Riders battle wind, sun, test their limits at Snowflex Games
April 26, 2014 | Lynchburg, Va.
Two days of skiing and snowboarding Rail Jam tricks and Big Air stunts at the fifth annual Snowflex Games culminated in Saturday's extremely competitive skiing Big Air event, held in sunny but windy conditions at Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre (LMSC).
"There's a higher caliber of riders here today and they push each other, so it's made the competition harder," LMSC general manager Drew Sherwood said. "In years past, you could kind of figure out who your 1, 2, and 3 (finishers) are, but this year, it's so close, it's hard to tell, which is good."
Jon Steltzer, who is taking Liberty Online classes in Maine and plans to return to residential student enrollment in the fall, won the heated eight-man skiing Big Air final, scoring 164 points on the best two of his five runs.
He edged runner-up Kellen Baker (148 points) from Boone, N.C., and local E.C. Glass High School junior Connor Tatom (147). Tatom, who won last year's event, has trained at Snowflex with Steltzer and his brother, Liberty senior Tim Steltzer, who finished fourth with 144 points.
Strong wind gusts added an element of unpredictability for the freestyle snowboard and ski jumpers.
"It was a contest of the athletes against the weather," Jon Steltzer said. "The wind was a huge factor. I was going in on the back of my skis tucking in just trying to get speed up (before the jump)."
Former X-Games and U.S. Olympic snowboarder Andy Finch, who teamed up with Liberty graduate Ethan Acree as analysts for the Liberty Flames Sports Network's (LFSN) live coverage of the competition, said the athletes overcame the elements for the most part.
"I saw a couple times where it affected riders, but for the most part, they made it look like there was no wind," said Finch, who also provided commentary for FOX Sports' coverage of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. "I know it was a factor because you could see some guys going deeper and some not. The more you spin and flip I feel like it cuts through the wind better."
Jon Steltzer also finished third in the skiing Rail Jam, landing three of his four runs in the finals after not sticking any in practice. He scored 144 points to place behind Samuel Miles (148) from Vermont and Kellan Baker (146) from Boone, N.C.
Liberty first-year skiing and snowboarding Head Coach Ryan Leeds, who competed for the Flames through 2012, won the snowboarding Rail Jam with 151 points and placed third in the snowboarding Big Air competition with 132 points.
In the Rail Jam, Leeds slipped and fell on his back and head on the upward-slanting Gatorade feature, but recovered in time to win the competition.
"Some of the features became more slick as the competition went on, so there was a lot of adjusting to do mid-competition, which is hard for a lot of riders to do," Leeds said. "(The fall) hurt initially in the moment, but because we had a couple runs left, there was a lot of adrenaline in my body and I came back and landed two runs, so I'm happy."
Leeds held off snowboarder Ben Sullo (150 points) by one point, though Sullo won the best-trick award in the event.
Sullo, who lived in Lynchburg and trained at Snowflex for the past three years before moving back to Vermont this winter, also landed the best trick by landing his backside 900 and captured first place in the snowboard Big Air competition.
Liberty junior Kevin Hoff, who helped the Flames men's snowboarders place second as a team in the Rail Jam at the USCSA National Championships in Lake Placid, N.Y., finished third individually in the Rail Jam with 132 points, followed by junior teammate Isaac Gibson (fourth with 126).
Lady Flames junior Brandy Fronte landed the best trick and won the women's snowboarding Big Air competition with 153 points, defeating runner-up Ari Morrone (132) of Pennsylvania and Madison Vander Hamm (108) of Colorado while Liberty senior Eden Jones finished second in the women's snowboarding Rail Jam. Jones, who missed this past season with an ACL injury, scored 121 points to finish runner-up to Morrone (147) and ahead of Vander Hamm (115).
"(Friday's preliminaries) was my first time hitting jumps in like eight months," said Jones, who will graduate in May. "I had a very short preparation time, so I'm very pleased. I tried some new stuff, hit some brand new features, so I really felt like I improved.
"That's the great thing about competitions, because they'll push you, make you do stuff that you probably wouldn't try otherwise," she added. "This was probably my last competition in a long time, maybe my last competition at Liberty, so I'm really happy."
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer
Images by James Hancock/Liberty University