Downhill racer Bryce Eller is standing on the edge of greatness
Bryce Eller is standing on the precipice.
He is 17 years old, a senior at Mammoth High School and a championship-class downhill skier on the Mammoth Mountain Ski Team.
When he looks over the edge, he is peering at greatness, even if he himself doesn’t quite know that yet.
Ranked second in the United States for his age group, Eller, at 5-11 and 195 pounds, is carrying a lot of weight each time he enters the gates. The number of eyes watching each of his runs is a bit astonishing.
There are coaches, such as Head Coach Mark Brownlie and coach Ali Bombardier, as well as speed coach Kevin Francis, a former World Cup racer himself.
Also watching are his teammates and his parents Stan and LeaAnn Eller.
Meanwhile in the ski sub-culture around the country, other ski teams tune into Eller’s results, trying to measure their own athletes’ time against his.
“Skiing what’s I do,” he said in an interview this past week.
“I’ve put all my effort into skiing. I could do a lot of sports for fun, like football, and I skateboard sometimes. I’m not very good, but those are kind of like hobbies.”
Eller is an affable sort, quiet-spoken, smart as a whip and committed to his sport.
He earned a spot on last summer’s prestigious U.S. Development Team and trained for two weeks in Chile. The summer before, as a 15-year-old, he trained in New Zealand.
He has raced in eight states, and this past year he spent about 100 days on the road, racing and training with some of the best junior skiers in the country.
Everyone is a bit baffled as to how he does it.
“I don’t know where he comes from, quite frankly,” said his mother, LeaAnn, the personable librarian at Mammoth High School.
“He’s really subliminally driven. He’s not a Type-A personality. He’s resilient and lets things roll off his back. He’s a lot like (father) Stan in that kind of way.
“He’ll have some adversity that he doesn’t internalize. He’ll work through it very quickly and then move on.”
His head coach, Brownlie, said Bryce has a certain quality that can light up a coach’s eyes.
“Everything he does that’s associated with snowsports and generally his entire life, he’s been looking for fun, and that’s something that all athletes that get to a certain stage require.
“They have to deal with adversity and still understand that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and Bryce is exceptional at that.
“When he has had things that haven’t been in the plan get in the way a little bit, he deals with that, in a very mature manner and still knows that it’s possible to keep having fun with his chosen sport, and that’s a great quality.
“In a sport like ski racing, which is so complex and complicated, there are things such as the state of the race course and equipment issues, and then, on top of that, you can’t control how fast your competitors go.
“So there’s going to be some adversity for any skier. It doesn’t matter if they are an Olympic Gold Medalist or a Mighty Mite, as long as they can keep finding the fun element, that will keep them working hard to achieve their goals.
“That’s the best quality that Bryce has.”
Bryce himself seems to have an understanding of all of that.
“I try hard all the time,” he said. “You can still be better, no matter what you do. In ski racing, it’s a matter of hundredths of a second.
“I guess I really don’t have any models, exactly. I suppose it’s anybody who’s better than me. I kind of feed off them, and watch with they do, like Scott Snow (the top downhiller in the country, from Idaho, in that age group).
“Scott tries harder than anybody I’ve ever seen before. He’s a really good example.
“And then there are all the older people on the U.S. Ski Team, like Ted Ligety and Bode Miller.
“I watch them on TV and try to figure out what they’re doing and I’m not.”
His coaches at Mammoth Mountain have been as influential as anyone, he said, particularly Brownlie.
“Mark has a lot of impact on my life. Every time I race I’m always thinking about him, telling me what to do.
“He’s put so much effort into me. He cares about me a lot. He’s really good at getting respect from people. It’s hard to explain.
“He’s always on me for getting my stuff done, doing everything myself. Sometimes he can make you really mad, and then the next minute he can make you happy.”
As for Bombardier, Bryce said she brings a different set of silverware to the table.
“Ali’s very positive,” he said. “She’s kind of the opposite of Mark. Mark tries to get you fired up. She kind of gets you calmed down, thinking what you need to do. She’s really nice.”
Perhaps the biggest influence on the young racer at the moment is Francis, who retired from the U.S. Ski Team last year and who was the 2008 national Super G champion.
“Kevin is the one who gives me the most feedback,” Bryce said. “Kevin usually, in every event, gives me tiny things to do. Like, pushing my hands forward, not leaning back, that kind of thing.”
Becoming a top-level ski racer involves much more than merely racing, though.
First, there is the travel. Second, there is the self-reliance factor, from making itineraries and working with adults around every corner.
“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night,” his mother said, “and I say, ‘What are you thinking? Sending off your 15-year-old child to get on a plane and go to New Zealand? Are you kidding me?’
“As a Mom, it’s very difficult. I wonder if I have given him enough tools for him to get through it.
“And it’s not just about Bryce. Every kid on the ski team goes through this.”
His father, who is a longtime Mono County Superior Court judge, said,
“I really have to hand it to him. It’s not easy to be gone 60 to 70 days out of the school year.
“And not really possible to get a lot of work done on the road, trying to get enough sleep, trying to get the skis right. There are a lot of kids in the same boat.
“He just loves to ski.
“I ask him, ‘To balance all of that and keep your concentration, aren’t you tired of all that?’ And he says ‘Nope, I love this.’
“Honestly, I don’t know where it comes from.”