This article originally appeared on Ski Mag
The third stop of the Freeride World Tour just took place in Kicking Horse, B.C., with athletes providing another round of high-octane skiing. While the entire field threw down, one moment stood out: rookie Max Hitzig sending an 80-foot backflip off a triangular rock formation near the base of the venue. Historic is the keyword here, as the Tour, which judges competitors on their ability to trick, leap, and shred down big mountain faces, hasn't seen a stunt this large.
When Hitzig skied into the finish corral after his run, his fellow competitors mobbed him, offering hugs, fist bumps, and high fives. The judges felt the stoke, too, handing Hitzig the highest score of the day, a 97.67.
The cliff Hitzig backflipped holds legendary status in Freeride World Tour lore, hit previously by athletes with a penchant for going huge, like George Rodney and Yu Sasaki. Rodney and Sasaki's sends dazzled but weren't the unprecedented leap forward that Hitzig's flip was.
See Max Hitzig’s FWT Run at Kicking Horse
The seemingly confounding part of Hitzig's ability to put down such impressive runs is his background--unlike many athletes on the Tour, he's spent little time skiing competitively. Before his remarkable wildcard appearance last season, he wasn't on anyone's radar as the next big thing in freeride, at least in the U.S. But now, with two 4th place finishes and one 1st place this season, the 20-year-old is already redefining what success means on the Tour.
This begs the question, who is Max Hitzig, and how did he conjure the makings of a generation-defining Freeride World Tour legacy out of thin air?
The answer is ... he didn't. While Hitzig has stood in the start gate surprisingly few times, his freeriding roots run deep.
Hitzig grew up in Austria's mountainous Montafon region, where he still lives. There, he initially started skiing at age two, benefitting from the guidance of a father who worked as a mountain guide. "I went with him in the mountains, and I learned all the stuff from him," says Hitzig of his dad. "Safety stuff, but also skiing, good ski technique, and everything." When Hitzig was five, his dad took him into the backcountry for the first time.
Because he grew up close to the mountains, Hitzig had the opportunity to ski most weekends during the winter, averaging about 60 days on snow each season. As his skills progressed, he decided at age 14 that he wanted to become a pro skier.
Competing wasn't initially part of this plan. Early on, Htizig gave freeride competitions a shot but had a bad habit of pushing himself too hard. So, throughout most of his teenage years, he forewent skiing competitively, instead opting to focus on his skills outside the competition circuit.
However, as Hitzig got older, he realized he had two options to go pro: start filming or enter freeride competitions. He ultimately settled on the latter. "If you’re not in film production, then it’s not that easy to do something like that [film a ski video]," he said. "So for me, I decided that I want to compete."
Hitzig returned to competing in 2022 at a three-star Freeride World Qualifier event in Nendaz, Switzerland. These qualifying competitions have tiers--if you have no points, you need to compete in one, two, or three-star events before entering the highest tier, four-star events. The more stars an event has, the more points athletes earn toward qualifying for the Freeride World Tour.
The announcers at Hitzig's first competition spoke French, which he doesn't speak. So, when they informed the riders in French that a cliff Hitzig was planning to ski was closed for safety reasons, he didn't know to adjust his line choice. While Hitzig stomped his run, he ended up disqualifying on a technicality.
Yet, this wasn't an ending--it was a beginning. Even though Hitzig was disqualified, the organizers loved his run, offering him a wildcard to the upcoming four-star Freeride World Qualifier event in Nendaz. Wildcards allow organizers to slot promising skiers into events who technically don’t have enough points to qualify.
Hitzig won the four-star, which led to more wildcards, earning him additional spots in the higher-tier qualifier circuit. He performed in this circuit, securing a second-place finish at another four-star event in Slovakia, which netted him enough points to qualify for the Freeride World Tour. Many talented skiers toil on the qualifying circuit for years before advancing to the Tour, highlighting the uniqueness of Hitzig's short but successful qualifiers campaign.
After Hitzig's Freeride World Tour qualification, he received a wildcard again, this time for the big leagues--the 2022 Tour event at Fieberbrunn, Austria. While he'd officially appear on the Tour in 2023 due to his qualification, this wildcard allowed him to show off on the world stage earlier.
"I was really nervous because I only had two weeks of freeride experience or competition experience," says Hitzig. "But I thought, 'yeah, that's what I want to do.' Don't be nervous. Go for it. Just ski like you always ski, like you ski at home. Have fun--it's the most important thing."
Hitzig's definition of "fun" differs from the average skier’s. In his Fieberbrunn run, he laced an enormous 360, a clean backflip, and a cross-court air, landing him in 1st place amidst a stacked field of Freeride World Tour veterans. Over two weeks in 2022, Hitzig finessed his way into the four-star qualifier circuit, qualified for the Tour, and won his Tour debut as a wildcard. And now, during his first official season on the Tour, he's sitting in second place overall, just a few points shy of leader and close friend Valentin Rainer.
Hitzig's dramatic story, while helpful in providing context (this guy can ski), can't fully explain the insanity we saw at the 2023 Kicking Horse event. A stomped 80-foot backflip is rare, in or outside of competition. As Hitzig crashed back to Earth after his flip, Sam Smoothy, the guest announcer, couldn't contain himself, exclaiming, "no freaking way!" For Hitzig, though, it was just another day in the office, the next logical step in an impressive freeride career that's only just getting started.
The Freeride World Tour is now in finals mode, with lower-scoring athletes returning to the qualifiers circuit. The upcoming events will occur in Fieberbrunn, Austria, and Verbier, Switzerland. To tune in, and stay updated on drop dates, head over to the Freeride World Tour website.
Watch Highlights From the 2023 FWT Comp at Kicking Horse
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