World travel, free gear and silver screens may make the life of a professional skier seem like a charmed life — and in a lot of ways it is. But behind every movie segment and sponsored social media post, there is, at best, a lot of hard work and patience and, at worst, disappointments and injuries.
Whenever Sophia Schwartz is skiing in front of a camera she remembers something one of her ski mentors, Lynsey Dyer, told her: “All your photographer is doing is pushing a button. You are the one putting your body on the line.”
The warning really resonated for Schwartz, a U.S. Ski Team mogul skier turned big mountain skier. Never one to shy away from “big,” Schwartz once spent three months in a back brace and has a hat trick in knee surgeries. The injuries weren’t all due to skiing, but they affected her career nonetheless.
Schwartz and Dyer are two skiers on next week’s Mountain Story panel “Evolution of the Pro Skier,” set to run from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Jan. 15 at the Pink Garter Theatre. Sam Pope, KGB Productions’s producer and owner, will moderate a discussion about how the narratives around what it takes to become a professional skier have evolved over time.
The panel discussion isn’t a crash course in how to become a pro, but rather a philosophical deep dive into how athletes navigate an inherently risky industry in which people are turned into products.
The panel is made up of four athletes who are at different points along the path of a professional skiing career: big mountain veterans Dyer and her older cousin AJ Cargill and up-and-comers Sophia Schwartz and Sam Schwartz (no relation).
Cargill was at the top of her game in the late ’90s, placing as one of the International Freeskiers Association’s top three female skiers in 1995 and 1996 before being crowned No. 1 in 1997. Dyer, about 15 years Cargill’s junior, starred in Warren Miller and Teton Gravity Research movies before starting her own production company, Unicorn Picnic. Today she identifies as an artist, athlete and outdoor advocate.
The Schwartzes represent greener talent: Sam Schwartz grew up in Jackson and is sponsored by Stio, K2, Dragon Alliance and Backcountry Access.
“He’s a ripping skier, but he’s still not paying his bills with skiing yet,” Pope said.
Sophia Schwartz is in similar boots. Now in her third winter season in Jackson, she gets her skis for free and has self-released a mini ski film series, but her primary job is working as a rehab tech at a local physical therapy office.
According to Pope, who has been in the outdoor media business for over 15 years, the number of skiers “making it” professionally — i.e., making a living from it — is growing smaller and smaller. Yet there is more and more access through social media for up-and-comers to gain a following, earn free gear and hope to make it into a prominent film.
That medium is a bit of an elephant in the room for professional skiers, who are expected to both perform athletically and as brand advertisements.
“I think Lynsey is a great example,” Pope said. “Lynsey is an amazingly talented skier, but she’s also been very effective at just becoming this brand of herself, where she does camps and produces artwork.
“And it pays off big time, but the other side of it is you pretty much know what Lynsey Dyer is doing at any given point in time just by following her on Instagram.”
In the best light, social media gives athletes an unprecedented platform to self-promote, connect and create community. It also can create unprecedented pressure.
“Every sponsor I have ever had has reached out and said, ‘Keep working on your Instagram,’” Sophia Schwartz said. “Not once have they ever said get better at skiing or learn or a new trick.”
Navigating social media is just one of the topics that will be on the table during next week’s discussion. Pope hopes to talk about how athletes define success, what their end game is, how they assess risk, disappointments and injuries, and what it’s like navigating the arena as a man versus a woman.
“I don’t want to say that all of that stuff gets swept under the rug because that’s not the case,” Pope said. “It’s easier to not talk about those things. We’re all willing to go out and ski and have fun and watch people in the movies doing amazing things, but there’s not always a lot of incentive to look deeper into it.” ￼