is referring to her son, Chris, and his girlfriend, Maude. “Just a couple of hours,” I respond with a smile. “I’m sorry for you,” she mutters dryly, with the slightest crack of a smile at the corner of her mouth. In an equally dry tone, Chris gives me a nod. “I told you she’d say something like that.” The light-hearted sarcasm lends comfort to the unfamiliar situation. Chris is a top-level professional freeskier, and I am here to find out who he really is behind his public image as an athlete.
Chris stands just under six feet tall, and has a quiet confidence in his slow gait. An oversized red-and-black flannel hooded sweatshirt drapes over his broad shoulders, and his faded khaki work pants are rolled at the bottom over old, black skateboard shoes. A grey flat brim hat sits low over his dark brown eyes and casts a shadow on his tan and scruffy face. Even with his baggy attire, Chris has a physical presence of someone whose body has taken its form from years of labor and sports. He looks a bit out of place, like a bull in a candle shop in rural Vermont.
Earlier that day, I made the drive down to West Dover, Vermont, population 1400, to meet up with Chris. Upon arrival, I hop in the backseat of Maude’s zippy-looking white Mazda hatchback adorned with stickers of various ski companies. The companies are, of course, Maude’s sponsors. She recently qualified for the 2014 Winter Olympics for Women’s Slopestyle skiing. Cool, calm and collected, she takes the corners quickly for a slow, rainy Vermont afternoon.
Chris relaxes in the passengers seat, making loving quips at Maude’s driving. No skiing slouch himself, Chris is sponsored by ten companies, including household names like Rossignol, Rockstar Energy Drinks, Mammoth Mountain, Skullcandy, and Electric. He competes, and excels, at the biggest competitions in the sport today. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Dew Tour, or the X Games? He also films with Level 1 Productions, the freeskiing film company that sets the bar for the sport year after year.
Almost always, professional skiers are identified solely by their accomplishments; the person behind the goggles remains a mystery. My goal is to find out who Chris really is. A passionate freeskier myself, as a young teenager I dreamed of a life like Chris’s. Today, at twenty-three years old and two months away from graduating from Middlebury College, I want to revisit the path that has led me away from this dream. It is clear that Chris and I, both in love with the same sport, have taken very different routes. I’m hoping that understanding Chris on a deeper level can help me to address some unanswered questions about myself.
Skiing has been a lifelong passion for me. Making my first turns at two years old, I quickly grew to adore the sport. I couldn’t get enough of the freedom of exploring a natural environment at high speed with just the power of my own body. As the old saying goes, “Skiing is a dance, and the mountain always leads.” I learned quickly as an adolescent, and pushed myself beyond my limits. Fiercely competitive, I would always try to one-up my peers, many of whom were much more skilled. In the “learning process,” I suffered countless broken fingers, stress fractures, bruises and welts, but I loved every second of it. Though I never have reached, and surely never will, the level of skiing of athletes like Chris, I grew to love the sport for all the same reasons.
The creativity of the sport lends itself to an innovative and eclectic mix of risk-takers. As with many extreme sports, freeskiing fosters a subversive culture of rebellion and pushing limits. The athletes pride themselves on adding a creative, edgy spin on the originally traditional sport. Good skiers constantly search for a way to progress creatively; the mountain is a blank canvas, waiting for the artist to add a personal touch. How can I approach this feature differently? What can be done here that has never been done before? Anyone with a pulse can find excitement in watching a gifted athlete like Chris attempt a new trick forty feet above the ground.
Growing up, this culture enthralled me. Unfortunately, there is another side. The innovators of the sport came from unconventional places. They lived out of their cars, partied like rock stars, and truly lived each day as if it were their last (sometimes, it was…). Today, the young demographic of the sport emulates these icons. It is not uncommon to catch a whiff of marijuana as a group of baggy-clothed teens strut out of a gondola. Internet edits often feature equal parts of skiing and debauchery. The fast life of some of the top professionals is emulated by the emerging youth of the sport.
Before delving into darker questions about this, I ask Chris about his background as we speed along in the Mazda past the tired West Dover corn fields. “I played a little football,” he says unassumingly. “He was recruited by three different schools,” Maude interjects. “At Oceanside, I played wherever they needed me: QB, linebacker, defensive end,” Chris says. In other words, he never left the field. When I ask about his training habits, Chris chuckles. “I’ll go to the gym occasionally if Maude drags me along.” There are very few professional athletes who describe their training regimens as “occasional.” One thing is clear: Chris is built to move.
I prod Chris with more questions about his background as we speed along the Vermont back roads. Mt. Snow, a familiar sight for Chris, sits just to our west, ablaze with fall foliage. He answers me with a slow, deep cadence… he’s answered these questions many times before. Originally from Oceanside, New York (an outskirt of the City), Chris is the second-youngest of five. Chris, his older brother, Sean, and younger sister Devin, all split time between Oceanside High School and the Mount Snow Academy in Southern Vermont. “I basically told the teachers at MSA what I was ‘supposed to learn,’ according to my high school back home,” Chris explains. “Academy” seems like a stretch; Chris recalls sharing a room the size of a closet with two other MSA students. Despite the less than ideal conditions, the school provided Chris and his siblings with the coaching and schedule necessary to pursue a career in skiing. Whatever happened there, it worked. Sean, Chris and Devin are all professional skiers and compete in the sport’s biggest competitions every year. Skiing is written in the Logan family’s DNA.
Back in the candle shop, Nancy had mentioned the financial challenges faced to give her kids this opportunity. “It’s really a Catch-22,” she said earlier. “In this sport, you have to compete to get paid, and you have to pay to compete and get noticed.” Nancy recalled working many overtime hours to make sure her kids got the shot they deserved. Clearly, it has paid off.
Chris managed to graduate from high school early, and moved out to Mammoth Mountain to pursue skiing professionally. The resort immediately scooped Chris up on their team, eager to associate him with their mountain. “So much is driven by marketing,” Nancy had explained earlier. “Like any sport, the industry is driven heavily by money.”
In this regard, the sport of freeskiing is unique. Over the past ten years, a sport that was once considered “fringe” has become nearly mainstream. With the acceptance of freestyle skiing in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, the market is still ballooning. The sport is flashy, associated with high risk, bright colors and a heavy party culture. Contest winners are photographed standing on a podium, representing their many sponsors and clenching human-sized checks for their victories. Video edits often feature heavily based hip hop beats and skiers with baggy clothes and shiny goggles.
While this ostentatious culture of freeskiing is a topic for a separate debate, confidence is absolutely essential in the sport. Skiers like Logan will take off from a jump at seventy miles and hour, flip three times, and travel 125 feet through the air. Needless to say, there is no room for error and no room for self-doubt. Mistakes are life-threatening.
At this point, we step out of the Mazda into the empty Mt. Snow parking lot, stones crunching beneath our feet. In a grassy patch to the right, massive steel rails with sharp kinks sit anxiously, ready to be installed for the closely-approaching ski season. When the snow falls, the bravest riders will test their mettle, balancing on a two-inch wide rail fifteen feet above the ground. It is features like this that most people happily avoid. Chris tackles them without the blink an eye.
When I asked Chris why he doesn’t wear a helmet or a spine protector, he says matter-of-factly with a confident grin, “I always land on my feet.” Now that is trust in your abilities. For many skiers, particularly in the heart of the culture in Colorado and Utah, this necessary self-confidence often seeps over into one’s ego. Some of the “big-name” skiers in the sport are notorious for their arrogance as much as their talent.
Chris, however, sees things a bit differently. “Growing up in Vermont, you learn to love skiing for the skiing itself. It’s about being out there with your close friends and experiencing the landscape. It’s not a fashion show. “ Indeed, Chris seems to manage a perfect balance of confidence and humility that allows him to excel in the sport without developing an air of arrogance. “At the end of the day, it’s just skiing,” Chris says with a shrug. “Outside of our own sport, nobody knows who the big names are.”
Though this quiet confidence seems to just run in the Logan family blood, Chris’s Vermont roots have surely shaped his demeanor and outlook. “Growing up skiing in Vermont, you’re not riding the same mountain as the big name athletes every day. Instead, you’re out there with you friends developing your own style. I try to be my own skier, not a version of someone else.” At an even deeper level, it seems that the self-reliant nature of the state of Vermont has affected Chris’s outlooks. The people of the Green Mountain State pride themselves on humility and a willingness to roll up the sleeves and take care of business. Vermonters are traditional, more interested in leg-work and stoicism than fame and glory.
In a slightly unconventional sense, this is Chris. In a sport that caters to the boldest, loudest, most self-promotional athletes, he has kept his head. He has stayed true to his roots. To Chris, his move to Mammoth was not a coincidence. While boasting the terrain and resources necessary to compete with resorts like Breckenridge and Keystone, Mammoth is essentially Vermont skiing on a macro scale. “It’s the same thing out there,” says Chris. “I’m just riding with my friends. It’s a quiet place, and I like that.” Mammoth attracts athletes who ski for the love of the sport; you won’t find any Bogner-clad investment bankers sipping cocoa in the lodge here. Much like the state Chris grew up in, Mammoth attracts the quiet, humble type who happens to be damn good at skiing. The laid back California vibe, with which Chris fits seamlessly, seems to almost mask the seriousness of the publicly accessible ninety-foot gap jump visible from the base lodge. Though Mammoth’s undeveloped feeling is similar to that of Vermont, jumps this size wouldn’t even fit on the side of the hill back east.
Last year, Chris traveled the world to ski. He was paid to ski in Europe, Japan, British Columbia, and all over the United States. He placed well in the most prominent contests, and likely signed a thousand autographs at movie premiers. He had a part in Level 1 Productions’ Sunny, recently awarded for “Best Film.” Without a doubt he leads a fast-paced life, but for two months every year, September and October, Chris journeys back east to touch base with his roots: friends and family. “I try to get down to New York and spend some time in Vermont with my family. It’s important.”
In these final weeks of September, Chris works at his mother’s candle shop to help her prepare for the busy foliage season. With their affectionate wisecracks, it is clear that Chris and his mother are very close. After a brief stopover at the mountain, we head back to Nancy’s shop. Business has slowed for the day, and I want to ask her a few more questions.
“I still can’t watch him ski in person,” Nancy says as Chris looks down and smiles. “It kills me, but I think he’s in it for the right reasons.”
At this point, I think back to the endless debates I have had with my own mother about the risks involved in the sport. As a physical therapist that specialized in spinal cord injury, my mother would not even listen to my skiing stories, let alone watch me ski. “This is serious stuff,” she would tell me. “One wrong move and it’s all over.” As all teenage boys do, I argued back, assuring her that I was competent. In the back of my mind, I now know she’s right.
Now twenty-three years old, I often find myself more seriously considering the consequences of certain risks. I ask, “If something goes wrong here, how will it affect my future? The future of my family?” Perhaps this newfound caution is part of growing up. Chris, on the other hand, seems to be cut from a different cloth, avoiding these questions altogether. Most people with Chris’s “devil may care” attitude wear it on their sleeves, their heavily-tattooed arms matching their boisterous personalities. Instead, Chris’s bull-headed physical confidence is artfully masked under a humble demeanor.
Today, skiing still occupies a large part of my heart. I have yet to find another activity that blends strength, agility, confidence, adrenaline and balance with a creative facet that begs for innovation. It is a truly personalized sport, and one develops a unique style that, in some strange way, clearly embodies the athlete’s unique relationship with the mountain. In a sense, Chris and I share a similar skiing style, albeit at drastically different skill levels. We both strive for a smooth, effortless approach in which physical grace reflects a type of respect for the mountain itself. The goal is to make difficult tricks look easy; Chris has mastered this.
I approach Nancy again to gain a better understanding of her life and Chris’s upbringing. As she had mentioned before, watching her children compete in such a dangerous sport has never gotten easier. I think she and my mother would hit it off very well, at least through commiseration.
“Ask me anything, but just don’t put me on camera,” Nancy says wryly, blowing cigarette smoke out of the corner of her mouth. As a mother of three high-level professional freestyle skiers, she must have nerves of steel and stories aplenty.
“I got my artistic side from my mother,” Nancy says with a smile as she twists a wick into her recently molded “Stormy Night” purple candle. “She always helped me out with Girl Scouts projects, and I like to think that I inherited her knack for crafts.” She speaks slowly and thoughtfully, occasionally running her unpainted nails through her sandy, slightly tangled hair. Her voice is raspy, with a dry yet endearing tone that she also uses with Chris.
Nancy was an “Army brat” as a child, always moving around to wherever her father was stationed. After spending her high school years in Florida, she moved to New York where she almost immediately started a family. Although she is comfortable and at ease, Nancy seems eager to change the subject from herself to the people in her life. “When Chris was in high school, we moved up here to make it work for him and Devin [her youngest daughter, also an accomplished professional skier] to go to Mt. Snow Academy.” She admits that money has been tight since then. After starting a cleaning company and doing odd jobs, Nancy settled on opening her candle shop that she says is “…making it work on a day-to-day basis.”
Much like Chris does, Nancy seems to downplay her hard work; starting a business and keeping it running alone is no easy task. “I really feed off the news that I get from my kids,” she says with a warm smile and bright eyes. “They’re why I do what I do.” As evidenced by Chris’s accomplishments and equally humble demeanor, a quiet confidence runs in the family.
For the Logans, this calm persona serves as a façade for the competitive spirit that runs in their blood. “My parents were the most important people in my life,” says Nancy, matter-of-factly. “They raised me with a strong work ethic. To give 110% in everything I do. I think Chris inherited this trait in spades.” Although he would never say it, below Chris’s mild manner lies an insatiable thirst for greatness. As Nancy explains about him, “If someone does something, he will not be satisfied until he does it and then some. He’s an all or nothing guy.”
Instead of harping on his seemingly limitless internal drive, Chris instead emphasizes the gratitude he feels for his mother. “She’s always been there for us, doing anything she can to give us opportunities,” he says, shaking his head in emphasis. “She’s a very strong woman.”
However strong, Nancy is still unashamed of her motherly instincts. Although she cheers them on and attends their competitions, she can’t watch her kids ski in person. “Anything can happen,” she muses with pursed lips and raised eyebrows. “I just wish Chris would…” [leaning in closer to the recorder] “wear his helmet!” By this point, Nancy embarks on her own train of thought, ditching the interview questions for the real stuff. “It’s always been my main goal to teach them [Chris and his siblings] to be responsible, be good people, and to do something they love.” Despite the incredible risks involved in the sport that her children have chosen, Nancy completely supports their decisions to pursue it.
I can’t help but to imagine having this same conversation with my own mother. “Don’t just become a pot-smoking ski bum,” she would say to me, a light-hearted tone ineffectively masking her genuine concern. “You’ve got a good mind. Don’t waste it!” At the time, I would have given my right arm (if it weren’t useful in skiing) to trade spots with Chris. I went to sleep at night dreaming of skiing, and constantly battled with my parents about my desire to “branch out from society” and “take an alternative path.”
Eight years later, delving into the minds of Chris and Nancy dug up these odd questions. Although Chris is far from a “pot-smoking ski bum,” he is certainly fully entrenched in the skiing lifestyle and is constantly surrounded by the prominent characters of the sport. I, on the other hand, spend my time in the library and the classroom.
After thanking Nancy and buying one of her “Spring Wind” candles, I step out into the brisk air and walk quickly down Main Street. I find Chris sitting on a stone wall, legs dangling down over a rushing stream below. I hop up next to him, hopeful that the one-on-one setting will unlock more of Chris that wasn’t accessible earlier.
“My life consists of skiing, and everything else really just works around it,” Chris says matter-of-factly, tossing a stone into the water. “I have no regrets about my life. Skiing’s paying the bills, and I am happy with it.”
In one sense, Chris’s simple contentment is what we all strive for. The goal for many is to be happy. Yet, I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment at my inability to discover a deeper Chris Logan. I expected to uncover a hidden talent, a revealing idiosyncrasy or an untapped passion behind his public image as a professional skier. Ultimately, it seems that his greatest asset has also left me wanting more. What you see is what you get with Chris. No more, no less. Perhaps I am digging too hard.
“I don’t really think that far down the road,” Chris says without a hint of concern as I ask him about his plans after his professional skiing career. “I don’t know what I want to do next, and I guess that’s part of why I’m doing this. I’m sure one day I will wake up and something will spark my interest, but for now I just take things one day at a time.”
At this point, the puzzle pieces start to fit together for me. Chris and I are perfect counterparts, each with a set of unique abilities and outlooks that seem to contrast with the other. An anxiety for the future inspired me to attend a high-level college instead of pursuing a life of skiing. While Chris is content with where he is and seems to enjoy the “now,” I am constantly working to figure out my next step. Ultimately, there must be value in both paths.
Certainly, upbringing has a significant effect upon an individual’s values and goals. The Logans seem to have a strong appreciation for physical accomplishment, and Chris has thrived in the sport of skiing because of it. On the other end of the spectrum, my parents placed the utmost importance on intellect, a life of the mind. Middlebury further instilled this value in me. Just as Chris would be perceived as academically inadequate at Middlebury, my skiing abilities would surely underwhelm the performers of the ski industry.
Taking this a step further, it appears that the concept of risk has separated Chris and me as well. “I try not to think about what could happen if things go wrong on a big feature,” Chris explains with raised eyebrows. “I just visualize myself skiing away and hope that that’s what happens.” Without a doubt, this disregard for personal safety enables Chris to do what he does. Taking risks is an unavoidable aspect of the sport; it is a point of pride for most of the top athletes.
Although regarded as a physical risk-taker by my friends and family, I certainly do not place myself in the path of danger like Chris does. Skiing has always been a passion for me, but never a career. Before dropping in to a big jump or a high-consequence line, I can’t help but think of how everything else in my life could change if something went wrong. In many cases, this analysis helps me to gain the courage to step away from a risky situation. For Chris, skiing is his life. Taking these risks is a key to his success.
Chris and I still sit side-by-side on the wall as the town steeple belts out five long chimes. It’s time for me to head back to Middlebury. Although I just met Chris, I see a bit of myself in him. We were both just two kids that loved to ski. We took very different paths over the last fifteen years, and are in very different places because of it. For now, though, we are both happy.
His relentless drive and a relaxed disposition have allowed him to excel at what he does while remaining grounded and connected to the important people in his life. This is certainly something I strive for. In a way, the most distinguishing aspect of the Logan family is the beautiful simplicity and humility they maintain while being front and center in an endlessly flashy, materialistic sport. Just as Chris skis for himself, for the unrefined love of the sport, his mother holds a strong work ethic and familial commitment as her primary values. “I’m going to keep working hard at the candle business,” states Nancy. “If money were no object, I would just get on my Harley, rent a Winnebago, travel the US and spend time with my kids out west.”
There are no frills with the Logan family. They follow their passions, stay true to their roots, and do what needs to be done… exceptionally well.